Defend Truth


Diwali theme of banishment, exile and return resonates with the life of Nelson Mandela


Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

As we celebrate Deepavali this Sunday, 12 November, let us do it with purpose and meaningfulness – beyond the crass conspicuous consumption in which the elite indulge. 

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

As Garima Chaudhry reminds us, everyone around the diya (lamp) is illuminated, not only the person who lights it: “The light from each individual diya does not jostle for space; the light from all diyas merge together seamlessly, and bright becomes brighter and brighter becomes brightest. The light in us is not meant to illuminate only our lives but the entire Earth. And the Earth has diversity – diversity of human beings and diversity of living beings. They are all meant to live together; there is no real jostling of space and the unity in that diversity is true light, real light.”

The magazine Hinduism Today succinctly summarises the symbolism associated with light and enlightenment. “In Hindu culture, light is a powerful metaphor for knowledge and consciousness. It is a reminder of the preciousness of education, self-inquiry and improvement, which bring harmony to the individual, the community and between communities. By honouring light, we affirm the fact that from knowing arises respect for and acceptance of others. Lighting lamps reminds Hindus to keep on the right path, to dispel darkness from their hearts and minds, and to embrace knowledge and goodness.”

Garima Chaudhry reinforces the metaphorical symbolism of light:

  • “Light is knowledge. Light is hope. Light is truth. Light is victory.
  • “Truth is like light — it shines through a web of deceit and darkness and stands there with its head held high like the flame that burns upward.
  • “Knowledge is light. True knowledge, right knowledge lights up existence and like light, knowledge is endless.
  • “Hope is light. When there is darkness all around, that little ray of hope makes its way through the smallest crack and illuminates the darkest space at the pace of light.
  • “Light is victory — it vanquishes darkness. On Diwali, the Divine descends in the form of light to reassure mortals that evil (darkness) will be and shall be overcome by good (light).

There are many explanations about the significance of Diwali, and the most well-known is the celebration of Lord Rama’s return after his banishment and exile. The Ramayan is one of the most popular scriptures among Hindus in the indentured diaspora because of this theme of exile and return.

On 16 November 2023, the 163rd anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers in South Africa will be commemorated. The indentured laboured in the belief that, like Lord Rama, they would overcome adversity in the colonies, and would return triumphantly to India from exile.

While the focus of the celebration is on Lord Rama, in his annual Diwali message, Eric Adams, the Mayor of New York City, emphasised “don’t write Sita out of that narrative. Sita was a strong woman who did not succumb to all the riches, all the glory that the darkness wanted to provide for her … There’s too much darkness … If we only celebrate the pushing of darkness away for one day, then we are betraying the principles of Diwali. It is every day that we must live at that magnitude and at that height… So let’s live in the spirit of Ram. Let’s live in the spirit of Sita. Let’s live in the spirit of Diwali”.

According to Professor Anantanand Rambachan from St Olaf College, Minnesota, US, the Ramayan (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 and apartheid history, and also because of the betrayal of the non-racial struggle for equality and justice, 29 years into democracy the country is among the most unequal in the world; the hydra-headed corruption demon continues to increase exponentially; global mafia syndicates operate with impunity; the black African majority are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty;  and minority groups increasingly feel threatened and marginalised in the land of their birth.

Diwali themes

The Diwali theme of banishment, exile and triumphant return resonates with the experiences of Nelson Mandela, our liberation hero and leader. When South Africans 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 well-being over disease and ill health; freedom over bondage.”

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.”

In South Africa, religious and cultural festivals and ceremonies have become opportunities for ostentatious displays of wealth. As we celebrate the triumph of righteousness over darkness and evil, it is appropriate to reflect on how we can brighten the lives of those around us who are less fortunate, regardless of race, class or religion. (An important tenet of Hinduism is Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam – the whole world is one family, which is the motto of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha.)

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.

So as we celebrate Deepavali 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. 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 at large. DM


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