Tuesday, December 27, 2011

FESTIVALS OF LIGHTS—ANCIENT IN TRADITIONS; UNIVERSAL IN APPEAL


FESTIVALS OF LIGHTS--ANCIENT IN TRADITIONS; UNIVERSAL IN APPEAL


(TELE-DISCOURSE BY N. R. SRINIVASAN, DECEMBER 2011)

 
More than two million years ago, in Tretaa Yuga, Lord Rama brought back Sun Light to the gloomy city of Ayodhya along with Sita who also restored cool Moon Shine to the city. This great event of their return to Ayodhya after fourteen years of exile after Rama's successful elimination of all dark and evil forces in the world to restore joy and happiness was celebrated by lighting the whole city with earthenware oil wick lamps followed by merriment in Ayodhya and the whole city was glowing with lights. This was the origin and inspiration for the succeeding festivals of lights by various traditions and also watching and worshiping of the divine light on holy nights with awe and reverence. Hindus clad in new clothes are busy in greeting each other and exchanging sweets while children have fun with fire crackers on this traditional festive day called Deepaavali which is the main day of the five day long celebrations. Deepaavali means string of lights. Hindus celebrate Krishna's (another avatar of Vishnu) elimination of the terrorizing demon Narakasura on Narakachaturdasi Day during October—November, removing fear and agony of the lawful citizens with his powerful weapon of fire and light Sudarshana Chakra after several thousands of years, after the ascension of Rama to heavens, in Dwaapara Yuga. Multiple rows of oil wick lamps are put up all around the houses to celebrate the removal of dark forces and bringing light to the terror stricken populace. Strangely this day is a day prior to the day on which Rama returned to Ayodhya in the Hindu calendar year and people nationwide celebrate this festival night called Naraka Chaturdasi with joy, merriment and fun with fire crackers.
Hindus celebrate Siva as Jyotirlinga (ball of fire) in Annamali Hills in South India on the 13th night of bright half of the Tamil month of Kartigai celebrating the event of the strange divine light that appeared in the sky as a glowing column of lamp. All followers of Siva celebrate the event as festival of lights called Siva Kartigai Deepam. Two days later on Poornima night all followers of Vishnu celebrate the night burning countless mud oil-wick lamps at homes with worship and merriment called Vishnu Deepam. Sikhs observe this day lighting their holiest shrine Gurudwara in Amritsar in India.
This is followed by Hanukah, a Jewish festival when a lone light in the Jewish Temple in Israel kept the darkness away against unfriendly weathers of stormy winds, when the brave Maccabeus defending their temple restored back all lights fighting for their religious freedom. This was on the 25th of Kislev, the Jewish Month. Around 2000 years ago a young and brave Jewish boy named Jesus fought against all evils and corruption that was going on in the name of religion and restored Dharma (world order). He was crucified as a religious rebel. Those who witnessed his resurrection spread his message and later their followers started a new religion called Christianity. His birthday 2011 years before, on December 25th is celebrated with lights and trees calling the day as Christmas and the pine tree as Christmas tree. Jesus restored the faith in the people in that One God who appeared as dazzling Fire in the bushes of Mount Sinai to Moses who brought back the Wisdom of Vedas in the form of Ten Commandments.
On Makara Sankranti Day in January Hindus eagerly wait to see the sudden appearance of a strange divine light that appears in the sky called "Makara Vilakku" and worship the night with awe and reverence in Sabari hills in Kerala where Rama's devotee Sabari attained her salvation in the vicinity of the temple of Aiyappan. This is soon followed by Sivaratri when Lord Siva appeared as a column of fire, who outwitted his counterparts of Trinity Vishnu and Brahma who struggled hard to find the beginning or the end of the column of fire but miserably failed. Hindus worship him that night as Jyotirlinga, a formless form (Vyakaavyakta) of the Supreme Principle with whole night vigil and worship. Then somewhere around March comes the Holy Festival of Hindus which the Hindus celebrate with born fire of great religious significance (symbolic of burning away of greed passion, anger and jealousy). This is also the night when Lord Siva burnt The God of Love, Kaama, but restored him back to his faithful and devoted wife Ratidevi, moved by her prayers.
Ramadan over several centuries has gradually shifted to what it is today based on the Muslim Calendar. In Egypt lanterns are known to be symbol of Ramadan. They are hung across the cities of Egypt, part of an 800 year old tradition. Lanterns are used to decorate houses and mosques. In Muslim countries lights are strung up in public squares and across city streets to add to the festivities of the month. In Western countries many Muslim households have taken to decorating the inside of their homes to make it look like Festival of Lights.
The dark and long nights starting with Deepavali in October-Novembers after reaching the peak, gradually taper around Holy, the Festival of Colors. Holy at the conclusion of winter brings warmth and natural sunshine. Thus the Festival of Lights is celebrated all over the world in glorification and veneration of the Supreme Principle. The lights we put up during these festivals are symbolic of heavenly bright lights, the Stars, the Sun and the Moon, that lead us to brighter and better worlds, and lead us from darkness to light to bring, peace, prosperity and Joy. The darkness of prejudices, cynicism and materialism are wiped out by the heavenly light.
Bhagavadgeetaa talks about the tree called Aswattha, whose branches are spread all around but its roots are in heaven. Lord Buddha got his enlightenment while meditating below one such spreading tree, called Bodhi. Hindus and Buddhists worship such trees on special occasions. In Western culture in the absence of Aswattha and Bodhi they decorate the long pine (Christmas) tree, rising to great heights and pointing to heaven. Upanishad compares Supreme Principle to a tall and sturdy tree: "Vriksha iva stabhdoe divi"—He who stands still like a tree in the sacred k land of light (heaven). Lord Krishna is always associated with a tree called Pinnai in Tamil (Medium sized timber tree probably Alexandria laurel) watching the cows and playing his flute to allure the Gopis or Jeevaatmas (Individual Self) while resting under the shade during the hot weather days of Mathura. The trees are also symbolic of the Supreme Spirit under whose shade we are safely protected and guided by the enveloped lights.
It is a common sight to see that most of the Hindu-Americans and permanent immigrants decorate their houses with strings of colored and pure white lights who also put up the tall pine trees in keeping with the Western tradition during the Holiday Season starting after Thanksgiving and ending on January 1, the Gregorian New Years Day. Visiting Parents, relatives and friends from India may be shocked to see the change in settled Hindu immigrants. It will take some time and thinking for such visitors dear and near to them to appreciate this gesture on behalf of immigrants in their land of adoption merging with the local culture with a spirit of co-operation, appreciation and understanding. In fact they also attend mass worship in local Hindu temples on special days like Mother's Day, Father's day, New Year's Day and Thanksgiving with their own traditional worship but within the Hindu Saastric injunctions which should also look strange to the visiting Hindus. If we think dispassionately we could also ear-mark one important day during this Holiday Season between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day for mass worship in traditional style of Hindu worship focused on a deity significant for that particular day of worship. Unlike in India Hindu Temples in America are also cultural and socializing centers for the widely spread out busy Hindu population drawn from varied traditions of India. Hindus worship many aspects of the One God which is often misunderstood as polytheism. Hinduism does not teach Universal Brotherhood but Universal Oneness as Vivekananda says.
Everyone knows the significance of Christmas Day celebrations with lights. Christmas is a day for Christians to remember and celebrate the Light of God that entered into the world through the birth of Jesus. In Hinduism we will call it an Incarnation of God which word Christians would like to avoid after the revision of the Bible in the official version of King James. As we all know three wise men hailing from a country that would eventually claim a majority of citizens who practice Islam observing heavenly light in Babylon (present day Iraq another Muslim Country) closely followed it to Bethlehem in Israel where it disappeared and witnessed the birth of a divine child who was named Jesus on 25th of December 2011 years before. These wise men were like Hindu sages who gazing at the divine stars and observing their movements brought forth the science of astronomy to the World. Jesus's Birthday was later celebrated all over the world by his followers by putting up a tree with strings of lights and exchanges of gifts. Jesus was born as Jew and died as a Jew. Jesus and his family found themselves immigrants in a foreign land (Egypt) like Hindu-Americans who came to USA to seek a better life for the ones they love.
What Jesus would have done on the 25th of December in his ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel? The answer most likely is that it would have been his birthday and a customary normal celebration with cutting cakes and blowing candles. Christmas, of course as we know it to-day, emerged as a sacred holiday for Christians only after the life and death of Jesus, promoted by his devoted followers. Jesus himself perhaps would have recognized that day as the first day of Hanukah. What would Jesus, the Jew would have done on the 25th of Kislev, the Hebrew month that includes the darkest of winter days and nights? For this you have to know the story of this festival. A group of courageous ancestors of his called the Maccabeus defended the temple from saboteurs and rebels, purified it after its liberation and restore all lights. Jesus and his followers would have known the miracle of a single cruse of oil which according to the legend, kept the Eternal Light of the Temple alive long enough for new oil to be brought to Jerusalem, to continue to keep the flame ablaze, even against the darkest of winter nights and unfriendly stormy weathers. This his followers too would have recognized.
There should be no doubt that Jesus and his fellow Jewish followers would have treasured the value of their religious liberty and freedom, as symbolized in the victory of Maccabeus and as relayed to them as well as to us through the message of the story of Hanukah. Early Christians would have also treasured it so as well. Later in the name of religion holy crusades were fought and forceful conversion done by some of his followers of ill-conceived notions. A disgruntled group from among them separated out to establish another new religion which believed more in intimidation, ridicule, violence and forceful conversion which to some extent can be seen even today. Jesus, the Jew would have celebrated the importance of that day, and all the days of Hanukah of that winter Festival of Lights, because they served to remind his people of the importance of religious freedom, and the value of religious pluralism, for all the faithful followers, of all faiths. He himself fought against the evil practices and exploitation in his own religion that was going on in the name of religion assuming liberty of his birthright to fight for the cause of justice of religious freedom that was not there, which he took it for granted.
America is a nation composed of Christians and Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Ahamadias and Bahais and even those with no faith tradition or belief. How do they all live in peace carrying on with their own faiths and beliefs unlike in other parts of the world even including India sometimes which is comparable to USA in this regard? This is because of the Bill of Rights under which religious freedom is guaranteed to one and all in this country. Of late they don't even call December as
Christmas Season at State level and call it only as Holiday Season. In India Christmas is a National Holiday for people of all faiths as well as no faith. Of course there is no religious worship except in churches in India. The idea behind it is Christians pray in the churches while others celebrate the festivities with their Christian brethren in their homes. Mass worship in Hindu Temples in India during the Hindu Religious holidays is individual temple oriented based on sectarian traditions which is not possible in Hindu Temples in migrant countries where it has to meet the needs of all immigrant Hindus drawn from different traditions.
Jesus treasured the divine image that he believed was contained in every human soul, and valued the freedom of religious expression, which he fought for in his days. It is this that FDR stressed when he wanted people to keep December 15th unique, on which day the Bill of Rights was born, for reverence and prayer to the All Mighty God exclusively. The three monotheistic faiths Muslims, Jews and Christians all have the divine mandate to care for the needy and vulnerable and to extend hospitality to the stranger, the foreigner, the widow and the orphans. Though descendants of Abraham like Christians and Jews, a large number among them moved out and established another new faith called Islam. Many bad elements from these Muslims walked out of the universal brotherhood and peace living of Islamic Faith causing chaos and confusion in the world and are inflicting great pains on humanity! We all know from the History that three Wise men, whatever may be their religious persuasion and the Egyptians were divinely inspired to protect, care for and extend hospitality to the immigrant holy family of Jesus. Thus Jesus himself was an immigrant who in turn fought for the religious freedom. Pilgrim Fathers who firmly believed in religious freedom went in search of a safer place where they could stick to these principles and also promote it; they wanted the new found land America safe haven for all immigrants to practice their religions without fear, enjoy freedom and prosper. It is therefore no wonder that America fought hard to promulgate The Bill of Rights. FDR wanted the Nation to remember and celebrate that memorable day December 15, when it came into a Law. Somehow caught between the busy holiday shopping season and the majority Christians favoring Christmas Day, this yet another important Day in December was lost sight off. In fact this day is more important to all Americans including majority Christians, than Independence Day on July 4. In reality Declaration of Independence only secured freedom for White and wealthy men. The divine inspiration behind the motivation for the Bill of Rights comes from none other than Jesus himself. Like Jesus, Manu gave his first Codes of Law to the much Ancient World to practice Dharma to keep the world order and spiritual progress. At that time people had no idea of the present day faith based religions. There was no word religion then in Sanskrit and even now. It was all one universal tradition. It is therefore onerous on Hindu migrants to give their deeper thoughts to celebrate this memorable day with reverence and remind the nation of the serious lapse on its part to leave the day unnoticed.
It will be fitting and proper to conduct mass worship in Hindu Temples on the 15th of December during the Holiday Season between Thanksgiving and Christmas with all jubilation, sanctity and reverence, dedicating it to Manu, the Law Giver to the World. Hindu-Americans thus will have a justification to put up the Tree of Knowledge and the Lights that remove the ignorance of darkness in individual homes and also conduct mass worship with the participation of all drawn from different traditions dedicating it to Manu. Hindu Americans will also have an opportunity to express gratitude to the Nation where they are successful materially and enjoy freedom more than their motherland from which they have migrated in search of greener pastures and more liberty and equality. This could be a better way to celebrate Independence with a traditional Hindu mass worship rather than July 4th, which could be left secular with its original intent. Such worship of Vedic deities will also be ideal in a Siva-Vishnu-Devi complex for people drawn from different traditions and also worship conducted for the mass within the Hindu Saastric injunctions.
Living amidst multi-cultured society Hindu-Americans can neither kill the enthusiasm of kids to put up lights and the tree with decorations at homes as well as disappoint them without the customary gifts during the Happy Holiday season nor can they avoid the disappointment from their visiting elders, friends and relatives from India during the season for this strange changed outlook. Best thing would be to join the general crowd and take advantage of the season to continue the spirit of Deepaavali and Kaartigai by celebrating it in the Hindu-American way as they do for Mother's day, Father's Day, Thanksgiving and January First, their adopted New Year. It would be fitting and proper to earmark December 15th as Bill of Rights Day dedicating it to Manu, the universal Law giver and to celebrate in Hindu Temples as other important days. As already said for Hindu-Americans temples are not only places of worship but also a socializing and cultural centers and it will be a good day in the midst of Holiday season to meet together. If we are celebrating other American National Holidays in the Hindu Temples why not this very important day which is so dear to us?
Celebrating the Festival of Lights this way would not only help in the National Integration giving the opportunity for expressing their gratitude to the land that has given them religious freedom and endless opportunity to prosper while living amidst different cultures but also promote the Hindu-American goal of spiritualism as well as earn respect and admiration of visiting Hindus from India. It would also be an awakening to all Americans including those followers of Christian Faith about the serious lapse in forgetting this important day of the Birth of Bill of Rights that falls midway between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. It would also earn appreciation for Hindu–Americans from all others to realize how concerned they are and how grateful they are to this country of adoption unlike some who have turned evil to destroy this great country of freedom and opportunities. We can then proudly put on the tree of twinkling stars with the bright star on its top and decorate our houses with strings of lights month long as others and also bring up our children with added Hindu values.
Lord Krishna says in Bhagavadgeetaa among trees I am Aswatthaa. Lord Krishna relaxed under the spreading Alexandria Laurel Tree (Pinnamaram in Tamil), playing his flute, alluring Gopis (Jeevaatman-individual souls) to come to the Tree of Wisdom. Lord Dattatreya the Guru of all Gurus spoke about the wisdom that he learnt from 24 Gurus of Nature which included the Fire, Moon and the Sun if you still remember my discourse on Dattatreya. Should he come to us today he would certainly add the Festival Tree to the list and sing the following song in glorification of the tree:
As some tall tree that lifts its awful form
Swells from the vale and midway leaves the storm
Though round its breast the rolling clouds are spread
Eternal sun shine settles on its head
The tall tree is compared to a true spiritual preacher who is intimately involved in the joy and sorrows of his fellow beings while his thoughts are focused on the Supreme Principle, the Eternal Sunshine. [The tree specially pine always looks up to heaven for light. Mother Earth provides the necessary nutrients, food and base for its growth while it needs the power from the Supreme Principle above]
VEDIC MANTRAS
Ardram-jvalati jyotir-ahm-asmi | Jyotir-jwalati brahma-aham-asmi |
Yo-aham-asmi brahma-aham-asmi |aham-eva-aham maam juhomi svaahaa||
The self-effulgent waters are shining with brilliance. Fire is effulgent. I am that self-luminous. I am Brahman. I who am such a one (different from physical body and others) am having Brahman as my Self. Being of that form as I am, I offer myself as an oblation unto the Supreme Principle!
Na tatra sooryoe bhati na Chandra taarakam nemaa vidyutoe bhaanti kutoyam-agnih |
Tameva bhaantam-anubhaati sarvam tasya bhaasaa sarvamidam vibhaati ||
There the Sun does not shine; neither the Moon nor the Stars; nor do the flashes of lightening shine. How (then) can the fire? All these shine because of the Supreme Principle, who is ever shining. With His light alone all these shine!
Divi soorya-sahasrasya bhaved yugapad-utthitaa |
Yadi bhaah sadrisee saa syaad bhaasaa tasya mahaatmanah ||
If the splendor of thousands of suns were to blaze forth all at once in the sky, even that would not resemble the splendor of that exalted being (Supreme Principle)!
Asato maa sadgamaya| Tamaso maa jyotir gamaya |Mrityor maa amritum gamaya || Om shatih! A shatih! santih!
Oh Brahman! Please lead us from Ignorance to Wisdom; from Darkness to Light; and, from Death to Immortality! May there be peace within; peace from external disturbances and peace by the unison with the supreme Spirit which passes all understandings!

 

 
Biblography
  1. Ramanand Prasad, Bhagavadgeetaa, American Geetaa Society, California.
  2. Ananta Rangacharya, N. S., Principal Upanishads, Bangalore, India.
  3. Rabbi Mark Schiftan, Festival of Lights' Universal Appeal, The Tennessean, December 20, 2011.
  4. The Holy Bible.
  5. Ken Paulson, Birthday of American rights has never received its due, the Tennessean. December 15, 2011.
  6. Rev. James Cole, Let Our Better Angels' Guide Us This Christmas, The Tennessean, Sunday, December 25, 2011.