Nov 25, 2007

Mystery of Diwali festival-II

by Nandkumar Kamat

The origins of Diwali are shrouded in human cultural evolution. Diwali as practiced by the Hindus and Jains –the two most ancient religious systems in the world is basically a celebration of the cosmos, the cosmic energy and the cosmic fire. Other origins are also possible and these are non mythological. I would tell about the wonder and fascination of the starlit night sky which I experienced like a vision on the Diwali night as a child. I was just eight years old. Electricity had not reached our village. My mother sent me to purchase some milk bottles early in the morning. When I reluctantly came out of the house, I was stunned to see a celestial river of stars crossing the night sky overhead. Little did I know that it was our own milky way. It was a moonless night. The starlit bright sky filled my mind with awe.

I returned from the milk booth in a celestial trance. The image has lingered on mind even today. Now imagine the experience of humans in a monsoon washed country like India after the night sky opens out and the milky way makes itself visible in all its’ grandeur and glory. Diwali is the first moonless night after the end of the south west monsoon in India. People fascinated with the cosmic vision of stars celebrated this night by lighting lamps, as if to pay tribute to the shining, gleaming stars. Diwali is therefore a festival of stars, a festival for milky way, a festival which symbolically expresses man’s desire to be like the stars. Another explanation of Diwali which comes to mind and seems logical is the human discovery of fire. The first humans stepped in India at least half a million years ago. In Europe use of fire was prevalent 400000 years ago. In Africa, new evidence suggests that fire could have been used about 1.6 million years ago. That means Homo erectus who entered India came with the knowledge of fire probably brought from Africa. The last ice age ended some ten thousand years ago.

The Earth is now in an interglacial period known as the Holocene. This may last anywhere from 12 to 28 thousand years. Humans would not have survived during the severe ice age without fire-a source of energy and warmth. The ancient Indo-european system of ‘sacred fire’ the ‘agni’ , the rituals of sacrificial yadnyas and the very institution of sacred firekeepers-the Agnihotris are subsequent developments. The Ancient Greeks created the myth that fire was a gift of one of the Titans, Promotheus, to the humans. The myth says that Prometheus was punished by the gods for releasing the secret of fire to men. Vedic Indians worshipped Savita and Agni-both symbolising light, energy, radiance. There is no dispute about the sequence of human colonisation in the Indian sub-continent. First came the Negritoes, followed by the Austric speakers.

Then followed the Dravidians and Indo-European settlers. Finally the sino-tibetans reached from the east. Hinduism and Jainism are now practiced by all these racial elements. But in celebrating Diwali all are united on one theme-the collective memory of survival through the ice ages. It was fire which made it possible. So lighting the lamps is again symbolically recalling the harsh days of the continental human migrations before a stable sanctuary was found. The five day Diwali festival begins with Dhan trayodashi or Dhan teras. Dhan stands for ‘Dhanvantari’, the god of health. It also means the material wealth. The day is associated with the discovery of the ayurvedic knowledge. It is a material upkeep and maintenance day in anticipation of Diwali. Next to follow is Narak chaturdashi. Narak stands for hell. Ice age was a hell for the mankind. Narak stands for evil and impure thoughts. Narak stands for darkness and ignorance. Hinduism and Jainism believe in supreme enlightenment.

Energy , light and radiance is considered to be a sign of knowledge and enlightenment. Although the modern version has become absolutely mythological and ritualistic-Narak chaturdashi was originally meant to purify the minds by killing the evil thoughts. The next day is devoted to the goddess of wealth-Laxmi. This is real Diwali. Diwali celebrates human enlightenment. India did not worship poverty. Lighting of lamps past midnight indicate the transition from spiritual state to the material world. One simple and unexplained ritual is consumption of the bitter juice of a wild cucurbit –, locally known as ‘karit’ (cucumis melo var agrestis ) a close relative of musk melon (chibud) after the bath.

The medicinal principles of this juice are known. This ritual is rooted in domestication of economically useful plants of cucurbitaceae family. Ancient farmers discovered the knowledge of cultivating edible cucurbitaceae. This expanded their food base. During Diwali the Karits are abundantly available in wild. These fruits are harvested and crushed. In this ritual there is a symbolic recognition of the usefulness of plants of cucurbitaceae family. The antiviral and medicinal properties of Karit have been discovered recently. Perhaps the bitter juice may hold remedies for diabetes and intestinal parasites. The worship of goddess Laxmi on Diwali day is also a tribute to planet earth and her biosphere. All wealth on this planet flows from the bounties of the biosphere. Material wealth is often a derivatised product of biological wealth.

The third day ‘Bali pratipada’ hides ancient memories of subjugation of the Dravidian rule and the expansion of the Indo-European colonisers in the south. The legend of the fifth reincarnation of lord Vishnu-Vamana has to be contrasted with the legends of Mahabali or Maveli in Kerala and the old Tamil kingdom of Mahabalipuram. The legend of King Bali is still shrouded in the mist of history. But the ritual of worshipping the cattle shows that it was an important day for the pastoral communities. The last day of Diwali is yamadwitiya, also known as ‘Bhau bij’. Primitive societies were not careful about inbreeding. The Vedic society imposed strict ethical standards against incestuous relationships. Yamadwitiya marks that day-the beginning of a new healthy relationship between siblings of opposite sex based on mutual trust and security. The five day Diwali festival thus captures all the threads of our spiritual, cultural, material and ethical evolution. Happy Diwali. (concluded)

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