Sunday, October 22, 2006

Light and Dark

I write my sixtieth post to mark Deepawali, the Hindu festival of lights. This year, while watching the preparations for this event, I started thinking about Light and what it means for us. In the process, my over-prosaic mind churned out a bundle of thoughts, which are offered below:

Deepawali is celebrated to mark the homecoming of Ram, the crown prince of ancient Ayodhya, who was exiled for fourteen years. On that evening, which also happened to be amaavasyaa (a moonless night), the people of Ayodhya lit row upon row of deeps (oil lamps) to light his path. Their attempt was to mark their joy by turning night into day. It is on this effort, that the little grey cells are currently focused.

Can any amount of oil lamps generate enough light to make the night seem like day? Even in the present day and age, do electric lights actually generate enough energy to make such an illusion possible? To the best of my knowledge, the answer is in the negative... What this means, therefore, is that the attempt to dispel the darkness is symbolic. It with this symbolism, that I am most impressed as well as inspired.

To my mind, the visual phenomenon of darkness is not of much consequence here. Darkness is the absence of light, nothing more. Without light, the rods and cones of our eyes are unstimulated and the phenomenon of vision does not occur. From a physiological perspective this is obviously very important, but this discussion will not concern itself with the physiological world. Instead, it is the spiritual significance of Deepawali, that presents itself as a particularly delectable morsel for the mind! :)

Darkness, to me, is much more than the troublesome impediment that makes it difficult to find the bathroom door in the middle of the night. It is transitory at best and easily dealt with by turning on a bedside lamp. Real darkness exists not in the external world, but in the human mind. It consists of ignorance, hatred, fear, anger and unhappiness (to name but a few). It is far more persistent and (oddly) unpredictable in its assaults on our sensibilities that its physically manifest cousin. Deepawali, for me, is a symbol of the human pledge to fight and banish this darkness, that lurks in the consciousness of almost every person.

"Tamasoma jyotirgamayah" - "From darkness, take me to light" - is the second part of the ancient Sanskrit prayer to the divine, that asks for human consciousness to be guided towards truth, light and immortality. The light that it asks for is the radiance of knowledge, peace, joy and hope. These are the only weapons that banish darkness from our minds...they are the tools that can permanently achieve the phenomenon of turning night into day.

The way I see it, when Ram returned to his kingdom, his coming was the answer to the prayers of his people, who spent fourteen long years hoping for his return. They lit their lamps to mark the way in which his advent dispelled their sorrow and kindled in its place, the expectation of joyous days ahead. Ram took samadhi in the Sarayu river, thousands of years ago, but the tradition that his homecoming started, remains till today. When we light our lamps, turn on the endless chains of twinkling electric lights and burst lakhs of rupees worth of crackers (which I still think is a senseless waste), we symbolically use light and sound to dispel darkness. The real magic happens within our minds, when we pray for the new year, asking for knowledge abundance, prosperity and joy. We envision ourselves and our loved ones as revelling in these gifts. Our happiness and laughter is powered by these dreams, which is why it effectively pierces the night and spreads the message of Deepawali. On this day, when we are surrounded be people whom we care about...when we give and receive tokens of affection from our friends and relatives, we suddenly become aware of how much happiness we get from the company of these people. Their smiles ease our cares, when necessary their shoulders bear the burden of our tears, and every moment spent with them is a blessing in itself. Which oil lamp can ever match the brightness that they bring to our lives? :)

Yes, darkness is indeed the absence of light. On Deepawali we make a commitment to fight against darkness both within and without. Whilst movements of the sun and the earth make the latter an inescapable phenomenon, we vow to never stray from the path that banishes the darkness of the human mind. In gaining knowledge and spreading knowledge, cherishing our families and friends and doing those little things that speak volumes lies the key to our ultimate enlightenment.

Happy Deepawali to us all! God Bless :)

Sunday, October 01, 2006


The Dhakis walked slowly around the semicircular enclosure, beating their differently tuned drums. In their midst, the devotee began to sway...a lady the world would label as well past her prime...large, overweight, middle-aged, hair coloured with henna to mask the abundance of grey in it. Her fine saree and glittering silver waistband were not enough to conceal the effects of age and maintaining a family, that had left her with but a shadow of what must have been a very striking woman several years ago.

Nevertheless, she hefted the heavy, wide-brimmed clay pots filled with dhuno (a smoking mixtures of camphor, incense, tinder and coconut husk) with the enthusiasm of an eighteen year old and began her dance to the accompaniment of the drummers and the ceaseless ululations of the audience. Her long hair swirled this way and that while beads of perspiration gleamed on her dusky skin. Her hands moved in gentle circles guiding the pots of dhuno in intricate patterns as her feet moved over the enclosure. Age seemed to fall away from her, space and time faltered in their ceaseless vigil as the drummers increased the tempo to a dramatically faster beat. In perfect tandem, the matriarch matched them beat for beat. Now she leaped in the air, her tresses flying behind her, her waistband gleaming like the sun on water, the pots of dhuno creating arcs of smoke along the paths traced by her hands. In apparent defiance of the limitations placed by her own body, this lady spun on the ground, tossed her head proudly almost daring the drummers to try and outdo her. When they finally stopped, she too came to a standstill; her chest rising and falling in deep breaths and her face aglow. Her eyes found the face of the Goddess for whom she had danced and she raised her hands in a gesture of the utmost devotion...

"Dhunuchi", the smoke-dance, is one of the most marvellous aspects of Durga Puja as celebrated by the Bengalis of India. At present, the 5-day Durga Puja is being celebrated by Bengali communities across India and I'm blessed to be living a stone's throw away from one such celebration. The above description is something that I witnessed while attending the festivities of the second day. It is but one example of a number of people, many of them in their late fifties at least, who discarded the trappings of age and status, to partake freely in the attempt to invoke the blessings of Durga through this dance-form.
"Durga" derived from the Sanskrit word durg (for fort), literally means the inaccessible one. She was brought forth with considerable efforts (for a few more details on this, read my post, "The Better Half", dated 30th May 2006) by the most powerful beings who themselves deferred to her. Her power has to be ceaselessly invoked by her devotees and even when she responds to their call, she does not stay with them for very long. She blesses them with exactly what they need and then departs, for her energy is too great to be borne by mortals, beyond the span of a few days.
The form of the Devi presents a contradiction of sorts. We call her "mother" and yet we see her adorned as a warrior, with many hands, each holding a weapon. At her feet lies the demon Mahishasura, grimacing in pain as her trident pierces him. Despite this, in most portrayals her face looks infinitely calm and loving. My point is, this is often, the way a mother is! She wears many 'hats', so to speak. At once, she nurturing, protective, vigilant, receptive, strong, punishing, forgiving etc. The calm look on Durga's face reflects the boundless love she has for her children/devotees. Her armed appearance is a human depiction of the complete power she has to protect us from all evil (each weapon she holds, has a meaning, but we will not get into that here!). The demon at her feet represents the greatest demon of all...the human 'ego'. Durga destroys the demon, just as submitting to her grace automatically quells human pride. The mother is ruthless in this action of slaying the ego, which is the greatest enemy of her children...and you can imagine the challenge of performing this task as the foe exists within her children, not outside them. To simultaneously wreck destruction and run the risk of hurting her child (for his/her own benefit), yet providing an unshakable support to him/her all along the road to recovery...this is the true power of Durga and the often unnoticed prowess of many mothers in this world.
Yesterday when I stood before her, mulling over the handful of ideas mentioned above, I was suddenly hit by wave upon wave of emotion. My tears flowed freely even as I gazed at her face. It was almost as if my entire life until that moment flashed before my eyes...the throngs of other devotees seemed to disappear and only the sounds of the Dhakis' frenzied drumming remained as I looked at her face...
My life, like that of most other individuals has been had its ups and downs. Some of the 'downs' have been pretty bad and many of the 'ups' have been correspondingly marvellous. However, through them all, I've felt something behind me, a stable, unchanging strength that has found a way to keep me centred. That strength, is what I interpret as the power of the Eternal Mother. She has been there for me, even when I didn't recognise her, responding to even my most unconscious calls. Many experiences in life left me considerably humbled, but she was there to make me learn my lesson and evolve from those experiences. People go to temples, often with the intention of asking for something special. When I went there yesterday, there was absolutely nothing I could as for (except a general well-being and happiness for my family and everyone else)...instead, I found myself brimming with thanks for everything that I had been through that had made me a better person. In that moment, I learnt what the Mother is, beyond the trappings of the idol which represents her. I won't forget this in a hurry!
God Bless! :)