On Diwali evening I met Z–, who wanted to see the festival lights, and wanted to know about Diwali, karma and reincarnation. I had to think very hard and very fast in order to condense and simplify to foreign ears the essence of a culture and civilization. I will reproduce below more or less what I told her in another attempt to think through the plaits of meaning and vigor that I hoped to convey. Did I say something wrong or omit something fundamental? Was it all half-baked? I hope, if anything, my faults were of the latter kind.
I told her that Diwali or Deepawali is literally the "Festival of Lights," celebrated in some way or another all across India in all Hindu communities, although the specific rituals and ways of worship would vary across linguistic and geographical communities. Some celebrate it over four days, some over one or two; some privilege the worship of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, and also fertility and the creative principle (as symbolized by the Lotus, the icon for the ‘yoni’; and that makes sense of why the daughter-in-law is called the ‘grihalakshmi’); some worship Kali, the Great Mother who illumines by sweeping away illusions about the dual nature of the world (revealing life and death to be one, by revealing all things to be one at the root, she saves through enlightenment). I told her the myth of Rama’s return to a lamp-lit Ayodhya. Regardless of who the people worship, this festival, like all Indian festivals, remains a socio-religious-cultural occasion where people come together as a community to celebrate togetherness. I said, too, that most Indian festivals are public and familial occasions of joy, music, dance and food; the tendency is not to celebrate alone.
Dharma: My gentle interlocutor asked me about Dharma and Karma. I told her that Dharma is the code of ethics that every individual is asked to live by. These ethics are not a set of commandments punishable by religion and law, as, for example, the Ten Commandments, but more like injunctions to responsibility in action towards one’s multiple roles and affiliations as an individual, family member, member of a social /national group, etc. Your duty is contingent on your context, as the Gita implicitly states. There can be no absolutes, and that’s what the Mahabharata –a story of civil war, internecine war, fratricidal war–is all about. And yet one must decide on the right course.
As S. Radhakrishnan points out in his explication of The Gita, the opening words of the Gita, ‘dharmakshetre, kurukshetre,’ symbolize the practicable essence of Hindu metaphysics and philosophy. Radhakrishnan says: "The world is dharmaksetra, the battleground for a moral struggle. The decisive issue lies in the hearts of men where the battles are fought daily and hourly…It is…karmabhumi" ( p.79).
I based my little Socratic dialogue with Z– on the interpretation above, but I believe I also added to Radhakrishnan’s meaning, as I will try to explicate below.
The intersection of time/Time and space/Cosmos: It is true that the real battleground is the field of dharma, located in every person’s heart at every moment. But, I think the real battle is not between good and evil, it is between right and wrong. That’s why the Mahabharata is about dharma and action, and the kurukshetra is the mythical battlefield where Arjun, the prototype and the hero, falters when he has to decide what he must do.
The binary of good/evil supposes the material world to be more passive and receptive to the play of energy, whereas the other binary of right/wrong enjoins individual decision in the material plane. There is a subtle and crucial difference in the two visions of how the physical and metaphysical play with each other; and it is related to the differential ideas of The Last Judgment and moksha, ‘lila,’ free will and fate, character and destiny, among others [to be taken up in a later post or two, perhaps].
Arjuna faces his own kin, who he has opposed for so long, who he believes have done wrong; but when he is faced with his teachers, his elders, his family, he cannot act as his duty as a warrior asks him to do and kill them in fair battle. It is then that Krishna, avatar of Vishnu the Preserver, reveals himself as the godhead; time stops and the Gita is uttered.
Krishna essentially tells Arjun that it is his duty to act as his moral and ethical code demand; there are many affiliations and clauses contingent on his actions, but he must decide on what will uphold the highest moral order. He is not just an individual with uncles and sons, he is also the representative of social order, and the archetype of man. The injunction is to act, not to renounce action; to act with full consciousness of effect and responsibility, yet to understand that one cannot control the outcome of all action and that one may not therefore receive the fruits of labor one wishes for. And then the battle resumes, after the metaphysical has been interpreted into the physical/earth.
The principle of Karma: At every moment, each of us is faced with choices and dilemmas. At every moment we must make decisions. There is no option but to act, because if we do not actively choose, choices are made for us or get made by default. The conditions at each moment are the effects of decisions we have made in the past, and the conditions of the future will be born out of the decisions we make now. That is the principle of karma: we inherit the past and engender the future, individually, at every moment. Our task in each life is to make wilful choices to bring about a better future. One cannot be absolved of wrongdoing by another human being and instantly become eligible for heaven again. One has to reverse the causal chain through deliberate choices over time. Reincarnation enables redemption, yet the law is always that you shall receive as you give. The aim is to attain a state of enlightenment which will release us from thinking in dualities and into the fulfilment of the purpose of life.
Time and cyclic time: The choice is always ours, and individual. The battleground lies within us, and the battle is decided at every moment, over and over again. It does not cease, and therefore we cannot abandon our duty to act responsibly at every moment. That responsibility, the code, and the mode of action we follow constitutes our dharma. Dharamarajas and avatars have been men (and there have been exemplary women, too) who have been upheld as exemplary because they followed this code through personal decisions for the sake of the welfare of the entire social group. Dharma obeys universal principles, but each individual’s dharma is different, dependent on what that person’s context is like. All that is asked of us at any moment is to act as best as we think.
Therein lies the fundamental difference from the Western monotheistic concepts of free will and fate. Hinduism is often viewed as fatalistic. I would argue that it is more of a pragmatic philosophy of life, of how to get through this world keeping in mind that we are humans and not saints.
Worthy goals of life: There lies the admissibility of the goals of Artha and Kama as well as Dharma and Moksha in the Hindu vision of life. It is important to have money to be able to fulfil your duty as a family person, as father and mother etc. It is lawful to enjoy conjugal bliss. But all these goals ultimately aim at the harmonious existence of the individual within the social framework, and then, the individual release into the spiritual salvation that each deserves and in effect makes for him/her self.
The underlying metaphysical unity: The festival season from September to November is a series of celebrations of the principle of victory–all celebrate light over darkness and the restoration of order after severe disorder. Navaratri, Durga Puja, Kali Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Dussehra…all are metaphors and manifestations of the same cyclic principle of hope for the victory of right over wrong, the beneficial over the destructive [I argue that it is not good over evil]. Each celebrates the creative and the feminine principle; each accepts the necessity and perpetuity of this cycle of victory. What is more, each festive tradition accepts that right and wrong (Durga and Asura) are both manifestations of the same centripetally directed underlying spiritual principle (as one of the websites below points out).
I also sent her these websites about Durga:
http://www.exoticindiaart.com/durga.htm (an interesting perspective about the metaphysical significance of Durga)
http://www.calcuttaweb.com/puja/index.shtml (the tradition in the state of Bengal, where I come from)
http://www.calcuttaweb.com/puja/legends.shtml ( facts and legends)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durga (the wikipedia site, which is how most of the world knows about it)
Z–, a tentative neophyte in the Jewish faith, commented on how curious it is that so many religions (Judaism, Islam, as well as Hinduism) celebrate similar principles through their festivals around this time. To my mind, it is ironic reminder of how much we need to remember together.