Thursday 19th October, 2006

Leela Ramdeen
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The message of Divali

“Kindle the lamp of love

With thy life and devotion.”

—Rabindranath Tagore

On Saturday I will join my Hindu father and our guests as we celebrate Divali, a festival that symbolises light, goodness, reconciliation, peace, harmony and happiness. The word “Divali” is a corruption of the Sanskrit word “Deepavali,” meaning “row of lights.”

Divali gives us an opportunity to celebrate the richness and diversity of T&T. As a Catholic with a Hindu father, I feel privileged to have been involved over the years in a special kind of dialogue with Pa. Indeed, this experience has played a key role in deepening my own faith and in facilitating my inter-faith work/dialogue.

Divali is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. I remember how elated I was in November 1991 when my South African friend, Sheila Singh, gave me a copy of Nelson Mandela’s speech delivered at Divali celebrations at Durban City Hall—21 months after his release from prison. She had played a key role in organising the event. The speech is available on the Internet. Inter alia, Mandela said:

“Divali brings back for me memories of days on Robben Island... Regularly at this time of year we would be visited by Hindu priests. They would come and offer prayers with us and bring with them parcels of sweetmeats. The authorities were insistent that these parcels were only for believers in the Hindu faith. Through our struggles we were able to challenge the authorities on this narrow conception and we insisted that all the embracing philosophies that Hinduism is based on extended a hand to all of humanity.

“The Festival of Divali, the Epic, The Ramayana, which is closely associated with the festival, and the history and significance that are a part of the festival, carry innumerable lessons for us all... Justice, truth, integrity, humility, freedom are values that the Hindu scriptures, like the scriptures of most other religions, espouse.

“We are committed to building bridges and helping to embrace all of humanity under one umbrella and move forward in strength and confidence to a better future. We believe that this is not different from what Hindu scriptures have also been saying...

“At this time of Divali 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 over ignorance, good health and well being over disease and ill health, freedom over bondage. We have to light lamps of thanks giving the enlightenment as we go forward into the future in peace and hope and prosperity.”

This year I missed the 15th annual Divali parade and celebrations in Brent, London. Last Saturday evening Mahogany Arts, a company owned by my brother, Anil (Speedy) and his partner, Clary Salandy, once again played a key role in the celebrations. Mahogany prepares about six floats carrying large hand-made statues of Hindu deities, and 100 or so individuals in costumes carrying deyas etc through the streets. The evening ends with fireworks and a shared meal. People of all faiths participate in the event.

I also missed my visit to Br Daniel Favre, a French Catholic brother who lives in Southall, London. His Divali celebrations are truly inter-faith. One of my dreams is to open a peace centre in T&T. Br Daniel keeps reminding me of this dream. He has committed himself to lecturing at such a centre free of charge. He and I used to have deep discussions based on documents produced by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID).

Many will recall last year’s Divali message to all Hindus sent by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of PCID. His words are still appropriate today. He said:

“At a time when aggressive secularism would seem to be on the increase and respect for basic human values often appears to be on the decline among people of different religions can bring about a new respect for religion in today’s world...Dear Hindu friends, let us continue to collaborate in finding solutions to the problems we face, whether they be small or great, whether local or international.”

There are many traditions, symbols and rituals associated with Divali, eg to honour Mother Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, and to ask her to bestow blessings of health, happiness, peace, prosperity and spiritual upliftment.

The most widely shared tradition is the one that connects the festival with the celebration and rejoicing over the return of Prince Rama (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) to his home, after his 14-year exile in the forest, and his defeat of the oppressive and tyrannical Ravana. Citizens welcomed him by lighting thousands of deyas.

There is a universal message in this story. Today millions of people across the world yearn for justice, for freedom from tyranny and oppression and the hope of living in a world where there is no fear or violence and where they are able to realise their full potential.

The evil Ravana, an effigy of whom is always burnt during our Ramleela celebrations in T&T, established and maintained his rule as a leader by the exercise of fear and violence. He was intent on conquering and imposing his will throughout the world, enslaving others and depriving them of freedom. He prohibited and suppressed the practice of religion. He had no value for the sanctity of human life. The defeat of Ravana by Rama (good over evil) and liberation from oppression are central features of Divali.

Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by the kind of society/world that Rama represented—one that is all-inclusive and committed to the removal of the fundamental sources of human suffering. One in which nations live in peace with each other and human relationships are characterised by love, compassion and generosity.

A Hindu pundit rightly said recently that Rama understood his role as a son, brother, leader, friend, husband, citizen etc. He had a true vision of what a human community looks like when God is recognised as supreme and ultimate. The kingdom of Ravana, on the other hand, reveals what becomes of a community when God is displaced by human tyranny. Ravana’s kingdom was one of hatred, fear, violence, greed, jealousy etc.

Divali, with its struggle between Rama and Ravana—good and evil—reminds us of the daily/perpetual battle that is waged in the human heart to choose good and reject evil. It reminds us of the efforts of those who fight for freedom, justice and to promote human dignity and urges us to join in this struggle. The virtues reflected in the lives of King Dasharath of Ayodhya, Sita, Bharat, Laksman, and Hanuman are worthy of adoption.

Divali has a message of hope and optimism. May the light that is celebrated at Divali show us the way and lead us on the path of peace and social harmony. May God “lead us from untruth to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality. May all be happy. May all be free from misery. May all be filled with goodness.” Happy Divali!

Leela Ramdeen is a lawyer and education consultant








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