My daughter and I went for a walk today. It was a cool morning, with the sun behind the clouds, and beside the river, the geckos had not ventured out. Stepping along the paths and listening to her chatter, I realised, however adult she has become, she is still the little girl with whom I shared the awesome feeling of wonder at the beautiful universe which surrounds us.
Certainly one of the more glamorous festivals with lights and fireworks and the ever present sweets, and new clothes, it tickles the curiosity of many people. Even the recently re-elected “leader of the free world” has gone on record wishing the revellers well in televised speeches from the White House. My daughter’s friend was interested in how to say “Happy Diwali” in Indian. My daughter, not having such a fascination, went on to BBC online to glean what was happening elsewhere. And on BBC’s “This week in Pictures, she found this, (Note the picture of the iPad being offered flowers and being prayed to.)
It outraged her fastidious soul. It took me a while to understand why.
She wanted to know why some people prayed to accounting books at Diwali? Is that not Saraswati Puja (The festival of Knowledge) which is celebrated some time in January February?
It took me a while to understand her context.
From her childhood, growing up in Australia, being sporadically educated in Indian culture, she has been taught that the Festival of Lights is the triumph of Good over Evil, the celebration of Rama coming back to Ayodhya after vanquishing the demon Ravana, and here was a story about praying to accounting books!!!
“Is that not Saraswati Puja?”, she asked.
No… It is Lakshmi Puja. People do pray to Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth, during Diwali.
“I like the idea of Saraswati Puja!” she said, eyes open wide and forefinger raised. “you dedicate all your studies and pursuit of knowledge to the Divine. You set all your intentions. And all year that feeling of dedication carries you through!” (Nerd radar out, anyone?)
Yes… her point being?
“You don’t pray to books at Diwali! You don’t pray to books, anyway, it is a symbol!”
She was saying books and I was hearing accounting.
So we had a chat about the belief that this was the start of the accounting year, and how traditional business men start new accounting books, after dedicating their business intentions to the Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi.
So now, of course, she wanted to know how Lakshmi got into the picture. We are from the East of India, Diwali is at the same time as our festival of Goddess Kaali! It is not the start of a new year for us, and we do not start new accounting books at this time. “We” encompassing the general populace of Bengal.
Once back home, I went on to BBC Online, and found the BBC school offshoot of the website. There were pages of descriptions of the Hindu festival of Diwali, and while they were all correct, I was left cringing at the superficial nature of the definitions. It was all about new clothes, sweets, lights and gambling. All the folklore and none of the philosophy. Kaali does get a mention, so there was that to be appreciative of.
The image of Indian dance and music has become encapsulated in the Western mind as “Bollywood” dance. Similarly, the knowledge of Indian festivals have become condensed into a few traditions that really have nothing to do with what they supposedly symbolise. There is nothing wrong with this. Living is as much fun and gaiety as it is deep and meaningful. But I am glad that there are people around the globe who understand and love the sublime philosophy that has also taken birth amongst the loud, flashy, colourful, breaking-into-a-dance-at-the-drop-of-a-hat civilisation. Perhaps that is the nature of an all rounded life? It is what we draw in the air around us, and live within.
How do you celebrate your favourite festival? How important is the symbolism? Would you rather celebrate the rituals only?
PS Photos courtesy Raka Mitra, my very good friend.