N Touch
Tuesday 12 November 2019
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Commentary

Divali: On social responsibility

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When I was a child, the Hindu goddess Lakshmi was a frivolous figure to me, a divinity without much depth. So, as bedtime prayer, I recited the mantra associated with her as rote, without much focus but simply as a matter of inclusion, since I was also told that she was a jealous goddess and must be worshipped before Saraswati and Durga.

I didn’t see the point of her worship in that case but didn’t question it at the time. Instead I did the usual, remained silent and followed the path I felt most useful to my own tendencies. I would wait until a time that someone would appear with a sensible explanation.

Lakshmi, in popular dialogue, is associated with prosperity, money and health. As a young child looking on at adults, it seemed that more emphasis was placed on the former two. Health, for a young child, was meaningless. Given society’s tendency to emphasise material wealth but at the same time vilify it, the child’s mind developed an aversion to the deity who represented an idea that, from all angles seemed negative. I couldn’t understand her importance except that material wealth, money, was important to people’s well-being, though it was equally corrupting. But I put down her inclusion to the Hindu recognition of differences in people. I wasn’t a Lakshmi person, I reasoned.

Lakshmi was, however, generally important in Hindu daily life. There was the rule of no sweeping of the home after 6 pm because this would sweep away the potential money and prosperity that were to enter your home. The Hindu lit a deya at 6 pm every day or switched on the lights because lights welcomed Lakshmi into her home. Six pm was an important time for Hindus and many of us followed these practices. Despite my Lakshmi ignorance, I enjoyed the practice of lighting a deya at 6 pm.

My father had constructed for me a little wooden deya house, with fancy windows on two walls, painted in white, the roof made of metal sheeting and painted red. It was a pretty house, large enough to hold one photograph of the goddess imprinted on a wooden plaque, a bottle of coconut oil, matches and a deya. I was a stickler for time, running downstairs to ensure that I was ready at 5.55 to strike the match in time for 6 pm. This practice started from the time I was at least six and continued until the deya house and my wooden plaque rotted, with rain beating in through the windows and eventually rotting the floor of the house. After that, deyas went indoors.

But the memory remained and came to take a different meaning as the meaning of Lakshmi unfolded over the years.

I lit many deyas after the decay of the deya house. I light the deyas now, not because I believe that they welcome Lakshmi but because they remind me of my creative potential. I do not consider myself a religious individual. I engage with ideas not dogmas. And so, the act of fixing the wick into a deya, pouring the oil, moistening the tip of the wick with the oil, matches in hand, we prepare to light the wick – this is a process that presents moments of stillness. In each moment, there is an increased sense of awareness of one’s place within a small world and a larger one.

Wealth, prosperity and health took a different form as knowledge expanded. Lakshmi, the jealous goddess, or rather the independent spirit, is a sustaining power of the creative energy in my own reading. She is presented as the sustainer, along with her counterpart Vishnu. Her historical development will perhaps provide more, on which I am not at the moment equipped to comment. Lakshmi nurtures. She is responsible for the well-being of all creation and this responsibility encourages awareness of the interdependence of all things.

I ponder this as I think of our Divali celebrations today as we prepare to enjoy the evening in the company of family and friends. That as much as we are all in celebratory spirits, we are also not the only ones entitled to this enjoyment. While individuals spend hundreds and thousands on fireworks, the elderly, those with mental health issues, and dogs are traumatised year after year. I find it an irony that in an event that celebrates the privilege of life, such distress should be meted out to living beings who are all a part of the very energy that makes Divali possible.

As a Divali wish this year, it is a deep hope that we proceed with the awareness that while we are all independent entities, we also have a responsibility towards other’s well-being.

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