What a beautiful festival, the celebration of Lights. The entire nation of India is lit up with diyas (oil lamps), candles, and bulbs, and everything looks gorgeous. There is a festive mood and everyone is busy cleaning homes and work places.
This year it was celebrated on Oct. 19. The date of the festival is set according to the Hindu calendar, and changes every year.
The purpose behind the celebration is to welcome the goddess of wealth (Lakshmi) on the day of Deepawali (or Diwali). Deepawali means, literally, "festival of Lights." According to tradition this is celebrated because Lord Ram (a major deity of Hinduism and the seventh avatar of the god Vishnu) was sent into exile for 14 years but returned to the city of Ayodhaya. The people, filled with joy and delight, lit up the entire city with oil lamps as a sign of welcome.
Yet today, as in every religion, there is a commercialization of religion and I am afraid that most of us are losing the essence of the meaning of these festivals. And with this commercialization there is a competitive element slowly creeping into our minds and hearts. At different points in the town, stalls are erected where the statue of the Goddess of Lakshmi is decorated and where people (especially women) of the area come to perform puja, a prayer ritual.
These stalls are sites for competition and creativity. It is surely a feast for the eyes and as you move by in vehicles you will see people bowing their heads with deep devotion before the deity, and imploring blessings.
Puja is performed by the elder of the family in every Hindu home. This is a sacred moment and every member of the family has to be present for this puja. Puja is also performed in business and work places, imploring the goddess of wealth to bless every enterprise with blessings and prosperity. There is one very valuable practice: the person who performs the puja or those who sit for the puja fasts from grain and eats only fruit. It is another means of purification that prepares one to be filled with the blessings from above. Prasad ("a holy gift" offered during the puja) is offered and exchanged among neighbors and relatives in the form of sweets called laddoos — made of either gram flour or dried fruits.
For us today in India this is a very meaningful festival as we welcome the Light. All religions hold the value of being Lights to light up the paths for each other and to allow the Light within each heart to burst forth and shine.
Dispelling the darkness of illiteracy, ignorance, hatred, enmity, and untruth and welcoming the Light of literacy, love, friendship, and truth is the need of the hour, and calls us to usher in peace and justice.
Since I am living in an apartment with people of all faiths, participating in their celebrations and believing that we are members of one human family, we had a gathering on the terrace with an exchange of sweets and greetings. There was laughter in the air, with children bringing their little packets of fireworks — not firecrackers, as we were trying to encourage them to care for the earth and not pollute the atmosphere.
In addition to the religious significance of the celebration, there is an effort to preserve the pluralistic values which have kept us as one country down the ages. The secular fabric of our country is at stake, and celebrations of this kind bring people of all faiths together and help us to strengthen the bonds of family. It invites us to widen our tents and to become inclusive in our celebrations, worship and life; to welcome the Divine and recognize the Divine in the other.
My prayer during this season is that we as individuals, families, and communities will become Lights to light up the paths of darkness, ignorance, avarice, and hatred. Let the Light within each human heart burst forth and radiate. As we exchange greetings and sweets, let the warmth of our hearts touch the heart of the other, our voices and words be filled with sweetness.
May peace flow into our hearts and overflow among our family and friends and to the entire universe. May health and prosperity enter our homes, our work places! To our entire universe peace, pure air and respect for all living organisms.
As a prayer, I conclude with the mantra "Asatoma Ma Sadgamaya":
asato ma sadgamaya
tamaso ma jyotirgamaya
om shanti shantishanti.
Lead me from untruth to the truth.
Lead me from darkness to light.
Lead me from death to immortality
Om peace, peace, peace.
(Brhadaranyaka Upanishad — I.iii.28)
This is true prayer — the seeker's admission of his sense of limitedness and his heartfelt cry for assistance in transcendence. It is not a prayer for the things of the world. The essence of each of these three mantras is the same: "O, Guru, help me free myself from my sundry misunderstandings regarding myself, the universe and God and bless me with true knowledge."
[Dorothy Fernandes is a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary from India. She presently serves as Vice Provincial of the Indian province while continuing to be deeply engaged with the urban poor of Patna, Bihar.]