By Suryaprabha Shashidharan
Although Diwali has steadily become a festival of fun and revelry, its symbolic meaning is profoundly spiritual
It’s Diwali again. Time for ear-splitting crackers, beautiful new clothes, delicious sweets and joyous camaraderie. It’s a lovely time of the year, when families come together and bonds are built over sweets and gifts. But is this all there is to Diwali? By no means. Over the centuries the rich lode of symbology surrounding this major festival has drained away leaving behind merely surface customs.
For those who wish to dig deeper, Deepavali reveals its link with the nine days and nights of the worship of the Mahashakti Durga, that climaxes as Vijayadashami. Nine days and nights of beseeching the Mahashakti resident in our hearts to fight and overcome our base tendencies that keep us fettered to our frailties. After the intense sadhana, on the tenth day we could be fit enough to feel the beginnings of transformation. Vijayadashami is the celebration of the power of sadhana to transform us.
As the demons within us get subdued, life begins to become easier for us. The turbidity of anger gives way to the clarity of peace, and the bitterness of hurt and hate to the sweetness of compassion and forgiveness. It is not that the world has changed magically. Rather, by our effortful sadhana, we have allowed the Shakti within us to overcome our demons. Yes, we have a choice! At every moment, even in the most trifling of matters, we can choose either to allow the demons to be at play, or to rein them in. The aroused Shakti, pervading our whole being, alters our manner of seeing life’s situations. We may recall the Buddha’s emphasis on the right vision. The world is as our perception makes it out to be. Informed, illuminated, and enlightened perception is accompanied by a confident power to tackle the situation. Self-pity, fear, despair, pessimism, and the like have no place. We begin to see crisis, not as an assault on us, but rather as the reaction of the conscious, intelligent cosmic forces to the manner in which we have conducted ourselves. When calm prevails, that too is taken for what it is, a small part of a vast process, which will also pass. Now neither the body nor the mind state is affected by life’s storms. This is the same vision of sukham and dukham that Krishna exhorts Arjuna to cultivate. Krishna and Arjuna symbolise our good sense and our frailties respectively. As we progress towards accomplishment of sama drishti, life’s turbidity reduces, clarity, light, and peace become the character of one’s life.
Deepavali is the celebration of the light and sweetness of peace. Note that it does not follow Vijayadashami immediately. It comes after a full 20 days, for no accomplishment comes easily. Long, dedicated, unbroken effort is required. Never mind if you fall or fail. Both are condoned as long as you rise and continue from where you had fallen or failed. The reward is light and joy, symbolised by the bright rangolis, twinkling lights, sweets, and little clay lamps. It is said that Goddess Lakshmi is drawn to houses so beautified. True, for could there be any fortune greater than the peace and happiness of life lived by good sense? Alas, today Lakshmi is no more than a noble nomenclature for gross mammon!
To get Lady Mammon to visit us, we rise early on Deepavali day and have an oil bath with fragrant herbs. It is believed to be auspicious. The oil bath cleanses deeply and thoroughly. However, its real significance is as a symbol for the cleansing agni aroused by the intense sadhana from the time of the Navaratri. Such cleansing and strengthening of the body is integral to spiritual progress, because the body is the medium for the practices. As only well-baked clay lamps can hold fuel to illuminate, so also only the body, mind, and intellect, well-baked in the fires of purity can become a light to oneself and to the world. After the bath come the new clothes, symbolic again of the new attitude and approach that have become ours by the intense evocation of the Shakti within. Then come the sweets. Naturally, for how could there be the bitter or the acrid, for aren’t they the taste of sorrow, worry, fear, envy, anger, arrogance, and the like? How could these goblins of Alakshmi enter where there is good sense and right vision?
Lastly, note that Deepavali falls on amavasya, the darkest night of the lunar month. Isn’t the darkest hour just before dawn? The embodied soul must suffer long, painful, dark hours as it struggles to slough off the frailties of its embodiment. Sadhana is hard labour. Nothing comes free. We have a choice though. Like the denizens of the cave about whom Plato despaired, we could choose to remain in the cave, watching the shadows in the faint light, never opting to turn to the sun. On the other hand, we could choose to turn right round and live life in light.
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