Rituals and Festivals (3) The Spirit and the Symbol behind Tradition

Traditionally, in India, there are special days attributed to each great Goddess.  The Hindu mind fertile in its spiritual creativity often linked these significant days with important celestial events to convey the central meaning behind the celebration. Thus, the day of Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of fullness and plenitude (inner riches) is observed on full moon day which signifies spiritual plenitude. It is a different matter that under the spell of an Asuric Maya people now pray to her only for material wealth. In a fair and just society, outer wealth should be in the hands of those who are endowed with inner wealth but this is not what the Asura wants. He wants outer wealth even though his life and nature remain crude and ostentatious. So too we see the worship of goddess Durga celebrated as the twin victory of the wise and mighty goddess over the demon of greed and lust celebrated on the tenth day of the moon thereby signifying the fullness of powers that she is armed with. Incidentally, the day is also linked to the felling of Ravana to the divine arrow of Lord Rama. As is well-known in the original story this felling of Ravana is not just a victory of good over evil but a conversion of evil, its restoration to the original good since before assuming or rather suffering a fall into Asuric nature he was appointed in the service of Lord Vishnu. But his closeness to the Divine bloated his ego rather than making him humble. The story is therefore significant in so many ways since all of us in one sense are beings who have ‘fallen’ from the divine heights. It is through the arrogance of the mind that we remain fallen whereas humility before the Divine helps us ascend higher. The day of goddess Saraswati is the day when spring breaks out into manifold splendours. It is literally as if the earth that has prayed for and received the light of the sun holding it within her bosom bursts forth with offsprings of Light in colours and forms. Goddess Saraswati is indeed the goddess of learning who takes hold of the vast Wisdom of Maheshwari that lays down the larger lines of creation and turns it into manifold forms of Knowledge to build a detailed perfection. While the year starts with the day of Saraswati in spring when the earth bursts out in a creative ecstasy and splendour, it ends with Kali on the dark autumn night after which the earth enters in the mode of preparing for a new birth. Of all the aspects of the Divine Mother it is Mahakali, who brings about swift transitions, albeit through revolutionary rapid methods, from the old order to the new. That after all is Kali’s action. With one stride and the frontal stroke, she slays the past and drinks its poison while with the other stride she opens the doors to a new epoch of time. It is due to this power of the goddess to change time with a single stride that she is called Kaali (from the word kaal). This day of worship of Kali.

The festival of Light, or Deepawali, for example, has been celebrated in a number of ancient cultures. In Japan, it is celebrated as in August as the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri. In France, it is celebrated on December 8th as to express gratitude to Mother Mary. The Jews celebrate it as Hanukkah. It is also celebrated in various other cultures and countries such as Taiwan, China, Netherlands, England, Thailand, indicating a shared psychological experience in the collective memory of the race. While all these festivals are celebrated by lighting lamps in the night there are other festivals related to the sun and the moon which are also sources of light. The Mother referred to Christmas as the ‘day of the return of Light’ which as we know is round the time when the sun begins to ascend, making the nights shorter and shorter and the days longer. Closer to us in India, the festival of Lights is celebrated as Deepawali, meaning thereby a garland of lamps. Since in India there was always an apt to link festivals to symbolic events on the inner planes and outer life, we see such various linkages with regard to Deepawali as well. It is generally regarded as the day Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana and thereby uniting with his divine consort Sita. Linked to Deepawali is the story of Lord Krishna defeating the King of Hell, Narakasura and thereby releasing the 16,000 feminine energies that were kept captive by him. It is said that at the plea of the women who were hence released, Sri Krishna married them to take them all under his shelter. The entire story is fascinating and quite clearly symbolic. Just as in the ancient legend of Indra and Vritra, and of Angirasa and the cows (different variants of this story are also found in ancient Greek and Egyptian culture), the story of Sri Krishna and Narakasura refers to the energies given to earth and man for his upwards ascension which have been usurped by the powers of darkness that rise from the subconscient from time to time in the individual’s as well as the collective life of humanity. The Asura is one who despite being given the intelligence, cares for nothing and nobody except his own material gains and expansion of his ambitions and life of unbridled desires. Of course, all this happens unfortunately with man’s consent who too easily lends himself to the temptations of the Asura and the Rakshasa who incite him to devour and destroy and live as a selfish brute.  Now one of the works of the Avatar is to release these energies from the captivity of the Asura and make them available for man so that he may have another chance to use them for his ascension. It is this that is referred to in the Gita as liberating the good from clutches of evil or re-establishing dharma, a new and higher divine order out of the old way of life that had become a source of evil through misuse. Both Rama and Krishna established a new and higher order out of the old. This new way of life, this giving of a new form to the eternal Santana Dharma consistent with the dawn of a New Age is preceded by an inner and outer struggle between the old ways of life that obstinately resist and the seeds of a New Creation, the possibility of a higher Perfection implanted by the Avatar. Thus we see Rama establishing a more luminous and rational order amidst the animal-man whereas Krishna opening the way to Jivanmukti, freedom in action as a higher way of life for the arrogant Kshatriyas. The Jains celebrate Deepawali as the day od ascension of Lord Mahavira into the nirvanic silence. Buddhists and Sikhs, too, celebrate it – Buddhists of a certain region to invoke the goddess Lakshmi (a practice common to Hindus) and Sikhs to commemorate the release of tenth and last of the Sikh Guru Gobind Singh from Mughal captivity. The day is also observed as the day when Bali, the king endowed with rajo-sattwic qualities surrendered himself to Vamana, the dwarf man signifying the surrender of the ego-self to the growing stride and light of the psychic being in man. We see therefore how Deepawali connects not only different regions of India but also different cultures and religions that took birth the Light that Mother India holds within her heart. While the significance of many of these festivals is lost now in the rush of materialistic thought that has turned us blind to inner truths in our excessive importance to outer things, the light is still there and can be found by those who care for it. When we thus liberate this inner light caged within outer rituals we relive the action of Krishna who released the energies from the grip of the Asura. When we stand like Durga against all that is false and lowly then we celebrate truly the advent of Durga. When we live like Rama, renouncing all personal pleasure for the sake of dharma, taming the animal within us with the light of illumined reason while slaying the demon with the help of higher divine qualities and powers then we relive the victory of Rama by converting the Asura in us to become a bhakta of the Lord.

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