Here at Mauli we celebrate Diwali with family and friends with rituals handed down through generations. To get a fuller understanding of the meaning of Diwali, we had the pleasure of sitting with Shaunaka Rishi Das, Director of the of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies for the deeper meaning behind Diwali.
The many Diwalis
Diwali is the festival of many lights. The word derives from two words dīpa and āvalī meaning lamp and row, so, many lamps, and the plural is significant for the meaning of this festival.
The festival is celebrated all over India - one of the few to have such a broad national and even international reach. But it has developed differently from other pan-Indian festivals, such as Rama Navami, Shivratri, or Krishna Janmastami, which all celebrate one story, or one Deity. Diwali is a collection of festivals, representing different religions, cultures, and stories, and different Deities.
For some Diwali is the beginning of a new year, for others it is about wealth; victory; right over wrong; freeing slaves; justice; sacrificing oneself, and even about tying up God!
Although Diwali is often described as the festival of light, its pluralism, that it is the festival of many lights, is an important message of the festival. The Diwali period is not driven by ego or by ownership – it’s not my festival or your festival but my festival and your festival. It’s not one festival but many festivals; it’s not one story but many stories; it’s not one light but many lights.
One of the most well-known of the Diwali stories is about Lord Rama's return to Adhyoda after defeating Ravana, the king of Lanka. Rama’s devotees light his way all the way home with many rows of lamps. This symbol of light attaches itself to Rama as the Lord of light, as distinct from Ravana’s darkness. Light wins over darkness, and right over wrong.
Poor Ravana, who really gets a bad press in the Ramayana is the personification of wrong. Yet, for all the terrible things we assume about Ravana we must also recognise that he was a very sophisticated fellow. He had excellent taste in architecture, poetry, and art, and was a noted expert in the art of statecraft and politics. He was a reputed ruler, had very beautiful wives, admirable children, beautiful pleasure gardens, extraordinary wealth, and great power. So, what was wrong?
Ravana’s problem was that with all his opulence of life he had no need for anything more but he still wanted more; that he took more than necessary, and that in capturing Sita he took what was not his.
An old Indian story may help us appreciate Ravana's position more clearly. There was a bag of rice left in the market place. A bird came and landed near the bag. It took the few grains it needed, and flew away. A mouse found the bag and scratched a small hole in its side, and ate its fill. A man arrived, and not finding the owner, took the whole bag.
For the bird and the mouse it was just a bag of grain, available to all. For the man ownership was important. If he couldn’t identify an owner then he claimed ownership himself, and took it all. His ownership benefited only himself, and deprived others. A thoughtless act, which we’d usually identify as greed.
Ravana's desire for wealth and power was not wrong, and he used his wealth to benefit others, but in desiring Sita he went too far. He was thoughtless of other’s needs, and of his limits, and thus thousands of his citizens suffered. He was not all bad but he could not maintain a balance, and consequentially he did not know when or how to stop. The wrong? – for Ravana it was all about Ravana, all about his story and not about many stories. His ego and greed led him to a dark place, a place that eclipsed his light.
What is the opposite of ego and greed?
Well let's listen to a third perspective; the story of Damodara - God gets tied up during Diwali. We might imagine that God, being a busy chap, may get tied up generally but in this instance I mean that he is literally tied up.
It is told, in another Diwali’s stories that Damodara, baby Krishna, was hungry and wanted to suck his mother’s breast. Yashoda, Krishna’s mother was churning yogurt but was happy when Krishna began to climb on her lap and nuzzle her breast. Both were content in the comfort of this exchange until, that is, Yashoda heard the sizzle of boiling milk over-flowing. With a start of realisation Yashoda hurriedly placed Krishna on the step and ran to tend to the milk she had forgotten.
Krishna was not at all pleased with being deprived of his pleasure and toppled the pot of yogurt down the steps, and then followed it to make sure it was smashed. Then he ran through the rest of the house in pursuit of more mischief, with Yashoda in pursuit of Krishna – who was easily found due to his yogurt footprints. Yashoda need to contain Krishna and also need to tend to the stove so she decided to tie Krishna to a wooden grinding mortar. Its lucky she didn't live in Oxford as she may have been arrested for child abuse – but I digress. She found that each time she tried to tie him the rope was too short, even though she added more rope. Krishna, God, cannot be bound, which seems reasonable enough.
Seeing his mother’s determination Krishna appreciated that she was trying to protect him and was acting out of love, so he allowed himself to be bound, not with ropes but with his mother’s pure love.
In this story we see the light of love. A story without ego or any idea of ownership but with each in the mood of ‘not for me but for you’.
Yashoda loved Krishna with no expectation of return. She did not care if he was God or not, she just loved him anyway. She had no ego, no agenda, no claim, she just wanted Krishna to be safe and happy.
So, in conclusion, there are three enlightening ways of appreciating the Festival of Lights
Diwali is about the bigger picture. It recognises a world of different people, cultures, religions, and perspectives, and is respectful to all. Wealth and power are good. Greed is when we become excessive in our wants, when we deprive others, and when others suffer because of our desire to enjoy. We can conquer God, but only with love - when we don't want anything from him but only want to please - much as it is for any relationship of love.
You can find out more about Shaunaka Rishi Das and the work of the OCHS here.