Opinionista Brij Maharaj 16 October 2017

Festival of Lights – Triumph of righteousness and morality in South Africa

There is an urgent need to revert to basic values of sharing and caring – uplifting the poor and disadvantaged in a severely fractured society. The festival of Diwali provides one such opportunity.

Religions have generally been associated with the ideals of peace, tolerance, non-violence, fairness, equality and justice. However, history is littered with examples were individuals and communities have been subjected to violence and discrimination in the name of religion.

This divisive, intolerant and violent tendency is reasserting itself in the form of religious fundamentalism in the 21st century. Other forms of violence have been unprecedented levels of poverty, crass consumerism and materialism, and unbridled corruption.

In 1993, the Assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, recognising that “every human being must be treated humanely”, committed itself to a culture of “non-violence and respect for life; solidarity and a just economic order; equal rights and partnership between men and women; tolerance and a life of truthfulness”.

Hinduism draws from different eclectic traditions and is suffused with pluralism and tolerance. Swami Vivekananda stated that he was “proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance”.

While South Africa is a secular state, Nelson Mandela had emphasised that in South Africa “there shall also be a social order which respects completely the culture, language and religious rights of all sections of our society and the fundamental rights of the individual”. According to Mandela,

Justice, truth, integrity, humility, freedom, are values that the Hindu scriptures like the scriptures of most other religions espouse”.

Historically, Hindus (with fellow Muslims and Christians of Indian origin) in South Africa struggled against discrimination, poverty, lack of education as well as political and civic representation, and religious and cultural marginalisation, for 130 years. Hindus managed to survive the economic and political onslaught primarily because of their rich cultural and religious heritage, and self-help community survival strategies.

This week Hindus celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, which symbolises the triumph of radiance and righteousness over darkness and evil. However, South Africa appears to be covered by a pall of doom and gloom, and the overwhelming stench of corruption fills the air. Former trade union leader and minister in the Mandela cabinet, Jay Naidoo, posed a serious question: “What is the spark that will light up your fire – that will make you stand up and be counted and be among the guardians of our interests?”

According to former US President Barrack Obama,

The flame of the diya, or lamp, reminds us that light will ultimately triumph over darkness … and knowledge over ignorance. As that lamp is lit, we should all recommit ourselves to bring light to any place still facing darkness.”

Mandela has similarly contended that the Diwali lamp embodies the triumph of “enlightenment over blind faith; prosperity over poverty; knowledge over ignorance; good health and well-being over disease and ill health; and freedom over bondage”. Moreover, one should add honesty and righteousness over corruption.

An interesting blog by Mukul Goel suggests that “Hinduism, with its eternal focus on righteousness, the rich guidance it has continuously received from the self-realised, and the disciplined lifestyle that it supports, is the most equipped … for combating corruption”. Indeed, a common thread in Hindu scriptures is the call to fight for justice and righteousness.

This is best encapsulated in one of the most powerful and transcendental spiritual injunctions in Hindu scriptures:

Yada yada hi dharmasya, glanir bhavati bharata, abhyutthanam adharmasya, tadatmanam srjamy aham, Paritranaay Sadhunaam, Vinashay cha dushkritam, Dharma Sansthapanarthay, sambhawami yuge yuge (Bhagavad Gita Chapter 4, Verse 7).

The approximate English translation of this Sanskrit verse is:

Whenever there is a decline of Dharma (righteousness) and the rise of Adharma (unrighteousness); to protect the virtuous and to destroy the wicked and to re-establish Dharma, I (the Lord) manifest myself, through the ages.

Many Hindus will pray for peace, prosperity and enlightenment and will feel a heightened sense of devotion and divinity. It is appropriate to reflect on how we can illuminate the lives of those around us who are less fortunate, regardless of race, class, caste or religion. (An important tenet of Hinduism is Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam – the whole world is our family).

While fortunes are spent on material extravagance, spare a thought for those who are disadvantaged, destitute, unemployed, marginalised and socially excluded. According to the latest poverty statistics, about half the South African population fall in this category.

According to Obama,

Contemplation and prayer remind us that people of all faiths have an obligation to perform seva, or service to others. Diwali … is also a time for reflection – a time when we must remember that there are always others less fortunate then ourselves … we should commit ourselves to helping those in need.”

Scriptures compel all Hindus to engage in some form of charity (daan) and social upliftment, according to ability, selflessly, without expectation of reward (Nishkhaam Karma). Some give money, while others offer time and labour in support of worthy causes. According to the Bhagavad Gita (17.21), charity that is given as a matter of duty, desiring nothing in return, to a deserving candidate at the right place and time, is called sattvikam.

A central tenet of Sanathan Dharma (eternal religion) is that “charity should be done for the upliftment of humanity and as an expression of the love for the Divine Godhead”. The words of late Guruji, Pundit HR Maharaj, are particularly evocative:

When hunger stares you in the face, giving is not an act of charity or spirituality but the act of humanity yoked together.”

According to Mahatma Gandhi:

The only way to find God is to see him in his creation and to be one with it. This can only be done by service of all, sarvodaya”.

In the 21st century, there has been a significant retreat from this proud tradition of sharing and caring. The new generation Hindu elite, with a few exceptions, like their other South African counterparts, selfishly pursue mindless material accumulation and conspicuous consumption, which is quite often accompanied by social and moral degeneration. Religious festivals and wedding ceremonies have become opportunities for ostentatious displays of wealth. Professor Njabulo Ndebele recently raised concerns about “the obscene display of private wealth and the … public doubt regarding the means by which it was acquired”.

If Hindus and Hinduism are to survive in South Africa there is an urgent need to revert to basic values of sharing and caring – uplifting the poor and disadvantaged in a severely fractured society. The festival of Diwali provides one such opportunity.

Therefore, as we celebrate Diwali, let us do it with purpose and meaningfulness. Let it not be just for the day. Rather, the spirit of Diwali must guide us through the year in order to ensure that righteousness and justice triumphs in our homes, communities and country, as well as in the world and universe at large. DM

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