Diwali: The festival of lights
Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC
I spent the last 10 days of October 2016, visiting my Columban colleagues in the Republic of Fiji. My purpose was to speak about the encyclical Laudato Si.’. While I was there, the Fijian Indian community celebrated Diwali – the Hindu festival of lights.
Fiji is a long way from the Indian subcontinent so many people might ask, why are there so many people of Indian descent in Fiji ? According to the 2007 Fiji census, there are 313,798, people of Indian or Indo-Fijian origin in the country. They account for 37 percent of the total population of the islands. The reason for this is that between 1879 and 1916, thousands of Indian indentured labourers were brought by the British authorities to Fiji to work on sugar cane plantations. When their period of indentured labour was completed, many of these people did not have the money or, often the desire, to return to the India. People of Indian origin have done well in Fiji. Mahendra Chaudhry became the first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister in May 1999.
To return to the feast itself, the term Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit word Dipavali which means lighting a candle in a series of rows. In Hinduism, the feast itself commemorates the story of the victory of Lord Rama and his wife Sita as they returned to their kindgom in northern India after defeating the demon king Ravanna in the 15 century BC. The people showed their delight in this great victory of good over evil by lighting lamps and candles in their houses. The festival also marks the beginning of the New Year in the Hindu calendar so it is a time when the people pray to the Goddess of wealth for happiness and prosperity in their lives during the following year.
Diwali has a communitarian dimension as there is an obligation not only to light lamps in one’s own house, but also to light candls in the houses of those who may not be able to afford the cost of buying them for themselves. This means that the feast of Diwali is a time when the wealthy are called to share with those who are less fortunate in society.
My Columban colleagues in Suva explained the various steps involved in preparing for Diwali. In the run up to the feast, people clean their houses so as to avoid any bad luck during the following year. They welcome the Godess Lamimi into their homes. Those celebrating the festival also light traditional earthen divas (candles). They also decorate their houses with colourful rangoli artworks.
I was particularly struck by the green and red lights of the walls of houses or business. People also light candles in order to indicate that they wish to remove darkness from their own inner or spiritual live. It is a time to make resolutions to let go of some bad habits, negatives thoughts or friends that might lead you astray. Diwali provides the believer with an opportunity to live a life of dharma and virtue.
In 2016, Diwali fell on October 30th . The following day was a public holiday. During Diwali families and friends share specially prepared sweets and food. I am told that, unlike the Feast of Christmas where roast turkey is the traditional meal, in the case of Diwali each family has their own traditional dish which they share with their friends.
In recent decades, fireworks have become very much part of the Diwali festival which takes place around the night of the new moon (Amavasya). Fireworks can be very dangerous, especially in the hands of children. Each year many accidents occur, some very serious and others not so serious. Before a family begins the firework display they need to make sure that there is sufficient amount of water and sand nearly. Better still, if they have access to a fire extinguisher so that any fire which the fireworks might cause can be put out immediately.
The over use of fireworks pollutes the air. A report on the BBC on Diwali in Delhi in 2016 found that air pollution had deteriorated dramatically during Sunday evening and that it posed a real health hazard. As we become more aware of the damage which air pollution causes, Diwali may have to be celebrated with less fireworks in the future.
Finally, Diwali like Christmas has been seriously commercialised. In Fiji in the days before Diwali newspapers were full of advertisements encouraging people to buy cars, trucks, trailers , sophisticated sound systems, fridges, phones etc in order to celebrate Diwali properly. As a result, a festival of light has colonised by big business. Not good for a religious ceremony!