Back in the 1950s, Diwali was still a colourful affair, bringing together families and friends from near and far, symbolising goodwill and understanding that the Festival of Lights has always meant to deliver.
The rich would indulge themselves in expensive jewellery, exquisite dresses; some would order new cars to be delivered on Diwali days; their houses would wear a festive look with arches and things making it look as if it was a film setting.
Small and beautiful
Many of us would be content with spending time with cousins and a few friends – a total of six, with a large suitcase full of fireworks costing no more than Rs 50, after all of which our parents would ask if we had not wasted their hard-earned money.
I guess it was the coming together of people that was the most valuable aspect of every Diwali. Weeks of preparation would precede the actual day.
What the Festival of Lights denotes is similar to most people of our ilk.
But on a larger note, I would like to throw open a topic for discussion on the relevance of Diwali in today’s world.
Is the Spirit of Diwali alive?
Does Diwali mean rejoicing with sweets shared in the morning, attending parties during the day and bursting fire crackers at dusk?
Have we lost the true spirit of the Festival of Lights?
Has Diwali become more commercial and less meaningful?
As I await answers from some of our readers, my mind goes back to the days when the Indian polity was devoid of divisions based on religious and social overtones.
Differences in political ideologies marked various camps but seldom discord and dissention that would lead to upheavals and violence.
The city of Bangalore (Bengaluru, now) where I grew up was perhaps the epitome of social and religious harmony. Apart from almost every major Indian language spoken, there was Hindu-Muslim-Christian cordiality. Temples, Mosques and Churches were used to sow the seeds of social and religious harmony and tolerance, occasions such as Diwali, Eid and Christmas would be considered occasions for people of varied faiths to mingle, exchange greetings and spread joy and friendship.
I have seen during my younger days, people of lore meeting people of lore and varied disposition, casting into winds their religious or social beliefs. Differences in ideologies would not preclude growth of friendship.
Those days have clearly gone.
The scene today
The political, religious, social and cultural polarisation that has occurred in India and elsewhere has tended to divide, rather than unite people. To pursue a faith today means to deride another; to show one’s commitment to one’s faith means to speak ill of the faith of another; and to united people of one grouping would mean rising against another.
None of these is religion for no religion preaches hatred and warfare- both are manmade.
These are alien to Hinduism, for its teachings transcend barriers of all sorts.
And India has waded through a number of episodes that do not speak of the unity and violence, not to overlook religious tolerance that it stands for. Secularism is the avowed principle of the state but some incidents of recent years cast a serious doubt.
Tension over Pope’s visit
I read about the tension that was evident in India twelve years ago, when the late Pope John Paul visited New Delhi.
The BJP government promised him ‘all courtesies and honours’ due a head of state. It had muted protests by Hindu groups that objected to Christian proselytizing.
The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi, where the Pope said mass before some 50,000 people, was fitted out with a cross-shaped podium decorated with a painted diya, the earthenware lamp used at Diwali.
The fusion of Christian spirit and Indian symbol was meant to be a friendly tribute, yet not all Indians took it that way. Some thought the Roman Catholic church and other Christian denominations were bent on subverting Indian culture through making conversions.
But India is known for its remarkable display of resilience and over the years, forged unity among the people, despite their differing religious and social dispositions. It would be hard for an Indian Muslim for instance, to support the cause of Pakistan, to the detriment of his country. A Christian would not raise his voice against his country.
The spirit of patriotism is strong.
But that is not enough.
The Hindu initiative
In a country where a majority of the population is Hindu, it is the Hindus who must take the initiative to foster the bond that has existed with other religions and faiths.
That indeed is the spirit of Diwali.
India has given the world Ganesha, Krishna, the Upanishads, Buddha, the spirit of Diwali and in more recent times the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi and others.
But India lags China in the consciousness of western business because it is not projecting its culture.
Bring your celebrations and festivals to the West, providing opportunities for western business leaders to learn. Bollywood has a bigger role to play in this; bring your stars to the West, link them with the business messages.
Hollywood has done this for decades.
The spirit of Diwali is manifest in a famous statement made by Mahatma Gandhi: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”.
Diwali is more than just food; it is coming together of people. This is a File Picture of Auckland Diwali 2009.