Across Traditions and Texts, Bringing Light to Darkness

November 8, 2018
Anne E. Monius
Anne E. Monius, Professor of South Asian Religions / Photo: Justin Knight

Anne Monius, Professor of South Asian Religions at HDS, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on November 8, 2018.

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Reading from the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, Yuddha-kaṇḍa or “Book of War,” chapter 127:

The good citizens of the city of Ayodhyā prepare to welcome their king, Rāma, and his wife, Sītā, back to the city after 14 long years of exile.

"Let men of good conduct offer worship to their family-deities, let them construct sanctuaries in the city with sweet-smelling flowers and to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Let bards well-versed in singing praises and ancient stories, all those proficient in the use of musical instruments, courtesans all gathered together, the queen-mothers, ministers, soldiers and their wives, priests accompanied by warriors, leaders of guilds of traders and artisans, and also their full guild membership, come out to see the gorgeous, moon-like countenance of Rāma. Let the holes in the streets leading to Ayodhyā be repaired. Let the rough and the uneven places be made smooth. Let the entire ground be sprinkled with water. Let others strew it with parched grains and flowers. Let the streets in Ayodhyā, that most excellent city, be adorned with flags. Let the dwellings on the road-side be decorated at dawn. On the main royal highway, let hundreds of men strew five fragrant colors and rows of garlands, as well as flower petals."

In the rich festival calendar of India and broader South Asia, this is the season of light, Dīpāvalī or Diwali, commemorating in North India the return of righteous King Rāma (said to be one-half the great god, Viṣṇu) to his capital city after 14 long years of exile, years filled with suffering, separation, pain, bloody battle, and eventual hard-won triumph. Devout Hindus in northern India celebrate by lighting rows of clay lamps to light Rāma’s path back to his beloved city and its citizens, drawing him along through the darkness. In India, of course, no holiday season generates only one set of stories and meanings. In southern India (where I do my work), Dīpāvalī celebrates the great god Kṛṣṇa’s vanquishing of an evil demon-king. In western India, the festival marks the day that Lord Viṣṇu sent the demon King Bali to rule the nether world. Yet Hindus alone do not claim this important season in the annual calendar. For India’s Jain communities, Diwali marks the enlightenment of the great Jina, Mahāvīra, in the sixth century, BCE, while for Sikhs it commemorates the sixth Sikh guru’s—Guru Hargobind—release from imprisonment in the seventeenth century. Still others associate the holiday with Lakṣmī, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and Diwali marks the beginning of a new fiscal year. In eastern India, the festival celebrates Kālī, the fierce great goddess who oversees all aspects of the universe, from creation and birth to destruction and death.

What all of these many traditions and stories have in common is a single theme:  the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, care and compassion over neglect and abuse. For many Hindus, the Diwali season marks one of the boy-god Kṛṣṇa’s most miraculous acts:  the shielding of his humble, cow-herding friends and family from a torrential downpour by lifting an enormous mountain with the crook of his little finger to act as mammoth umbrella. Divine action, in other words, to shelter the poorest and most marginalized. For many South Asians, the season of Diwali is also the season for siblings to honor each other, with sisters praying for the health and long lives of their brothers who, in return, shower them with gifts of thanksgiving.

Here in the United States, and for those of us who grew up in a Christian setting, our own season of light is still more than a month away. Yet may we remember, in this Diwali festival season, that all human communities—across wide swathes of time and space—actively seek ways to bring light to the darkness, to forge human connection, and to reject the forces that drive us apart—no matter what the language of the text, the form of the ritual practice, or the complexion of the good.