The Dharma of Divali

Tonight we will be celebrating “Divali”, or “Deepavali”, which means “a row of light”. Divali has gained wide acceptance in our multicultural, multireligious and multiracial nation. Unfortunately, apart from a perfunctory and stereotypical “good over evil” motif, even many Hindus do not appreciate the significance of the event commemorated.
The Hindu calendar is punctuated by “Parvas” – pronounced “Parbs” by our Bhojpuri ancestors – which means “part”. It is translated into English as “festivals”, but, as with all concepts, there are aspects that may be lost or added in translation. Hindu Parbs emphasize that events commemorated should help integrate individuals into the social institutions in which they are embedded – family, community, nation etc – by stressing particular moral values that should be inculcated into their lives. Hindu festivals are thus always concerned with transmitting moral behavioural rules. The celebratory aspects are secondary, and are only meant to performatively signal the consequent victory of morality over immorality.
Hindus have four overarching goals of life: “Dharma”, which exhorts living a righteous life even as we pursue pleasures (“Kama”), economic and social success (“Artha”) so that we may eventually achieve liberation (“Moksha”) from the cycle of life and death (samsara). The Parbs are reminders on the need to live in accordance with Dharma.
Divali is one of the most ancient and sacred of the Hindu Parbs, and arose out of their early lived experience in North India of increasing darkness at this time of the year. This seemingly threatened to permanently dispel the sun’s life-giving rays, and they mimetically acted to reverse the threat by burning bonfires and offering prayers during the darkest night. This use of light to dispel encroaching darkness was later used metaphorically to convey the message that when evil increases (symbolized by the increasing darkness), it must be confronted by the forces of righteousness (light) if the implicate order in all creation (Dharma) is to prevail. This use of stories surrounding Parbs to convey lessons of life to generally illiterate members of society through symbolic language has become characteristic of Hindu pedagogy.
Over the millennia, several narratives have become attached to Divali because they occurred at this propitious time. One of them is the Samudra Mantan – the great churning of an Ocean of Milk (Kshirsagar) by the Devas to regain their powers through the Amrit or nectar that would be produced. It is important to remember that this churning was performed by all of the celestial beings coming together – even those, the Asuras, who opposed the Devas. During the churning, several wonderous creations were manifested in addition to the Amrit. Among them was Mother Lakshmi, who represents fortune, prosperity, wealth, good luck, success, accomplishment, beauty, grace, etc. In a word, all our worldly desires. Hindu Dharma covers the entire gamut of life, and Divali suggests that Mother Lakshmi’s bounties can emanate from a churning of our own minds to do what is right by our own Dharma (Svadharma) to dispel whatever darkness envelopes us in the here and now. By our own actions, we can achieve.
On Divali night, every Hindu would have cleaned their home and performed worship (puja) with their front door open to welcome Mother Lakshmi. They would churn their minds over specific challenges they, the community, and the nation confront, and vow to play their part in addressing those challenges in a Dharmic manner. The universal ground for Hindus is Dharma – there is the dharma of all man (Manav dharma), the rulers (Raj dharma), individuals (Sva Dharma), and for each position one occupies – father, mother, child etc. citizen. And what is Dharma?? That which sustains, that which upholds whatever institution we are talking about – our family, community, or country.
Over time, several other auspicious occasions have become linked with Divali, and were also commemorated. The most noteworthy for Guyanese Hindus is the return of Sri Ram to his home on Divali night. He was the SEVENTH incarnation (avatar) of the sustaining aspect of the Divine, Vishnu whose consort Lakshmi – his “shakti” or power who always incarnates with him – was Mother Sita.
The significance of His nexus with Divali should be obvious. When Mother Sita was kidnapped by King Ravana, his Dharmic duty led him not to wring his hand and moan, but to assemble an army, confront and kill his enemy, and rescue Her. He did not annex Ravan’s kingdom, however, but passed it on to the latter’s righteous brother, Vibhishan.