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To know India, know its festivals

The city is full of the sights and sounds of Diwali. Streets are lit up with endless strings of tiny electric bulbs. At home, the decoration is more traditional...

Written by Sudheendrakulkarni |
November 11, 2007 12:00:22 am

The city is full of the sights and sounds of Diwali. Streets are lit up with endless strings of tiny electric bulbs. At home, the decoration is more traditional — rows of diyas with their swaying flame, an image that lends itself to a child’s earliest lesson in drawing a lamp. Every now and then, the night sky becomes a canvas for a drawing of a different kind, dynamic and wondrous, as bursts of fireworks sketch bright lines that end in collapsing stars. Which brooding heart will not find solace, even a cause for quiet joy, in a sight like this.

It’s amazing how each of our festivals represent mythology’s leap into modern times, an epic’s entry into our lives. The people of Ayodhya were eagerly awaiting Rama’s return from Lanka, so he could be coronated after 14 years of vanvaas, which actually turned out to be an exercise in national integration, since there is hardly any region in India that does not lay claim to having welcomed the peripatetic king in exile.

I have with me a recent Hindi publication, Janh Janh Rama Charan Chali Jaanhi, by Dr Ramavatar Sharma, a Ramayana scholar who has catalogued the names, along with photographs, of 214 places across India where temples or ponds commemorate its protagonist’s itinerary. I have heard people even in the Andamans contending that their island’s name is derived from Hanuman. Rama’s loyal sevak is said to have flown there in search of some medicinal herb that would cure Laxman, who was wounded in battle. When Rama, Sita and Laxman returned to Ayodhya, its residents lit rows of lamps to welcome them. That, the victory of good over evil, is believed to be the origin of Diwali.

Rather, it is one of the several origins of Diwali, since for Jains, the day marks the Nirvana of Bhagwan Mahavir, and this legend is no less meaningful. The lighting of lamps symbolises the seeking of the light of divine knowledge that went out with Mahavir’s passing.

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I am writing about Diwali for another reason. A reader sent me a critical comment about a line — ‘Yeh to limited logon ki Diwali hai’ — that appeared in my column last week. It metaphorically described how the current stockmarket boom has further enriched the superrich, while leaving the poor, even small investors, untouched.

“Do you mean to say,” asked the reader, “that the poor do not celebrate Diwali just because the Sensex surge brings no gains to them? The rich-poor divide in India has always existed, but it hasn’t affected ordinary people’s participation in festivals.”

Point taken. It is wrong to equate Diwali with material wealth, or to think that those who have amassed more money have more joy in celebrating the festival. We would be cured of this mistaken notion by a walkthrough in slums during festival time, be it Diwali, Id or Christmas. The gaiety we see there is infectious. Our festivals are primarily about feeling and caring for our near and dear ones, for our neighbours, strangers, and all those living in this big world, our common home.

To know how little money has got to do with the basic spirit of our festivals, read Premchand’s immortal story Idgah. It is the tale of Hamid, a poor little orphan boy living with Ameena, his grandmother. It’s Id, and all the village boys are going to the fair in a nearby town to enjoy. Ameena’s agony is that her savings are too meagre to give her dear grandson a good enough idi, the money that children receive from relatives at festival time. Other boys spend their idi on sweets, toys and amusement games. Four-year-old Hamid’s concern is different. He overcomes all these temptations, saves the three paise his granny has given him to have fun at the fair and instead buys a pair of tongs for her. Why? So that she can make rotis without getting her fingers burnt. Even to remember this Premchand classic chokes me with emotions.

One way of understanding India is to understand our festivals. True, we need faster and more equitable economic growth so that people can enjoy life without the pain of poverty and want. But let us not be too fixated by the attractions of material prosperity. There are far more precious things to learn from our festivals than money can buy. They tell us about India’s civilisational continuity. Else, why should Rama’s return to Ayodhya several thousand years ago be celebrated as the festival of lights even now? Ever been to Hardwar at Diwali time and seen people leave diyas in the Ganga after the evening aarti? As the lamps are carried by the waters, whose journey begins in the sacred Himalayas and ends in the ocean in Bengal, you can experience your own life’s journey in Time, from its beginning-less past to its endless future. Our festivals tell us about the importance of thanksgiving to the Creator. They tell us how to discover happiness, harmony and life’s meaning in ourselves and in our relationship with others, with nature, with the cosmos. Therefore, this Diwali, let us light the lamp in our inner self, so we can better appreciate the illumination in the streets and fireworks in the sky.

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