The Environmental Message of Deepavali

Myth is much more important and truer than history.” – Joseph Campbell.

Sanathana Dharma, meaning “Universal Righteousness” and popularly known as Hinduism, is truly the science of enlightenment. At its core, it is based on the simple principle, “Let Go.” Its fundamental premise is that every human being is entitled to be enlightened, to reach that natural state of perfect happiness or “Ananda.” While happiness itself is boundless and therefore, the quest for perfect happiness is eternal, the lifelong journey on that quest is surely the ideal human experience.

Every ritual, every pooja, every purana (story) and every festival in Hinduism is geared towards that goal of personal enlightenment. The “Arati” or the lighting of the lamp, which accompanies every pooja and festival, signifies that goal. And the most important festival of all, Deepavali, or the festival of the “row of lights,” is no exception. This is a five day festival that culminates on the new moon day during the month of Kartik (November 2 this year) and these five days signify the overcoming of the four main earthly desires of human beings, sex, fame, money and power as told in the Cosmic Fig Tree story of the Rig Veda, along with the ultimate of all desires, which is the desire for enlightenment.

During the five days of Deepavali, people clean out their homes, decorate them with Rangolis (elaborate designs with rice flour), wear new clothes, perform Lakshmi Pooja, consume sweets and light fireworks and earthen lamps called Diyas. Every one of these actions is designed to remind us to ward off materialistic tendencies and to attain enlightenment. In different parts of India, different stories are told to illustrate this triumph of the human spirit over material desires. In North India, people celebrate the triumph of Lord Rama over Ravana, while in South India, they celebrate the triumph of Lord Krishna and his consort, SatyaBama, over Narakasura. Narakasura, just like Ravana, represents the agglomeration of all material desires and his story also carries with it a deep environmental message. For Narakasura was born of the Earth and earned a boon from the Creator, Lord Brahma, to be virtually immortal as he could only be killed by his mother, the Earth. He thought that guaranteed his immortality for which Mother would ever stoop to kill her own child?

Having guaranteed himself of this supposed immortality, Narakasura proceeded to rape and pillage the earth and the heavens, acquiring unmatched power, fame and wealth, along with a harem of 16,000 women. His arrogance knew no bounds and even the Gods trembled before him. At last, he went too far when he ripped the jewelry off the earlobes of Aditi, the Mother Goddess, who was a close relative of Lord Krishna’s consort, Satyabama. When Aditi complained to Satyabama, she persuaded Lord Krishna to battle with Narakasura and she came along to witness his defeat.

But even Lord Krishna couldn’t defeat Narakasura because of his boon. In fact, Narakasura struck a mighty blow at Lord Krishna causing him to faint, which enraged the onlooker, Satyabama. She grabbed a powerful weapon and threw it at Narakasura, which killed him. But of course, Lord Krishna was just pretending to faint for he wanted Satyabama, who was really Mother Earth reincarnated, to destroy Narakasura. As he was dying, Narakasura realized the error of succumbing to his material desires and saw the light in the love of Lord Krishna for Satyabama, Mother Earth. He wished that he could have used his wealth and power for the benefit of all instead of his own self-aggrandizement.

Thus the Deepavali celebration is to remind us to let go of our material desires and to act selflessly in order to reach our enlightened state. The Lakshmi pooja is to remind us not to hoard our wealth, but to let it flow through us for the benefit of all. The new clothes are to remind us to renew our spiritual quest, the fireworks are to ward off our demons, our degrading tendencies, and the sweets are to remind us of the sweet nectar of bliss that we taste in our enlightened state. Finally, the diyas signify the enlightened state itself, which is our natural state of being when we “let go” of all our degrading tendencies. The diyas also remind us to let go of our desire for enlightenment, which is usually the last hurdle on our journey towards  the enlightened state.

The environmental message of this story is clear, for the resemblance between Narakasura and our global industrial civilization is stark. Therefore on this Deepavali day, it is my fervent wish that the light will shine brightly within all of us as we work towards healing the Earth and her climate.

Happy Deepavali to you and your loved ones!


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