The word “Diwali” means an arrangement or a row of lights. Traditionally, Diwali is celebrated on the darkest night of the year when the necessity and the beauty of lights can be truly appreciated. Light is a symbol in the world’s religions for God, truth and wisdom.
Given the antiquity of India, the diversity of its religious traditions and the interaction among these, it should not surprise us to know that many religious communities celebrate Diwali. Each one offers a distinctive reason for the celebration that enriches its meaning. For every community, however, Diwali celebrates and affirms hope, and the triumph of goodness and justice over evil and injustice. These values define the meaning of Diwali.
For the Jains, Diwali is celebrated as the joyous day on which Mahavir, the great Jain teacher, attained the eternal joy of liberation or nirvana. It is an occasion for rejoicing and gratitude for a life spent in rigorous religious search, realization and teaching centered on non-violence.
For the Sikhs, Diwali is a “day of freedom,” when the Mughal Emperor, Jehangir, freed the sixth Sikh Guru (teacher), Hargobind, from prison. Guru Hargobind refused to accept his freedom unless the emperor released detained Hindu leaders. Guru Hargobind is celebrated as seeing his own religious freedom as inseparable from the freedom of others.
Even for the Hindu community, there is a confluence of many traditions connected with Diwali. Some celebrate Diwali as ushering the New Year and others as the triumph of Krishna over the evil, Narakasura. The most widely shared tradition, especially in North India, associates Diwali with the celebration and rejoicing over the return of Rama to his home in Ayodhya after an exile of 14 years and his defeat of the tyrannical, Ravana. Rama was forced into exile by the greed of his stepmother who wanted her own son to occupy the throne of Ayodhya. Citizens of Ayodhya joyfully welcomed Rama home by lighting thousands of earthen lamps, even as almost one billion Hindus do so today on the continents of Asia, Africa, Australia, the Americas and Europe. Hindus worship Rama as an embodiment of God on earth.
The meaning of Diwali, however, is not limited to the celebration of Rama’s return from exile, and we must look also beyond this event. In his version of the Ramayana, the account of the life of Rama written in the 15th century, the poet Tulasidasa tells us that the return of Rama ushered in a new human community in which all enjoyed peace and prosperity. Tulasidasa describes the characteristics of this new community in beautiful details that have profound contemporary relevance. I want to highlight four of its most important features. First, poverty was overcome, and none suffered for lack of life’s necessities. Second, illiteracy was overcome and opportunities for learning available to everyone. Third, diseases were overcome, no one died prematurely, and all lived healthy lives. Fourth, violence and hate were overcome and relationships characterized by love and the service.
It is easy and even tempting to think that the Rama, the embodiment of God on earth, effected this transformation in the nature of the community miraculously. If so, we could celebrate Diwali and our responsibilities are over until it comes again next year. Such a view, however, does not accurately represent Rama’s nature or mode of action in the world. Throughout the Ramayana, Tulasidasa describes Rama as seeking the help of human beings and fulfilling his purposes only through them. He asks Valmiki’s help when he wants to find a suitable place to build a home. He turns to forest dwellers for guidance. He befriends Sugriva and looks to him and his supporters to find his beloved Sita. He sends Hanuman across the ocean to locate and comfort Sita. He builds a bridge to the island of Sri Lanka only with the assistance of many, including even the animals of earth. The theological conclusions are important and challenging. First, a human community that aspires to be free from poverty, illiteracy, disease and violence is one that has aligned itself with God’s purpose. This is the community that Rama wills and which he governed after his return. One cannot love Rama and be indifferent to human suffering and to the nature of the community in which one lives. Second, God’s purposes are accomplished through and in cooperation with human beings. We have a vital role and responsibility in making this community a reality and it will not be realized without our commitment and cooperation.
We cannot celebrate Diwali as the return of Rama without being concerned about the reality of poverty, illiteracy, disease and violence in our world. If God’s purpose in the world is accomplished through us and in cooperation with us, it is also true that this work requires our cooperation with each other. Our hope is not in solitary effort but in working with others in the manner of Rama. We may not all agree on the precise paths for the goal of overcoming poverty, illiteracy, disease and violence. But even consensus about these as shared goals of our common life and as essential to the meaning of being Hindu is a grand step.
If working with others for the achievement of these ends defines what it means to be political, contemporary Hindus have a deep religious responsibility to be politically engaged. At the heart of this engagement must be a concern for the well-being of all. We ought to ensure that Hindus are known, in whatever part of the world we reside, Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and the Caribbean, for our commitment to overcoming suffering rooted in poverty, illiteracy, disease and violence. This commitment must become synonymous with what it means to be Hindu in our self-understanding and in the eyes of others. Politics, according to Mahatma Gandhi, is concerned with the well-being of human communities and anything concerned with human well-being must concern the person of religious commitment. Gandhi was deeply inspired by the life of Rama and especially by the nature of the community established after Rama’s return from exile. He understood his life’s purpose as working with others to make this community a reality.
Unfortunately, our religious traditions are known more for what we stand against than what we stand for. Religious identity has become negative rather than positive. We need to ensure that the positive dimension of our commitment is more prominent than the negative.
Let us celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, with joy. Let each celebration, however be a reminder and renewal of our profound obligations to help bring the lights of prosperity, knowledge, health and peace to our communities, nations and our world. Diwali does not end when the lights go out.
Anantanand Rambachan is professor of religion at St. Olaf College, Minnesota. This article is taken from his keynote address to the Hindu Caribbean Conference of America in New York on October 6, 2012. He is the author ofThe Advaita Worldview: God, World and Humanity, The Hindu Vision, Gitamrtam: The Essential Teachings of the Bhagavadgita and A Hindu Theology of Liberation (forthcoming). He is a member of the Theological Education Steering Committee of the American Academy of Religion, a member of the International Advisory Council for theTony Blair Faith Foundation, and a member with Consultation on Population and Ethics, a non-governmental organization, affiliated with the United Nations. Twice, he delivered the invocation address at White House’s celebration of the Hindu festival of Diwali.