I write this column in the period between Dussehra and Diwali, just as the last Ravans go up in flames, and as we brace ourselves for the festivities associated with the festival of lights. Since I married into a Gujarati family, Diwali has taken on a greater poignancy for me, as the start of new beginnings, because it marks the Gujarati New Year.
But even as I wait for the assorted ‘Saal Mubaraks’ to roll in from all over the world (seriously, is there any country in the world which doesn’t host a member of our extended clan?) and start the deep-cleanse of the house that is an essential preparation for Diwali, I find that my thoughts keep returning to Dussehra, and its ritual immolation of evil, in the shape of that ten-headed monster, Ravan. And that leads me inexorably to the origins of these festivals: the story of the Ramayan.
These days, the Ramleela is the most visible reminder of those origins. Dussehra marks the defeat of Ravan (evil incarnate) by Ram, Lakshman and the Vanar Sena (the forces of good). And Diwali is meant to remind us of their triumphant homecoming to Ayodhya, when the entire kingdom celebrated by lighting diyas. And yes, no crackers were destroyed in the celebration of this festival. It was the festival of lights, remember? Not the festival of noise.
Things have changed since the era when that epic story was first told. Now, even in the run-up to Diwali, the crackers get louder and louder. And the festival itself has become more and more commercialised, till it resembles nothing more than an ode to conspicuous consumption (‘Buy a new fridge!’ ‘Gift your wife a diamond!’ ‘Buy gold for your daughter!’ ‘Get yourself a new car!’ The exhortations go on and on and on).
In all this frenzy of buying, buying, buying, we seem to have lost sight of the festival’s origins and its significance in our calendar, even though Dussehra, with its symbolic destruction of evil, should remind us of how it all began. But no, we are too distracted by the shiny objects being dangled in front of us to pay much attention to the myths, the stories, and the lessons they have to teach us.
But can I draw your attention away from the mega-sale in that electronics showroom for a moment and focus on the festivals themselves, both of which remind us of the power of the Ramayan, India’s greatest epic in its depth and sweep. Like the best of Hinduism, this epic can be read on so many levels: as a religious text; as a morality tale; as an adventure story; or even as the kind of mythological saga that enthralls schoolchildren.
Yes, yes, I know, it is not exactly a feminist tale. The fate of Sita and the behaviour of Ram towards her seems very problematic to us, from our 21st century perspectives. But epics like the Ramayan are rooted in the times when they were first created, so critiquing them from a modern perspective is, well, foolish and pointless, to say the least.
But feminist objections apart, I sometimes wonder if we realise how much the Ramayan still impacts our everyday lives. Hindus will, of course, recognise the festivals that emerge out of the Ramayan tradition: Ram Navami, Hanuman Jayanti, Dussehra, and of course, Diwali. But even today, we use the phrase ‘Ram Rajya’ to mean an ideal state, which looks after the interests of every citizen.
Sadly, the Ramayan myth hasn’t always had a positive impact on our politics. It was the conflict over the Ram tradition, and controversy about where Lord Ram was born, that led to one of the most divisive agitations of our time: the battle over the Babri Masjid and the Ramjanmabhoomi. The demolition of the Masjid led to riots all across the country, and the wounds suffered at that time have yet to heal.
But put aside the commercialisation of the Diwali and the divisive politics over Ram and think back to the beauty of that legend and you realise how much the Ramayan is integral to our ancient cultural traditions. I was reminded of this recently when I saw scenes from the Ramayan drawn on the walls of temples in Cambodia, dating back to the 10th century. And, of course, versions of the Ramayan story can be found in Bali, Thailand, and much of East Asia.
In many of these countries, the Ramayan no longer has much religious significance. But it has become part of the cultural heritage they share with India. The main roads in Bangkok, for instance, have some variation of Ram in their names (Rama V or Rama VI) while the Thai kings themselves take on the Rama name. In that sense, the Ramayan is a reminder of how Indian culture has spread through the world.
And yet, as I hear the pre-Diwali crackers starting up, I wonder if we in India, amidst the glitz and the noise, have lost sight of the essential message of the Ramayan: that where there is evil, it is our job to fight it. And that eventually, no matter how great the trials and tribulations, good will always triumph.
In the troubled times we live in, that is a message worth recalling. As long as we fight the good fight, good will always win.
From HT Brunch, November 1
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