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The Philosophical Basis of Hindu Festivals

The Hindu sages declared that Brahman is all there is (sat). “He” is awareness (chit), and is delight (ananda). God is not only omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, but also omniamorossus (all loving), omnidelectabilis (all delicious), and omnidiletante (all delighting). A sense of joyous playfulness is a part and parcel of Divinity and of the Cosmos. All of life is a celebration and a festival (utsava). In their deepest spirit, Hindu festivals attempt to reflect this deep sense of rejoicing in life and the world, although when it comes to practice much of that esoteric spirit may be replaced by exoteric rituals and customs.

Strictly speaking, Hindu festivals are devoid of philosophical justification; since all existence is an expression of divine joy and creativity, any day is good as any other day, there is no point in celebrating any particular day as a special occasion. If such is the case with time, such is the case with space too. All life-sustaining places are manifestations of divine power. There is no point in constructing temples and considering them holy in contradistinction to the places surrounding them. Prakriti, Nature, is the consort of Purusha, the Transcendental Principle of life.

However, such profound philosophy cannot be expected to be understood by the masses. Temples abound in India, as do festivals. The essential rationale for Hindu festivals usually derives not from the esoteric Hindu scriptures called the Upanishads, but much latter-day mythologies called Puranas. Compared to the ultimate heights scaled by the Hindu philosophical doctrines, the stories from epics and Puranas appear to be rather juvenile, though they often contain much more powerful symbolic significance than epics and mythologies of other cultures of the world.

Although the grandeur of the Vedantic sense of festivity and constant celebration of life is lost to the modern world, in India as elsewhere, it at times seems to shine through the color, dance and jollity of many of these Hindu festivals. Thus, paradoxically, though their very existence goes against the essence of Hindu doctrine, they manage to convey that very same spirit in a poignant manner occasionally. There is indeed a great sense of paradox here. But Hinduism is full of paradoxes, contradictions and contrasts.

In a religion that has dared to conceive the most abstract conception of divinity possible, the Brahman, it is indeed very strange to see even a hint of idol worship. However, India is teeming with idols in every house and street corner. Hindu festivals too are another expression of this deep paradox that Hinduism is riddled with. India is often considered a land of festivals. The Hindu festival best known in the Western world is the fall festival of lights, Deepavali or Diwali. Even to Hindus, it is the quintessential religious festival.

The date varies every year but occurs either in late October or early November, in the months of Karthik, on Amavasya (new moon day) — the darkest night of all nights (MacMillan 1997). With its arrays of lighted lamps, firecrackers, and festivities, Deepavali transforms the desolate moonless skies by filling them with laughter, happiness, and radiance. In India, the festive season between Deepavali and the festival of Dusshera that precedes it a by a couple of weeks, is the time that comes closest to Christmas season in the Western world.

This nearly month long period is also marked by heightened shopping activity and huge discounts on consumer goods in the modern-day thriving consumer society that urban India has turned into. But if we briefly move away from the hustle and bustle of booming Indian metropolitan scene, and enquire into the original truths that lay behind the festival, truths echoing the pristine silence of eternal Himalayas, we may stumble upon profound revelations. From falsehood lead me to Truth, From darkness lead me to Light,

From death lead me to Immortality. – Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1. 3. 28 (Joshi 1991) The symbolism of these famous lines from the Upanishads is well expressed in the celebration of Deepavali. The festival is associated with more than one legend and has a deep social and spiritual significance for the Hindu world. It is known for the worship of the goddess Lakshmi, who symbolizes wealth and prosperity. It also marks the end of the rainy season and the harvesting cycle, and therefore is also the festival of the Kharif or new crop.

However, the original and most important legend behind Deepavali is that of Lord Krishna’s victory over evil Narakasura, as is attested by the fact of the day preceding Deepavali being called Narakachaturdasi. Deepavali celebrations all over the world are marked by majestic fireworks, a variety of cultural programs, a spirit of sharing and brotherhood, and, most importantly, the lighting of lamps (deepas) in several arrays (wali) inside and outside the house. It is these luminous deepas that seem to contain the essence of Deepavali.

Just as light dispels the darkness of night and shows the right path to a weary traveler, the lighting of lamps on the night of Karthik Amavasya symbolizes the victory of good over evil; justice over injustice, light over darkness, and wisdom over ignorance. In countless Indian cities, towns and villages, the celebration of Diwali is marked by illumination everywhere. Rows and rows of small earthenware lamps are seen in every Hindu home. However, Diwali is most known for fireworks which begin at dusk and continue till late in the night. In every house the children, even elders, light firecrackers.

That night sounds like a battle-field everywhere. Diwali is in fact a festival of two days comprising Narakachaturdasi and Diwali proper. Originally, Narakachaturdasi used to be the day when people lit fireworks and loud ear-piercing bombs exploded all over the streets in every nook and corner of India, symbolizing the battle between Krishna and Narakasura. And the following day, Diwali used to be celebrated for the slaying of Narakasura. Early in the morning before sunrise, every member of the family would take the holy bath and wear new clothes.

From the poorest to the richest Hindu, wearing new clothes on festivals is an established ritual, though as with many other traditional thing it is fading away with time. During the day, all of the family members would visit relatives and friends where gifts are exchanged and sweets consume with much gaiety. Much of the custom is still intact today, however, with the passage of time, Narakachartudasi has been losing its significance and Diwali has become the major event. The story explaining what is being celebrated is given in the tale of “The Slaying of Narakasura” in the Bhagavata Purana.

Diwali is a joyous celebration of the death of the Titan (asura) of hell (naraka), Narakasura, at the hand of Lord Krishna. Narakasura, known as the son of the earth, was all-powerful. He was an intolerable menace to the gods, sages and all men of piety, in those most ancient times when these mythological events are said to have taken place. He looted and plundered not only the earth but heaven as well. He carried away 16,000 fair daughters of the gods and imprisoned them in his harem. The gods led by Indra approached Lord Krishna and supplicated the Lord to destroy the demon. Krishna readily agreed. He fought a fierce battle.

After destroying thousands of demons, Krishna slew Narakasura. Thereafter he rescued the imprisoned damsels and on their earnest prayers took them as his wives (Lall 2004). On the face of it, the story may sound a little inane, but as with many such legends in India, a symbolic meaning is offered as a deeper explanation. This festival, like a number of other Hindu festivals and rituals, explains the inner personality of man and his deliverance from his ignorance and ego to attain his supreme nature of Godhood. The darkness of the night represents man’s total ignorance of his Self, ignorance of his own divine nature.

In that darkness reigns the desire-ridden ego which destroys peace and brings about sorrow and misery in the heart of man. The 16,000 damsels represent the desires that arise in an egoistic man. Obviously 16,000 is simply a way of saying “umpteen. ” Desires dwell in ignorance under the control of the ego. All these desires cannot find fulfillment in this limited world. They remain frustrated. Thus man is driven to a state of sorrow and suffering by his own negative and lower tendencies. Actually, it must be noted that the question of desires being fulfilled or not being fulfilled is not the issue here.

Just as Buddha more daringly and explicitly proclaimed, Hindu philosophy too believes that desires as such are the fundamental cause of human misery. This may be a very difficult notion for the Western mind to comprehend. After all, desiring seems to be the essence of human life. Without desires, life could turn into a meaningless, pointless and purposeless affair. It is true that when we fail in achieving some of our desires, it may lead us to sorrow and despondency, however when we succeed in realizing some of our desires, they give us reason to celebrate.

For us, successes and failures, joys and sorrows, constitute the game of life. Hinduism seems to take a radically different viewpoint. To Hinduism, the amount of celebration and “partying” is not directly proportional to the number of desires fulfilled, as commonsense would dictate. It may seem very perplexing to us, but to understand this point is very vital to understanding the Hindu mind, not as it is today, for in the era of globalization there may not be much difference between Eastern and Western approach to life.

When we are trying to probe deeper in the Hindu traditions of India, we are invariably dealing with the long bygone forefathers of the present generation of people. The wise ones of those legendary ages now lost in the mists of time, rightly identified the fundamental problem of human existence as desire. This is so because of the simple reason that, according to Hinduism, we are all born as gods, partaking of the nature of absolute divinity. Hinduism believes that ecstasy or bliss is our intrinsic nature, not predicated upon some external conditions of well-being or success.

If everything and everyone is God, and the nature of God is sat-chit-ananda, then it must be our nature too. In Hinduism, the paramount objective of life is to realize one’s own inner nature. But desire does not let us move in. It always creates the illusion that joy is to be found elsewhere, not right here and now. Meaning of life is elsewhere, and we form a desire and create a purpose to achieve it. We may succeed or fail in achieving our desires, but that is not the point, according to Hinduism. Either way, our focus is taken away form ourselves and we go far from our inner nature.

Though on rare occasions some of us may be fortunate enough to live an enchanted life, filled with success and comfort and joy, all this would still be regarded by Hindu philosophy as trivial compared to the ocean of joy and infinite abundance of our own inner nature. Therefore, worldly desires per se, whether they lead to success or failure, are cause of misery. A similar thought process is in fact followed by many monastic and religious traditions of the world which see the realities of the world and God as being against each other.

Therefore, the desire for objects of this world has to be suppressed and the desire of God has to be encouraged. There is absolutely no such dichotomy in the Hindu world, though. The outer world is in fact a splendid manifestation of divine creativity and intelligence, this world is God. At the same time, as long as we remain ignorant of the tremendous treasures buried within our own selves — the light, the truth and the immortality that resides within us — there is not much point in seeking the little fleeting pleasures of life.

Hinduism is not at all against desires and indulges. It is in fact against repression. It acknowledges the strong innate drives of human psychology. To conquer desire is no mean accomplishment. But when desire is conquered, it is a cause for celebration. Enlightenment happens when desire is transcended. This is the symbolic significance of candles being lit up in all the houses during the dark moonless night. The battle of good over evil is won. But good and evil are not the same concepts here as we perceive them in the conventional sense.

Good is equated with Krishna, desirelessness, and bad is associated with a demon full of passionate impulsive and selfish desires. Desirelessness is good, and desires are bad. However, the most unique and distinctive feature of all this tradition and philosophy is its playfulness. Hinduism very much recognizes that good and bad are dependant on each other, just as inside cannot exist without outside and vice versa. In the end, the battle between Krishna and Narakasura is only a mock battle, just a game, very much like the toy bombs youngsters play with on the Diwali night.

Desire is not looked down upon as “sin,” it is just a reflection of ignorance and weakness, which are natural to human condition. They must be and will be overcome eventually. But everyone is free to take their time. In fact, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the maturity that comes from overcoming of desires cannot be achieved in the present lifetime. It would take many many life times before one achieves such a state of higher realization. In the mean time, the festivals, and the profound symbolic significance underlying them, for those who care to study and enquire, provide strong reminders of the path ahead.

The mythological stories behind the festivals are often elaborate narratives covering various elements of spirituality in meticulous detail. In the Diwali story, the gods represent positive tendencies in men and the demons the negative tendencies, but indeed not demonic but very human tendencies. One must remember that Narakasura is in fact the dear son of the goddess of Earth, Bhudevi. To pull himself out the state of ignorance man has to employ his positive tendencies to direct his attention to the higher Self. Every man has within him both positive and negative tendencies.

The gods’ approach of Krishna for help signifies man’s positive tendencies reaching for the inner Self. Desires simply cannot be conquered by positive tendencies and will power. But when the light of the inner Self within us awakens, the darkness of desires is naturally and effortlessly dispelled. When man turns inward and seeks the inner Self his negative tendencies get destroyed one by one in rapid succession. All his desires, longings and cravings get annihilated. This is what is represented by the fireworks on the night of Diwali.

The battle with the ego, the fight with the negative tendencies, the destruction of the desires goes on the whole night, that is as long as ignorance lasts. With the rising sun all darkness is dispelled, all ignorance removed, all desires destroyed. Ego, the Narakasura, is killed. Man is transformed to his original Godhead. Ego is another fundamental concept to understand. It is the ego that forms the basis of desires and ignorance. Ego is nothing but our identification with our body and mind. Since we imagine ourselves to be the body-and-mind individual separate from the universe, we feel helpless and lost and miserable.

To compensate for the emptiness we feel within we constantly hanker after objects of this world, wealth, power and fame. In this hectic chasing after the worldly goods, we all but forget the presence of a consciousness behind our body and mind. This consciousness is the light within us, it is the truth within us, and it is the only thing in us that death does not snatch away. Existence becomes a constant celebration when we reach the state of pure consciousness that is devoid of thoughts and desires. Here in this perfect stillness would one discover the supreme meaning and joy of one’s existence.

Ego is the only barrier between us and our own inner consciousness. Once ego is gotten rid of, every day becomes Diwali, a festival of lights. We must also be reminded of the fact that Krishna finally marries all the 16,000 fair damsels. With the death of the ego, our desires are not killed, they only get fulfilled in a better way. However, since such accomplishment cannot be expected of ordinary folks, rich mythologies signifying profound truths are embedded into the mass consciousness, where they get activated from time to time on festive occasions.

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