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Diwali: The universal power of the metaphor of light to transcend darkness and trounce evil

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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 Diwali message of tolerance, understanding and social cohesion has greater resonance in South Africa after the July ‘attempted insurrection’, the looting and riots, the serious allegations of killings and vigilantism in Phoenix, and the resurgence of racism.

French author and public intellectual Victor-Marie Hugo said: “The true division of humanity is between those who live in light and those who live in darkness.” The power of light to transcend darkness and trounce evil is the universal message of most faiths and is the essence of the global Hindu festival of Diwali.

This international reach, recognition and respect was evident in 2016 when the UN declared that Diwali will be a non-meeting day. An important tenet of Hinduism is Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam – “the whole world is one family”, which can be viewed as the equivalent of ubuntu.

In his 2020 Diwali message, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “It is testament to the resilience of the great cultures of the subcontinent that Deepavali continues to be celebrated here in the southernmost tip of Africa… At a time when not just South Africa but the world is recovering from one of the worst crises in modern times, the Deepavali story of the triumph of light over darkness resonates deeply with us all… 

“May the sight of rows of lit diyas in homes, businesses and places of worship over Deepavali remind us all that even amidst the darkness of the pandemic, there is light, and that we shall indeed overcome.”

According to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC): “In Hindu culture, light is a powerful metaphor for knowledge and consciousness and also a reminder of the preciousness of education, self-inquiry and improvement.” Furthermore, as Professor Anantanand Rambachan from St Olaf College, Minnesota, US, enunciates: “These lights also testify to our human yearning for a world that is free of hate and fear and where there is abundance of compassion and happiness. These are the aspirations articulated in Hindu prayer that is commonly recited during this season of Diwali.”

An art exhibition celebrating Diwali at the National Gallery in London expounded on the metaphor of light and faith: “In religious symbolism, light is strongly connected to our ability to see – sacred texts use the theme of blindness to describe those who are spiritually lost, or risk taking the wrong path in life. Recovering sight is associated with ‘seeing the light’ and spiritual awakening… In the sacred Upanishads, the soul is described as a small flame. Similarly, in Christian scriptures, light is said to burn inside the believer, like a candle in a temple.”

The World Council of Churches (WCC) stated that the festival of Diwali “affirms the importance of peace and prosperity as the foundations for human flourishing… The WCC recalls with gratitude the partnership we have enjoyed with our Hindu partners in the pursuit of justice and peace”.

Aamir Hussain, an interfaith activist in the US, has suggested that “for Muslims, Diwali can be a time to reflect on complex spiritual and theological questions… a chance to learn more about Islam, but also as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of other faiths’ practices and religious imagery… it is our duty to counter… ignorance, bigotry and religious intolerance… with the lights of truth, reason and inter-religious understanding”.

The message of tolerance, understanding and social cohesion has greater resonance in South Africa after the July “attempted insurrection”, the looting and riots, the serious allegations of killings and vigilantism in Phoenix, Durban, and the resurgence of racism.

In 1995 Nelson Mandela said, “In our country, good has triumphed over evil. We are free at last to celebrate Deepavali without the divisions of the past, and with the full backing of the country and all its people and government. No longer is any religion officially consigned to the ghetto of the so-called ungodly, treated as inferior and despised. The Hindu faith is as much a part of South Africa as any other religion.”

Against the background of insensitivity and a lack of tolerance for Diwali festivities (especially fireworks) in recent years, the SAHRC in 2021 called “on all citizens and communities to be mindful of each other’s rights and in particular to respect all persons’ rights to equality, human dignity, freedom of religion and to practise their respective cultures. The Commission accordingly calls on everyone to exercise religious tolerance during this significant period.”

And the final word from another global icon, Mahatma Gandhi: “Diwali… is a great day in the Hindu calendar… Only those who have Rama within can celebrate… victory. For, God alone can illumine our souls and only that light is real light… Crowds of people go to see artificial illumination but what we need today is the light of love in our hearts. We must kindle the light of love within.”

Whether you celebrate from the east, west, north, south (and the various permutations), or are directionally challenged (like this columnist), avoid wasteful, conspicuous consumption, be sensitive to the environment, animals and neighbours – and how about donating 10% of your total Diwali budget to charity? 

Spread the light of hope, sharing, caring and generosity – “No candle loses its light while lighting another candle.” DM

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  • While endorsing most of what the author has said, I wish to point out a small ‘contradiction’ in his essay and record my exception to a particular utterance. Regarding the first point …”avoid wasteful, conspicuous consumption, … ” – how does spending money on fireworks not contribute to this ? Which part of the Hindu scriptures equated the letting off of ‘fireworks’ with the lighting of lamps ? Were ‘fireworks’ (the commercial variety marketed and eagerly bought today) even part of the vocabulary of the sages who penned the texts ? Which brings me to the egregious claim of “lack of tolerance for Diwali festivities (ESPECIALLY FIREWORKS) in recent years …” which needs to be read in conjunction with the laudable sentiment ” be sensitive to the environment, animals and neighbours…”. My question in respect of regard for animals is – have you observed the effect fireworks (especially the variety designed to wreck your hearing with their bangs) have on animals such as cats and dogs and birds ? Have you been on the roads (as I do) on the day after Guy Fawks and seen the number of dead birds along the road ? Maybe you would do well to visit an animal welfare organisation for real information in this regard. You may just change your attitude to the use of fireworks (of the bang variety)… whether for Diwali or any other occasion (as I do) and thus give meaning to your claimed respect for animals. I don’t believe any reasonable person has objections to the ‘celebration’ of Diwali, but they would to the ‘letting off’ as compared to the the ‘lighting’ of fireworks that do not impair or destroy your hearing and truamatise animals . Hope you will rethink the matter.

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