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Diwali for everyone

Jagjit Singh
Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In the sky there sounded

the lovely drums of the gods

and there blew a pleasant wind

bearing a heavenly fragrance.

Tulsi Das translated by Basham.

ASIDE from warm tropical climate and friendly people, the diverse religious beliefs also contribute to the quality of life in Fiji. While in many parts of the world, religious beliefs cause much human suffering; in Fiji diversity of religious beliefs contribute to happiness and wellbeing. One such religious practice is the Festival of Lights or in short Diwali.

Story of Diwali

Diwali is celebrated to mark the return of Lord Rama from banishment (banwas). It symbolises victory over evil and oppression. Most Hindus use this religious practice for cleansing their lives of evil desires and thoughts with prayers to the goddess Latchmi accompanied with the lighting of diya and candles.

In order to place these beliefs and practices in perspective, it would be appropriate to discuss the critical elements of Ramayana. The story of Ramayana is focused on the life of Lord Rama, who, according to Indian epistemological and ontological accounts, was the reincarnation of Hindu gods Vishnu and Krishna.

Rama is believed to have lived in the eighth and seventh century BC.

The legend of Lord Rama begins with King Dasaratha of Kosala who had four sons by his three wives. The sons were: Rama, Bharata, Laksmana and Satrughna. The four attended the court of King Janaka of Videha, where Rama won the hand of Janaka's daughter, Sita, at an archery contest. Rama and Sita were married and, for a time, lived happily at the court of Dasaratha.

As Dasaratha grew old he named Rama as the heir; but his second queen, Kaikeyi, intervened and (out of jealousy) demanded the banishment of Rama and the installation of her own son, Bharata as heir apparent. Dasaratha and Bharata both demurred, but Rama insisted on his father fulfilling a longtime promise to his stepmother and went into voluntary exile with Sita and his brother Laksmana. When Dasaratha died, Bharata took over the kingdom, but only as regent for the exiled Rama. Meanwhile Rama, Sita and Laksmana dwelt as hermits in the forest of Dandaka, where Rama destroyed many demons who were harassing ascetics and villagers. Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, decided to avenge his fallen kinsmen, and, while Rama and Laksmana were on a hunting expedition, came to their hermitage in the guise of an ascetic, seized Sita and carried her off to Lanka in his aerial car (vimana). The brothers searched far and wide for Sita and enlisted the help of Sugriva, the king of the monkeys, and his general, the brave and loyal Hanumant. Hanumant went in search of Sita and, leaping over the straits, at last found her in Ravana's palace. With the aid of a great army of monkeys and bears, Rama built a causeway of stones across the sea to Lanka. After a fierce battle Rama, Laksmana and their allies slew Ravana and rescued Sita.

Sita had been treated with respect by her captor and had in no way yielded to his blandishments. But she had dwelt under the roof of another man, and Rama, in accordance with the Sacred Law, could do nothing but repudiate her. She threw herself on a funeral pyre, but the fire-god Agni refused to accept her. After this proof of her innocence she was reunited with Rama, and the two returned to Ayodhya, where Bharata renounced the throne and Rama was crowned, to rule long and righteously.

An interesting sequel to the story was the growing prejudice, as well as misgivings about Sita's lawful status after her unwilling residence in her captor's house. The people murmured because their queen had been forced to break her marriage vows, and suspicions as to her purity were not allayed, despite her ordeal by fire. Although he was convinced of her innocence, Rama, whose first duty was to "please the people", was forced to banish her. She took refuge in Valmiki's hermitage, where she gave birth to twins, Kus and Lo. Years later Rama found Sita again, and acknowledged her sons. As final proof of her innocence she called on Mother Earth to swallow her. The earth opened and she disappeared. After his earthly existence, Rama returned to heaven, and resumed the form of god Vishnu.

Practice of Diwali in Fiji

The return of Rama after 14 years of self-imposed exile from Ayodhya is celebrated with Diwali and Ram Lila. Diwali, as practised in Fiji, is a four-day affair, usually celebrated during the new moon of October-November.

On the first day, Hindus light two diya, one of which is taken around the house and left outside or in the toilet to rid the home of evil spirits. The second diya is generally kept lit for three days within the house. On the second day, Hindus light diya and candles both inside and outside their homes. On Diwali Day itself, Hindus avoid spending money in the belief that such indulgent behaviour would then continue throughout the year. During the Diwali festivities, Hindus abstain from eating meat or drinking alcohol.

In addition to Diwali, the story of Rama's life is also dramatised with Ram Lila. Today, however, it is celebrated in the rural towns dominated by Indian cane farmers and their families. The celebration takes place over a period of nine days on private school grounds or public parks. While the core of Ram Lila is the rehearsal of the Ramayana accompanied with the play depicting Rama's life, the grounds attract people of all races to buy Indian sweets and or to play games of chance.

A survey on Diwali and Ram Lila showed this is relatively more popular among females and unmarried Hindu youths in rural areas.

Concluding remarks

Aside from the belief that Rama was a reincarnation of Vishnu, it seems that Hindus derive much satisfaction and happiness from the getting-together, lighting candles, indulging in fireworks exchanging sweets and so forth.

Perhaps another factor that contributes to the high satisfaction/happiness levels of Hindus is that there is a public holiday to celebrate this event. In this respect, Fiji is one of the few countries where the Indian diaspora enjoy Diwali with a holiday.

* Jagjit Singh is a frequent writer for The Fiji Times. These views are solely his and not of any organisation he is affiliated with. He can be contacted on dasangh_j@yahoo.com.