The Light and the Dark of the Festival of Lights: An Introspection By U Atreya Sarma

The Light and the Dark of the Festival of Lights:
An Introspection
By U Atreya Sarma
It is a hoary festival of lights
Celebrated in the dark of the night.
Right from the crackling dusk, oh, what a sight!
With a farrago of fireworks to cite
And a sparkling frisson-filled magic white!
Some crackers dart high on a blasting flight
With a deadly sound of high decibel blight.
Friends and countrymen! Might should not be right
Least so on a sensitive festive site.
Do dare to decry the harmful tackles
And you’ll be at once raising their hackles.
Native heritage earthen lamps shackled
By string current lights, do cause a mackle
That is a slight to the sacred sparkle.
(U Atreya Sarma)

Who is not exuberant about the Festival of Lights that is Diwali or Deepavali? Yes, everyone is, right from a lad to the oldie. When this festival comes to the mind, it does so with a kaleidoscopic display of fireworks – innocuous, scintillating sparklers to ear-splitting explosives. The pyrotechnics hold an irresistible charm to the revellers, including this writer who gave whatever he could, to be at his crackling and sparkling best. People vie with one another in the neighbourhood to be the first to launch the pyrotechnics at the crack of dusk as also to be the last to declare the finale well past midnight. The winner prides himself on his marathon fiery feat and on the extent of the litter of cinders strewing the front of his premises.

U Atreya Sarma
It is a wonder that this sparkling festival coming down from time immemorial, traversing many a milieu, is among those that have, by and large, succeeded in withstanding the slow, imperceptible, insidious and ubiquitous onslaught of the tantalising Western culture and mores marked by consumerism, nuclear families, live-in relationships, fragmented social life, et al. Lost and tossed about in a centrifugal life coming in its wake, the Westerners after feeling the resultant vacuity in their lives, have felt a need to think of the distanced personal or social values and accord them a place on certain earmarked Days  – from Mother’s Day to Valentine’s Day – for a symbolic or ritualistic remembrance, what could have otherwise been a daily and effortless holistic affair. The plethora of these special Days has so multiplied that the annual calendar has become too overcrowded. This is in no way to discount the positive side of the West – respect for the rule of the law, work culture, punctuality, public hygiene etc.

The primeval and pristine festival of Deepavali has long since come under a baleful influence. The original significance of celebrating it by lighting a row of earthen lamps is to   invoke light against darkness, knowledge/wisdom against ignorance, and hope against despair. The symbolic lighting has been taken over by a farrago of harmful and polluting chemical fireworks. It has become more of an ego-bloating exercise, a meretricious display of splurging power. When the population vis-a-vis the land available was small in the past, the fire-sound-smoke pollution would not have been a problem, but now it has assumed a menacing proportion, with sundry sources of daily pollution already threatening our individual and public hygiene and health. Isn’t it high time we looked back and made a sensible course correction in the interest of everyone? Imagine the uneasiness and nervousness that the high decibel sounds of the pyrotechnic thingamajigs cause to the old people, patients, children, animals and birds.  And there are the usual fire accidents at the fireworks factories and also while using them, every season.

In the light of all this, the Supreme Court of India recently issued a diktat banning the sale of fireworks in the NCR of Delhi during the month of October 2017. Some Hindu leaders question: ‘Why this discrimination against the Hindus? Would the firing of crackers just on a single day generate a year-long pollution?’ Reading an anti-Hindu bias in the judicial ban – that too an experimental one – not only amounts to disowning the inherent broadmindedness and eco-spirit in the Hindu psyche but also sounds paranoid. After all, when our soil, water, air, everything is heavily polluted – in addition to a large-scale adulteration of consumer items – don’t we have to make a beginning to try to arrest it? When the beginning has to be made somewhere, the poser ‘Why not elsewhere?’ sounds hollow. This type of diversionary polemics wouldn’t carry us anywhere. Does an essentially secular, anti-pollution measure benefit only a particular group of people? No, it is going to benefit everyone. Those who are willing to be the agents of change would stand to be respected. Let the festival of lights enlighten our minds and embark us upon a new path.  However, the anti-pollution activism should not be selective and stop with Deepavali. They have to be taken across the board touching every walk of life and every community concerned.

Let us come to think of it. Deepavali is not only a festival of lights, it is also an occasion for general bonhomie, with people exchanging sweets and pleasantries with one another. And real happiness lies where we light the lamps in the eyes and hearts of the poor and the needy. Why not distribute sweets, new clothes and new goodies among the poor and the needy – at beggar homes, old age homes, slums and the like? Let us light up the spirits of our servants and low-paid workers by presenting them with suitable gifts and bonuses.

At the mundane level, it is also a festival invoking the grace of the Goddess of Plenty & Prosperity – Lakshmi Devi. Why then burn away and smoke out a part of our valuable wealth in the form of the momentary squibs? Why not conserve it for better purposes?

Will ignorance, gloom and despair be off by celebrating a night of Deepavali? No, not at all. It has to be a continual exercise, with an auspicious beginning made on Deepavali. All of us know that life is an incessant and relentless battle between good and evil, between divine attributes and demoniac proclivities, between the humanistic and the anti-humanistic tendencies. It is just like the inseparable antinomies – day and the night, the light and the shadow. Man is endowed with a sense of discrimination so that he can apply himself to this eternal conundrum and wage a perennial struggle to drive away the evil and imbibe and spread the good with reference to not only others but also one’s self. It is as much an exercise to exorcise oneself of the undesirable and fill oneself with the salubrious – so that ultimately one can retain a constant light within oneself, a spiritual enlightenment that encompasses equality and harmony.

A visionary of virtue should never rest on his oars, for the power of the evil-doers can never be underestimated. In fact, the evil-doers are frenzied, over-smart and more ingenious as well. Otherwise, how do we explain the cyber and white collar crimes? Deepavali is not merely a mythological remembrance of the conquest over demonism, it is also a warning against the present day demonism in the form of ruthless terrorism, unmanly rapes, hoggish robberies, vile corruption, piggish blackmails, barbarous kidnaps, lecherous crimes, printing of fake currency, and remorseless and rampant adulteration. 

There are people who openly defend and support demonism, for one’s meat is another’s poison. To steer clear of the pernicious influences, we constantly have to be in good company, read good books, imbibe good thoughts, and consciously do good deeds.

In the present age of a free-for-all in the name of freedom of expression and the burgeoning virtual world, we are flooded with all sorts of thoughts, ideas and feelings afloat in abundance; we have all sorts of movies/videos by all sorts of producers, all sorts of books by all sorts of writers. So not every movie/video/book can be a good one, nor every producer/author a good one. Wisdom lies in sieving them, and our own conscience is the best judge – whether to rein in our base instincts and impulses or to give them a free rein. Either way, we should be ready to reap what we sow. Now let us focus on books. To me, it appears, a good book is one which yields an unsullied happiness and serenity not only to us but to everyone – it really lights a lamp. And a bad book is one which causes a deliberate discord and conflict – it spreads gloom and it spells doom. Or it panders to patently negative or deleterious tastes. To be critical is not bad, but the criticism has to be dispassionate and objective. Some of the books and ideas lead us even into the prurient, suicidal as well as homicidal cul-de-sacs. What else is the much dreaded Blue Whale Challenge!

If our mind feeds on a virulent pabulum, our thoughts, feelings, reflexes and actions also tend to be virulent.

Henry Corbett, a fictional character, who browses such diabolical pabulum comes to have a different and bizarre view of things. Finding himself in the midst of a foggy day, he picks up a Charles Dickens to appreciate his own situation, but in the author’s “sentimental pity for the weak and helpless” he finds “a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering.” He then turns to Walter Pater “for the repose and dignity of a classic spirit,” but soon concludes that “there is something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake.” So also, in RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island, he detects “an invalid’s sickly attraction to brutality.” Likewise, he looks down upon “Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte as two unpleasant examples of spinsterhood; the one as a prying, sub-acid busybody in everyone else’s flirtations, the other as a raving, craving maenad seeking self-immolation on the altar of her frustrated passions.” Similarly, Wordsworth’s love of nature appears to him as “the monstrous egoism of an ancient bell-wether, isolated from the flock.”  His attitude thus coming under a spell of baneful influence, Henry gets to see intolerably detestable qualities in every member of his own family – in his wife, in his children Dicky, Nora and Jean, and even in Mike, his pet Irish terrier. He behaves in a ghostly manner to the utter horror of all of them, but without himself sensing the change coming over him.  In the “crabbed late seventeenth-century handwriting” in Latin, he finds instructions like ‘Canem occide’ and ‘Infantem occide’ and prepares to eliminate his pet and even his eight-year old daughter. The story finally ends in a Faustian or Frankensteinian disaster. (Ref: ‘The Book’ – a 1930 short story by Margaret Irwin, The Haunted Library: Classic Ghost Stories, Selected by Tanya Kirk, Niyogi Books, 2017).

In the light of the foregoing, let’s hark back to the original and pristine spirit behind the festival, which is seminally and semantically a festival of lights – to dispel mental darkness and ignorance, to replace evil with good, to replace the negative with the positive. Let the lights twinkle in the eyes of the humans, and the animals too, for this creation is not anthropocentric; it is meant for all forms of life – flora, fauna and humans.  Let us be warned that a wanton spree of destruction of non-human life snaps the organic chain and spells doom to the very existence and survival of the humans. Let us come out of the darkness of avarice in us and share a part of the light of our wealth and happiness with others, especially those who are less fortunate. After all, “The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed,” as observed by MK Gandhi.

When the earthen lamps should be the mainstay of Deepavali, we have, gradually, eclipsed them with a synthetic cover – electric illumination. In a country still given to power outages, why not conserve our electricity at least on occasions like Deepavali, however token it is?

Fireworks are certainly fun, and we can certainly let our festivals and celebrations evolve with the times, discarding the excrescences and obsolescences and absorbing the best in the modern times. In view of that, why not we come up with eco-friendly fireworks sans any sound and fury?

A welcome trend in the current times is, our youth and children are more open, more receptive, more constructive, and more objective. Many of them have celebrated the recent Deepavali with such a spirit.

Aum! Asato maa sadgamaya
Tamaso maa jyotirgamaya
Mrityormaa amritam gamaya
Aum! Shantih! Shantih! Shantih!

[Oh Almighty! Lead me from the Unreal to the Real.
Lead me from the Darkness to the Light.
Lead me from (the fear of) Death to the spirit of Immortality.
Aum! Peace! Peace! Peace!
(Peace be at all the three levels –
The Physical, The Spiritual, The Divine)]


  1. I am delighted and enriched to have read the exhaustive article on Diwali/Deepavali, with insights and suggestions that are worth pondering over and practising. Wish to thank and congratulate the writer, Mr. U. Atreya Sarma. (Dr. Subhash Chandra)

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Thank you dear Dr Subhash Chandra. Words of approval from a litterateur of your standing mean a lot. Best regards.


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