Festival of enlightenment
Anupam Srivastava deconstructs Diwali as a celebration of man attaining enlightenment and not merely the victory of good over evil as considered by most
Each year, Diwali is celebrated with much hope in India. Hindus believe that by worshipping Goddess Lakshmi in all earnestness on this auspicious day, they will be able to invite good fortune and abundance in their lives and banish scarcity forever.
The religious significance of Diwali varies regionally within India. The festival is associated with a diversity of deities, traditions, and symbolism as well as with diverse local harvest festivals, that fuse into one pan-Hindu festival with a shared spiritual significance.
One tradition links the festival to legends in the Hindu epic Ramayan, where Diwali is the day Vishnu’s avatar Ram, Lakshmi’s avatar Sita, Shesha’s avatar Lakshman, and Shiva’s avatar Hanuman reached Ayodhya after a 14-year period in exile, with Ram’s army of ‘good’ having defeated the demon king Ravana’s army of ‘evil,’ in the Treta Yuga.
As per another popular tradition, in the Dwapar Yuga, Lord Krishna killed the Demon Narakasur, who was the evil king of Pragjyotishapur (a place near present-day Assam) and released 16000 girls captured by him. Diwali is also celebrated as the symbol of the triumph of good over evil after Lord Krishna defeated Narakasur. The day before Diwali is celebrated as Naraka Chaturdasi, the day on which Narakasur was killed by Lord Krishna.
What is Diwali?
Mythical tales shared on Diwali vary widely depending on the region, yet all share a common focus on righteousness, self-inquiry, and the importance of knowledge, which is the path to overcome the ‘darkness of ignorance.’ The retelling of these myths is a reminder of the Hindu belief that good ultimately triumphs over evil.
Almost all traditions or legends have a demon (evil) who is to be eventually annihilated (killed or removed) by the incarnation of Lord Vishnu (good) to re-establish original order (dharma) at the culmination of the story. The irony, however, is that over the years, generation after generation, we have parroted the ritualistic aspect of the story whereas its real significance and purpose is completely lost. Ask anyone the reason behind celebrating Diwali or its significance and all you will get is: Lord Ram returned to Ayodhya after his exile and it’s a celebration of the victory of good over evil. But what does that actually mean or what is its significance or relevance in your life? That’s where silence greets us.
There must necessarily be a profound reason and purpose behind the beautiful story of Ramayan which depicts the life of Lord Ram. Let us now try and understand how we have travelled from the original idea to its current form.
Truth and its symbolism
There has always been a discussion and debate over whether the Vedas and the Puranas are different texts or are they connected in any way. Broadly speaking, the Vedas and Vedanta (known as the Upanishads) are more philosophical in nature and are a collection of profoundly original ideas on the concept of relation between God and man. All Vedanta schools concern themselves with the following three categories (although they differ in their views regarding the concept and the relations between them): Brahma, the ultimate metaphysical reality; Atma or Jivatma, the individual soul or self; and Prakriti, the empirical world, ever-changing physical universe, body, and matter. Whereas the Puranas have a mythical way of presenting the same Vedic thoughts and ideas in a symbolic story format.
The Bhagavat Puran is amongst the most celebrated and popular texts in the Puranic genre and is of non-dualistic tenor. The Puranic texts use ideas, concepts, and even names that can be interpreted literally as well as philosophically. The Vishnu Puran recites a myth where the names of the characters are loaded with symbolism and philosophical significance:
“The progeny of Dharma by the daughters of Daksha were as follows: by Sraddhá (devotion) he had Kama (desire); by Lakshmí (wealth, prosperity), was born Darpa (pride); by Dhriti (courage), the progeny was Niyama (precept); by Tushti (inner comfort), Santosha (contentment); by Pushti (opulence), the progeny was Lobha (cupidity, greed); by Medhá (wisdom, experience), Sruta (sacred tradition); by Kriyá (hard work, labour), the progeny were Danda, Naya, and Vinaya (justice, politics, and education); by Buddhi (intellect), Bodha (understanding); by Lajjá (shame, humility), Vinaya (good behaviour); by Vapu (body, strength), Vyavasaya (perseverance). Shanti (peace) gave birth to Kshama (forgiveness); Siddhi (excellence) to Sukha (enjoyment); and Kírtti (glorious speech) gave birth to Yasha (reputation). These were the sons of Dharma; one of whom, Kama (love, emotional fulfilment) had baby Hersha (joy) by his wife Nandi (delight).
The wife of Adharma (vice, wrong, evil) was Hinsá (violence), on whom he begot a son Anrita (falsehood), and a daughter Nikriti (immorality): they intermarried, and had two sons, Bhaya (fear) and Naraka (hell); and twins to them, two daughters, Máyá (deceit) and Vedaná (torture), who became their wives. The son of Bhaya (fear) and Máyá (deceit) was the destroyer of living creatures, or Mrityu (death); and Dukha (pain) was the offspring of Naraka (hell) and Vedaná (torture). The children of Mrityu were Vyádhi (disease), Jará (decay), Soka (sorrow), Trisha (greediness), and Krodha (wrath). These are all called the inflictors of misery and are characterised as the progeny of Vice (Adharma). They are all without wives, without posterity, without the faculty to procreate; they perpetually operate as causes of the destruction of this world.”
A close study of the above paragraphs reveals how deftly the idea of cause and its concomitant effect have been highlighted by personifying virtues and vices to make it easier for the masses to remember them. The core intention of the Puranas is to assist a common person of average intelligence in comprehending highly intellectual Vedic philosophy through a story format.
How sages view Ramayan
With this intention, the Puranas link gods to men, both generally and in religious bhakti context. Therefore, when Maharishi Valmiki had the personal experience of the reality, he must have realised the spiritual significance of the incarnations of Lord Ram and his divine entourage in terms of a human being’s personal spiritual journey from darkness to illumination, ignorance to enlightenment, and unawareness to mindfulness.
The life of Lord Ram, as presented in the Ramayan highlights four main components responsible for creating human experiences. The first one is the person (the experiencer that is you or me); second being our antahkarana (internal instruments, a conclave of man, buddhi, chit, and ahankar, i.e., our mind, intellect, consciousness, and ego respectively) responsible for external manifestations of dharma; the third component is adharma (the negativity in us) which causes the weakening of the internal instrument, eventually causing the destruction of dharma; and the fourth component is mental strength (the power of the mind) with which one must fight the everyday war between dharma and adharma to protect and resurrect the Self. Life as lived by Lord Ram provides an ordinary person on the path of Self-realisation with a process to achieve the highest levels of purity.
The story of the Ramayan and its culmination into the festival of Diwali should have been a blueprint for our lives, which, unfortunately, has now been reduced to merely a day of ritualistic celebration without understanding its real import. This is how I would like the plot of the Ramayan to be read and the lessons to be learned and understood:
Ramayan as inner journey
When Sita (my antahkarana) gets fascinated by the world of sense objects (the golden deer) and wants to possess and aggrandise them, Ram (the person) cannot refuse the call of Sita and is compelled to chase after the world of sense objects (the golden deer). This makes way for Ravan (adharma) in his various forms, i.e., Hinsá (violence), Anrita (falsehood), Bhaya (fear), Máyá (deceit), Trishna (avarice), and Krodha (wrath) to take roots in me through Panchavati (the abode of the five senses) and my antahkaran is eventually abducted (Sita Haran) by adharma (Ravan, the epitome of vice, wrong, evil).
Consequently, Ram (me) is suffering as he has lost his beloved wife Sita (my real and essential nature, my dharma). When one loses one’s real nature, there is no peace or happiness. This is the story of all of us and this is where we find ourselves, suffering in life. We are all desperate to find peace of mind and happiness. The remedy prescribed by our scriptures and by the life of Lord Ram is the Vedic doctrine of the process of Self-realisation, which, essentially, is a journey from ignorance to enlightenment through Self-knowledge by which Ram would become Lord Ram. So, the job cut out for Ram is to search for Sita and free her from Ravan’s clutches, a task seemingly impossible and beyond average comprehension.
The role of Sri Hanuman begins here. Sri Hanuman represents mental strength (mind). Hanuman has been blessed with all the powers under the sun. There is nothing in the world that he cannot do. However, as the story goes, after engulfing the sun as a child, he was cursed by a furious Maharishi Matang to forget all his powers. However, Rishi Matang mellowed after the demigods pleaded with him to take back his curse. He agreed that though Hanuman would retain his powers he would not remember that he has them. Only when reminded, would he be able to use his powers to their full glory. This is an exact characterisation of our mind.
Hanuman manages to undertake many herculean tasks that seem impossible, like crossing the thousand-miles long, demon-infested sea, entering the gates of Lanka and killing many demons, burning down the city of Lanka and coming back with detailed information on the whereabouts of Sita. Similarly, our mind is bestowed with the strength needed to achieve whatever we want. There is nothing that one cannot do when one is aware of the glorious power of one’s mind.
Victory over self
Having reclaimed Sita from the clutches of Ravan, Sri Ram happily returns to Ayodhya, where he is coronated as King. This implies that when you have annihilated the adharma within you, your antahkaran regains its purity, and you are ready to rule your life as the lord of your senses.
Diwali, therefore, essentially is a festival indicating the finish line of the journey to Self-realisation. It’s a celebration of man’s realisation of his own glory. “God forgetful of his own glory is man, and man awakened to his own glory is God,” the Bhagavad Gita declares. Therefore, Ram is revered as Lord Ram and enjoys the status of Godhood in the Hindu minds and psyche.
Let us resolve to eventually move from symbolism and ritualism to Self-realisation. Let us uncover the real significance and purpose of both, the life of Lord Ram and the festival of Diwali, and celebrate Diwali in its real sense. Happy Diwali to all.
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