Navratri and Deepavali give us an occasion to bring much-needed clarity in our thinking by learning the lessons from the profound teachings of our Scriptures
Parts of September-October in the Roman calendar correspond to a period in the Hindu calendar during which there are the important celebrations of Durga Puja, also known as Navratri (nav = 9, ratri = night) and Deepavali or Divali as we commonly say here which is due next Thursday 19th October. The Hindu perspective or world view on existence, which is derived from its foundational scripture the Vedas, is underpinned by two overarching symbolisms, namely the triumph of good over evil, and the ascent towards enlightenment: from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge.
Here a crucial distinction is made between lower knowledge or aparavidya and Higher Knowledge or paravidya. The former refers to the type of practical knowledge that we gain through education and training, which we could also call transactional knowledge in that it enables us to deal with the world of people and objects with a view to earn a living. On the other hand, paravidya is imparted to us by sages so as to guide us to live at peace with ourselves and with others, in other words giving us the wherewithal and the inner sense of direction which allow us to achieve this desirable state. It could also be called spiritual knowledge, which should in principle channel our thinking into making the best possible use of the lower knowledge so as to bring harmony, peace and prosperity to all.
That this dimension is lacking in many if not most individuals should be self-evident by the proliferation of ills that are plaguing contemporary society and that the media daily project into our living rooms courtesy the television or online platforms, with ever more innovative graphic, shocking details.
However, this lack also plays out at the global level, and threatens the whole world with dire consequences, even to the point of putting the very survival of the human species at risk – or in question. The prime example of this is the current nuclear brinkmanship that is pitting North Korea against America and Japan, where the proposed exploitation of a specific field of lower knowledge – nuclear power – in its worst form, namely as a weapon, is poised to cause destruction on a scale that has never been seen before: this is the current war cry, and for all we know as things stand this may well take place before we can say ‘boo’!
So we must stand back and take stock, all of us from common citizens to leaders of society and countries, and go back to the sources that contain the wisdom of living. Celebrations with an underlying spiritual theme, such as Navratri and Deepavali, give us an occasion to do so, to bring much-needed clarity in our thinking by learning the lessons from the profound teachings contained in the narratives that we listen to during these festivals. We must not miss these opportunities for the sake of our own good and that of the polity.
The spirit that infuses these major milestones in the Hindu calendar is best captured in the words of Sadhguru of Isha Foundation: ‘Of the many things that we are in touch with, of the many things that contribute in making and creating our lives, the most important devices that we employ in making a success of our lives are our own body and mind. Being in reverence towards the very earth that you walk upon, towards the air that you breathe, the water that you drink, the food that you eat, the people that you come in touch with and everything else that you use, including your body and mind, will lead us to a different possibility as to how we can live. Being in a state of reverence and devotion towards all these aspects is a way of ensuring success in every endeavor that we partake in’.
I was going through a copy of an Indian magazine, ‘The Organiser’ of November 1999, which was a Deepavali Special. In the column ‘Cabbages and Kings’ the author V.P. Bhatia, under the subheading ‘Where Plato, Gandhi and RSS agree on transformation of individual character’, refers to the ‘Indian school of thought throughout the ages which believed that desirable social changes could be brought about most effectively by changing the individuals who compose society through self-action’.
Noting that this was the ‘view expounded by the famous Greek philosopher Plato also’, he goes on to note that ‘this view also forms the bedrock of RSS mission of character-building, or formation of individual character for creation of a better society through its Shakha system by patient inculcation of the highest social and patriotic values everyday’, and this was the ‘most durable way of creating a new moral and social climate which makes sloth, social indifference, corruption and anti-national acts socially unacceptable and repugnant.’ He concluded by adding that ‘Gandhiji too belonged to this latter school which thought that individual character could not be changed by state power, violence and terror’.
For information, RSS stands for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation), the largest NGO in the world which has one million plus shakhas or branches and is engaged in social work ranging from education and medical support to disaster relief. It was founded in 1925 by Dr K.B. Hedgewar who hailed from Maharashtra, and who graduated in medicine from the National Medical College in Calcutta (where, as a matter of fact, I also did my medical studies). It was part of the movement against British rule, a disciplined cadre dedicated to independence. As an essentially cultural entity, it placed major emphasis on discipline, both mental and physical.
There’s an interesting article on the RSS in the Oct 08, 2017 issue of ‘Swarajya’ by Amruta Shirpurkar titled ‘I Grew Up Around RSS Folk; Here’s What I Know About Them’ for readers who may wish to know more about the organization.
To come back to the article of V.P. Bhatia, he was trying to figure out the plight of India so many years after independence, dismayed that it was still referred to as a developing country. He laid the responsibility – or blame – on an ‘unaccountable monopolistic state power and moral and economic bankruptcy’. In his opinion ‘all these manoeuvres laid the foundations of horrendous corruption, laxity in administrative standards and stunted economic growth because of the diversion of public funds to a new parasitic class which flourished under dynastic halo and protection, quite fearless of public accountability’.
If we add drugs to this list, it will not surprise that some people might well conclude that these lines could be echoing much of our own country, given the string of shall we say mishaps in public affairs of which there seems to be no end. As the author continues, ‘There has been no clarity of priorities and loyalty to the ideals of simplicity. Even the highest in the land have set wrong examples by reversing the order of high thinking and simple living to low thinking and high living’. (italics added)
As we enter the week of Deepavali, and given the multitude of problems at national level many of which are of our own making, the best we can wish for our country is that those at its helm examine their consciences and lead by example by shifting gears to ‘high thinking and simple living’. Then perhaps people can become less cynical and accept that they are genuinely focused on fulfilling the promise of changing people’s lives for the better.
Let us pray that they will heed the sublime messages from ancient times that they hopefully will come away with as they respond to the numerous invitations they will no doubt receive during this period.
Deepavali Abhinanadan to all.
* Published in print edition on 13 October 2017