The Meaning of Diwali: Love, Justice, and Community

Excerpted from a post originally published on the Huffington Post. Read more (and comment responsibly) here.

Today is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. It’s a holiday celebrating the triumph of good over evil, of justice over injustice, of…

To be honest, these phrases, rolling so easily off the tongue in answer to the inquisitive questions of onlookers, feel rather hollow. There are a lot of holidays that celebrate the triumph of good over evil; this is an inherent part of the human religious experience. What is it that’s special about Diwali?

Although many stories and themes are celebrated at Diwali, the story of Rama’s return to Ayodhya is at its heart. It’s from the story of Rama that we draw the theme of celebrating the triumph of goodness and justice at Diwali. The Ramayana chronicles the return of Rama to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile and a war to boot. Rama was exiled at the instigation of his stepmother, motivated by fear and misguided love and went to live in the forest with his wife and brother, desiring to uphold his word and his honor rather than to take the throne under conditions of animosity. During the last year of their exile, his wife was abducted by the powerful but greedy king of Lanka, Ravana and with the help of other forest dwellers, including the armies of monkeys and bears, Rama and Lakshman searched the earth for Sita and initiated a massive war on her behalf. Rama’s victory and return to Ayodhya thus represents a triumph over fear, envy, greed, and lust. Although Rama is a prince, and is often glorified in quite martial terms, it’s not by simple physical strength, or even yogic siddhis, that success is won. The victory of Rama’s cause is made possible by the power of faith and love.

Although celebration of Diwali is often centered on Rama and Lakshmi, I’ve always found it difficult to connect to these personalities. Sri Rama represents all these ideals of dharma, of justice and piety, to an extent that feels far from our human experience. Hanumanji is a figure of great emulation for me, though. Hanumanji is the devoted servant of Rama. Although coming from the position of an outsider, he is deeply beloved by Rama for his faithfulness and devotion. Because of Hanuman’s faith, Sri Rama gives him great strength far beyond his natural abilities to carry out his service to Rama and Sita. My favorite element of the Ramayana is how quickly Rama accepts those who turn to him as allies, servants, or friends. Hanuman and Vibhishan are equally embraced by Rama. Rama never sacrificed love for justice; indeed, his example teaches that the two are inseparable.

As a faith-based organizer, most of my work is around building healthy communities and relationships. Here at Princeton, Diwali brings the greatest sense of community and cooperation we have all year. Last Saturday night, we turned the enormous University Chapel into a Hindu temple in a beautiful celebration of Diwali bringing together students, local community members, and guest artists. By the end of the program, nearly everyone, it seemed, was wreathed in smiles, and audience members and performers were greeting each other and embracing each other with deepest appreciation. It seemed there could not be a better way to express Sri Rama’s appreciation for his community.

Tonight, Hindu students on campus will come together again for a more intimate and traditional celebration of Diwali. This, perhaps, is where I fit in least. On the face of it, at this gathering students are celebrating heritage and tradition. But from a deeper perspective, our celebration is rooted in gratitude for our campus family and for the role of the Divine in our lives. As an organizer, I am always thinking of those who are being left out of community. As I light a diya tonight, I will be praying that they also find a place. Perhaps my meditation for Diwali is that as Sri Rama welcomed all his devotees, we are all welcome in the family of faith.

Happy Diwali!

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