It’s the festive time in India and festivals are lining up one after the other. It’s Diwali time, Diwali being the colonial version of Deepavali which means ‘rows of lamps’. The significance of this festival is in the innumerable traditional earthen oil lamps that are lighted up across the country on Diwali evening. Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, is supposed to visit the houses of her devotees on this day. This is also celebrated as the day when King Ram, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, returned to his palace at Ayodhya with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman, after slaying the demon king Ravan. The people of Ayodhya had lighted lamps across the kingdom to mark his return. But Diwali is not a one-day festival like all the other festivals in India. It is celebrated for five days, and Diwali is celebrated on the third day.
This is the tradition I grew up in, and as common sense and logic started forming in my mind, I started wondering about the logic behind all the festivals across religions. If Lakshmi the Goddess of wealth was visiting the houses of all her devotees, no Hindu would be poor and struggling to make his/her ends meet. Ayodhya, as the birthplace of Ram, has long been a contentious issue—because no clear material evidence of either his or the existence of his city has been found yet. Does this make me an atheist and a non-believer of Hinduism and Hindu beliefs? On the contrary, I have only been trying to separate logic from narratives.
Diwali is celebrated on New Moon day when the Sun and Moon appear together in the Libra constellation between October and November. Libra is the sign which is supposedly auspicious for business and professional lives. On the day of New Moon, the sun is at its weakest and moon does not have any powers according to the astrology. The darkness is supposedly the time when malefic forces gain strength and affect humanity adversely. In olden times, there were only oil lamps to light up in darkness. So oil lamps were lighted in all houses to ward off evil forces and also to usher in prosperity because of the positioning of Sun and Moon in the Libra constellation.
So this is how the tradition of lighting lamps on New Moon day between October and November started, and celestial changes were the reason behind it. Then what is the connection with Goddess Lakshmi and Ram? If people were told to light lamps by explaining the movement of Sun and Moon from one constellation to another and its effects on us, none of us would either understand it or care to light lamps. But associate it with divinity and the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, and the situation changes completely. Oil lamps have been replaced with electric bulbs, and we always have light now. The Goddess has never walked into any Hindu’s house till now, and none of us is expecting her either. But we still light oil lamps on Diwali evening nevertheless even after thousands of years from the time the tradition took its roots. This is the power narratives have over us.
Ram returning to Ayodhya and the lighting up of the city is another powerful narrative. I do not have the knowledge to dismiss it as mere story authoritatively. An epic cannot be built around an individual without his/her existence at some point in time. All of it cannot be the fantasy of some writer. But the question of logic props its head up again with questions. Ram and Lakshman supposedly travelled from north India to the southern tip and then crossed over to Sri Lanka to rescue Ram’s wife Sita from the clutches of the demon king Ravan, and the journey has been written in great detail.
We have to wonder if anyone did take up the journey along with them and write it all down or were the details added into the epic over the course of thousands of years. The narrative of Ram’s return and Ayodhya getting illuminated could be true, but then, the question is, what about the tradition that was created around Sun and Moon moving to Libra constellation and all of that? Did the tradition come first or Ram’s return? Logically, I will go with tradition. Ram’s killing of Ravan could be seen as the metaphor for the victory of light over darkness, or he may well have chosen to return on a particular day because of its traditional significance.
Christmas is another festival that has fascinated me to very similar levels. I thought nothing about it until I read about how Emperor Constantine decided to integrate Christianity into Rome from his death bed. All the numerous sects of Christians existing at that time assembled at Rome and from the hundreds of Gospels, four were chosen to ultimately create the New Testament which came to be called the Bible. Then I read about the tradition of winter solstice getting celebrated even thousands of years back before the time of Jesus and how Romans used to celebrate for a week in honor of Saturn God who was called Saturnalia. The last day of Saturnalia was celebrated on December 25 with exchanging gifts and lots of merriment.
So what is the significance of celebrations in the honor of Saturn God? Every celestial body in the near and distant vicinity of the earth affects it with gravitational and electromagnetic forces. But why Saturn? Recent research may point to Saturn being a star in the distant past which got reduced to a brown star when it lost all its energy and became a planet when it came under the influence of Sun. Many ancient civilizations seem to have worshipped Saturn as the Sun. This finding seems to be credible because, in ancient Indian texts, Saturn (Shani) is referred to as the son of Sun (Surya), which essentially means Saturn was created by the Sun. No one would have had guessed about its true meaning even remotely without the knowledge of Saturn being an ancient star.
In Indian astrology, Saturn is considered to be a tough taskmaster. Its appearance and movement in a person’s astrological chart are meant to transform the person’s personality and behavior. For example, if the person is used to splurging money, he will be forced to tighten up his trouser’s belt and made to survive to teach him the importance of wealth which is symbolic of how the Sun appeared in Saturn’s journey and reduced it from a star to a planet.
Again the question comes to believing in celebrating the significance of a celestial event or believing in the narrative of the birth of Christ. Logically, I will go with tradition again. Here too, I am no one to question or disbelieve about the birth of Christ. With time, what would we celebrate? A celestial event or the birth of the proponent of a religion? I would rather like to believe that Christ was indeed born on the day, which is considered auspicious and has been celebrated for thousands of years.
All of these signify that every festival we celebrate has a celestial significance associated with it irrespective of religions and communities. Most Hindu festivals are so old that it is no longer possible to find the true celestial events for which they are celebrated because the narratives about them have overlapped the events with passage of time. Vishu and Onam are two harvest festivals in Kerala. Vishu is celebrated in April before the onset of monsoon season and Onam in August/September towards the latter half of the monsoon season.
Vishu is considered to be the new year for Keralites (and for the rest of south India), but the tradition of Onam is steeped in the legend of demon king Mahabali who was banished into the underworld by Vishnu and came to meet his people once every year during Onam. The celebration of Onam begins 10 days in advance, and the Onam festival itself is for four days. I am quite sure there is some celestial event associated with such long drawn festivities, but the image of Mahabali is so strongly imprinted on the festival’s history that I am unable to ascertain what lies in its background.
We start celebrations for most of the festivals with a particular observation of the Sun or Moon or based even on astrological star positions as declared by religious leaders without understanding why. The ancient people who studied celestial events had extremely advanced knowledge which is what led them to start celebrating the events. The positions of celestial bodies must have definitely changed in the thousands or even millions of years since the traditions started—so we no longer know how relevant the traditions are now. So, is it possible that older traditions are getting repackaged by creating newer ones so that the celestial events continue to be observed and celebrated?
I see narratives about traditions as the best way to control our minds and thoughts. The Babri Masjid was brought down by a mob that was incited into destruction under the belief that Ayodhya is the venerated place of Ram. Now Ram is considered to be the ideal man (uthama purusha) with regards to his character, personality, devotion towards his family and people, righteousness and in performing his duties among many other things. But he had his fallibility as well. His life story has been used to exemplify how we can make our lives perfect. Then how is building a temple in his name and praying before his idol going to make us ideal human beings like him? Would such an ideal person want himself to be restricted to an idol in a temple or would he want us to learn from his life and make our lives better?
No one is asking these questions, which is the measure of controlling the narratives representing the traditional beliefs have over us. The Vatican had incited the English and French kings to start the Crusades to invade and capture Jerusalem with the narrative that Jerusalem, the holy land and birthplace of Jesus was flowing with milk and honey. When the Crusaders reached Jerusalem, they found only a barren land with heat and dust. The true purpose behind initiating the Crusades is still obscure, but the entire Middle East is still in its throes even after so many centuries. Muslim countries are in conflict among one another, and Israel is in conflict with Muslim countries. But why are the U.S. and other western countries involved in the conflict there?
It’s not that I do not believe in festivals. I love the festivities and all the food that gets made even though I am not a foodie. What is amazing is how passionately people celebrate festivals, especially in north India. But this passion is being exploited by business establishments with offers and discounts to the point where people are even taking loans to buy goods for themselves and to gift to relatives and friends. The purpose of celebrating festivals has shifted far away from celestial events. In spite of having higher intelligence to think critically, we are still allowing ourselves to be shepherded and controlled in the name of Gods and narratives.