I was having a chat with a couple of friends, SM and NK, yesterday when the topic shifted to Deepavali, which falls today. SM said he was celebrating this Deepavali with extra oomph because the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government had won.
I was rather surprised as SM is not a member of any political party and often criticises politicians.
Noting that Deepavali celebrates the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness, SM drew a parallel between what happened in the May 9 general election and one of the more popular stories related to Deepavali.
“Sathyabama, the sakti (power) of Lord Krishna vanquishes the demon Narakasuran and frees the land from darkness, tyranny and abuse. People get their freedom again and celebrate by lighting lamps to dispel the darkness. That is what has happened here,”
I thought he was stretching it a bit. NK said it was unfair to equate former prime minister Najib Razak to Narakasuran. I agreed with NK, for, despite his faults, Najib is not an evil man.
SM said he was not referring to Najib alone but the entire governing structure which had eaten into democratic norms and which had created an environment of fear using unjust laws and enforcement agencies.
“This new government has promised to return our freedom to us and it has already taken some measures to expand democratic space,” SM added.
I noted that Najib, too, had promised democratic reforms when he took power and that he not only reneged on most of them, he made the situation worse. I said it was, therefore, too soon to judge PH.
SM said he trusted the PH coalition to do more than Najib and the Barisan Nasional in reforming democratic institutions.
“Anyway, as an Indian Malaysian, I am happy that four cabinet members are Indians. The maximum we have ever had is two. This shows the PH government appreciates the role played by Indians in developing this nation and that it wants to help lift the community out of poverty.
“So, there is light for Malaysians. Narakasuran has been vanquished and Deepavali lights will shine brightly in my house,” SM concluded.
I didn’t ask SM if he was aware that “Narakasuran” means “the demon who rules naraka” and that the Malay word “neraka” comes from the Sanskrit/Tamil word “naraka/narakam”, which means a “hellish place”.
Or that Narakasuran does not just refer to a demon in a story but to all the demons within us, including ignorance, anger, jealousy, avarice, lust, belligerence, prejudice, and the ego that thinks “only I am right”.
Deepavali, also called Diwali, is to remind celebrants that they should vanquish negative tendencies in order to progress and bring light to their lives and those of others. They should light the light within.
The word Deepavali itself means “a row of lights” and that is why Hindus light up their houses and compounds with clay lamps during Deepavali.
Light plays an important role in our lives. As a civilising tool, light has helped shape human progress – literally and metaphorically. Without the heat and light of fire, man may not have transformed from hunter-gatherer to farmer-controller, which led, among other things, to the establishment of families and communities as people could cook, share and live together without needing to be constantly on the move.
Today, electricity, to a considerable extent, determines how we live. What would we do if, for instance, electricity were to be cut off for a week? Our organisational structures will grind down: our houses and offices will be in darkness, traffic lights won’t work, lifts won’t work, most machines won’t work, computers and phones won’t work, hospital life-support systems won’t work, petrol stations will shut down, and foodstuff can’t be delivered.
Metaphorically, light symbolises, among other things, hope. What would most of us do if we did not have hope? I hope I will be alive tomorrow. I hope I will have employment tomorrow. I hope my child will have a happy, healthy life.
SM, like all Malaysians, hopes PH will reform government institutions, protect religious freedom and freedom of speech and association, ensure justice and fair treatment for all citizens, prevent abuse of power and corruption, and truly make Malaysia a great nation. We hope, too, that it will help remove the darkness of poverty, ignorance and strife.
And light is also a symbol of celebration, of joy. Light represents love, too. Don’t we say of a loved one: “She’s the light of my life”? Light also represents knowledge, intelligence, clarity. Don’t we say: “He is a brilliant student”?
When we have clarity, we switch on the inner light. How well I conduct my life depends on how well I see myself and the world around me. Clarity helps us become better persons: a better father, a better daughter, a better teacher, a better student, a better employer, a better employee, even a better politician.
In fact, what we urgently need as a nation is the light of clarity. There must be clarity in the direction the nation is taking; there must be clarity in the ideas and policies enunciated by the government; there must be clarity in the powers of the government and its agencies; and there must be clarity in what type of a nation we, as citizens, want.
How clearly we perceive something or some event determines our words and actions. If, for instance, a Muslim sees a non-Muslim as “the other” and vice-versa or if a Christian sees the Buddhist as “the other” and vice-versa; if we catch the “us versus them” cancer, we create a narakam right in this life.
But if, with clarity, we see everyone, whatever their race or religion, as citizens, or better still, as human beings who have the same needs, who bleed if cut, who share the same Earth – we will be better persons.
That is why religions and cultures give importance to light and what it symbolises.
The Quran (Surah 24:35) says: “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.”
The Bible (John’ 12:46) says: “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.”
The Dhammapada (146) says: “Why do you not seek a light, ye who are surrounded by darkness?”
The Guru Granth Sahib (1314) says: “O Lord of Light, your light is infused within all.”
The prayer in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (I:iii:28), often linked to Deepavali, goes like this: “Lead us from the unreal to the real: from darkness to light; from death to immortality. May there be peace everywhere.”
Happy Deepavali to all Malaysians. May the light be with you.
A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT
The views expresses are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.