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Diwali and indentured Indian labour in South Africa: Light and hope transcend darkness


Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal and an executive member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha. He writes in his personal capacity.

The colonial rulers viewed Indian indentured labourers as heathens. Apartheid not only suppressed political freedoms but stifled religious choices in favour of a narrow, Christian-Calvinist agenda which was implicitly anti-Hindu and anti-Islam.

The year 2020 marks the 160th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers (“a new form of slavery”) in South Africa (16 November 1860), the 110th anniversary of the official recognition of the festival of Diwali in South Africa (1910) and the 108th anniversary of the establishment of the SA Hindu Maha Sabha (SAHMS) (1912).

Historically, indentured 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. As Professors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed point out, notwithstanding these challenges, the indentured built temples which “were a powerful source of comfort for many, as it was here that communal worship was experienced, birth, marriage and death ceremonies observed, and festivals celebrated. These were the very first incubators of community in an environment of incredible hostility.”

The colonial rulers viewed indentured labourers as heathens. It is well known that apartheid not only suppressed political freedoms but also stifled religious choices in favour of a narrow, Christian-Calvinist agenda which was implicitly anti-Hindu and anti-Islam. Hindus managed to survive the economic and political onslaught primarily because of their cultural and religious heritage as well as self-help community survival strategies. The Maha Sabha motto, Vasudev Kutumbakam (“the world is one family”) resonates with African concepts such as ubuntu (“humanity to others”) and Batho Pele (“people first”).

South African Hindus have come a long way from the era of memory, oral tradition (and distortions) in religious rituals and practices, and the focus is now on scripturally based injunctions. The SAHMS promotes a national government-accredited programme to train Hindu priests across the linguistic spectrum (possibly a world first) – a scripturally based spirituality that is motivated by a desire for a just society; and prayers and rituals that spur a sense of philanthropy and generosity.

Tamaso ma jyothir gamaya (“lead us from darkness to light”) from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Section I.iii.28) is an important concept in Hinduism, and is the essence of Diwali. Dispelling darkness and illuminating truth, honesty, integrity, morality, righteousness with divine radiance – the ultimate triumph of good over evil – are messages which permeate all faiths.

For example, Lord Krishna states: “I destroy the darkness born of ignorance with the shining light of wisdom” (Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 10, vs. 11). Lord Jesus states: “I am the light of the world: he who follows me will not walk in darkness but have the light of life” (Holy Bible, John, Ch. 8, vs. 12). According to the Quran (24:35): “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the Earth. The Parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp … lit from a blessed olive tree, neither eastern nor western … Allah guides to his Light whomever He wishes.” (This verse is known as Ayat-an-Nur – the verse of light.)

There are many explanations about the significance of Diwali – the most well known being the celebration of Lord Rama’s return after his banishment and exile. The Ramaya is one of the most popular scriptures among Hindus in the indentured diaspora because of its theme of exile and return. The indentured laboured in the belief that like Lord Rama, they will overcome adversity in the colonies, and will return triumphantly to India from exile.

There is also reference to exile in the Bible: “You be driven away from mankind and your dwelling place be with the beasts of the field, and you be given grass to eat like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven; and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognise that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (Daniel, 4:25).

In a comparative reflection, in 2012 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, maintained that “homecoming” is a central theme in various scriptures and frequently “the stories do not place emphasis on returning to a specific place, but instead on the believer returning to God and finding a home in God”. The Archbishop quoted the Bhagavad Gita, where “bhakti is the way that the believer enters a shelter in God and attains ‘the supreme abode’”, and the New Testament where Christ states: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.”

According to Professor Anantanand Rambachan from St Olaf College, Minnesota, US, the Ramayana (and almost all religious scriptures) illustrate that on Earth: “God’s purposes are accomplished through partnership with human beings… If the formation of an inclusive community of love, justice and the overcoming of suffering is the ultimate purpose of the divine in the world, we become partners with God when we engage in work to overcome suffering rooted in poverty, illiteracy, disease, hate and violence. We become God’s hands and feet when we work positively to build inclusive communities of love, justice and peace, where the dignity and equal worth of every human being is affirmed.”

This message is especially important in South Africa, where, partly because of its complex colonial history, and also because of the betrayal of the non-racial struggle, 26 years into democracy the country remains as divided, polarised and corrupt as in the apartheid era – and minority groups increasingly feel threatened and marginalised in the land of their birth.

When South Africans (including Hindus and those of Indian descent) seek inspiration and enlightenment, they inevitably turn to the voice and words of Nelson Mandela, and his views on Diwali are apposite:

“The Hindu faith is as much a part of South Africa as any other religion… Justice, truth, integrity, humility, freedom, are values that the Hindu scriptures, like the scriptures of most other religions, espouse… At this time of Diwali and as I light this sacred lamp I am aware of how this lamp symbolises the triumph of: Enlightenment over blind faith; prosperity over poverty; knowledge of ignorance; good health and wellbeing over disease and ill-health; freedom over bondage.”

As we celebrate the triumph of radiance and righteousness over darkness and evil, it is appropriate to reflect on how we can illuminate the lives of those around us who are less fortunate, regardless of race or religion. 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 (17.20) charity that is given as a matter of duty, desiring nothing in return, to a deserving candidate at the right place and time, is sattvic (serenity).

Rambachan reminds us that: “The truth that we pray for on Diwali is the truth of goodness and righteousness. It is truth that challenges us to search into our minds, hearts and traditions for the ethical values that guide our daily choices.”

So as we celebrate Diwali, let us do it with purpose and meaningfulness – beyond the crass conspicuous consumption in which the elite indulge. Let it not be just for the day. 

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. DM


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