A Happy Atheistic Deepavali (aka Diwali) to Each and Every One of You!

I’m an atheist. There was a time—a green adolescent time of stumbling discovery—when because of my atheism I refused to enter temples, choosing rather to wait outside while my family disappeared inside for a while. I remember very well an old and beautiful temple in Thirunelveli, quiet and dignified and redolent with the incense smoke of centuries. To the shock of relatives we were visiting I refused to enter it. Later, there were arguments about superstition and casteism and the dead weight of tradition that seemed—and actually were—urgent and unavoidable to me and my emergent atheism.

There was a time when I refused religious festivals too. I grew up with the annual wonder of Deepavali (which this year falls in the middle of next week). Waking up early; oil bath in the dark of pre-dawn to “cool” your body; new clothes; firecrackers; playing cards; endless feasting through the day; visiting friends and relatives. Festive sociality. Escape from routine. All this I gave up at a certain point. How can an atheist, I thought to myself, celebrate Deepavali?

I am different now. I enter temples. And in my own way I mark Deepavali. I understand now that people do not live by reason alone and that great things can sometimes be found hidden in (oppressive) tradition, including temples and festivals. I have learned the reverse of Walter Benjamin’s great dictum that a document of civilization is also a document of barbarism: I know now that many (certainly not all) examples of barbarism and oppression also have suppressed within them their own negation, their own more optimistic opposite. Mined in the right way they might very well be made to yield up egalitarian nuggets from within their dark barbaric depths.

And so, in that spirit, I wish each and every one of you (an advance) happy atheistic Deepavali. After all, the core of Deepavali, unlike many other Hindu festivals, is not caste-ridden ritual but sociality—the celebration of community, of relationships of friendship and kinship. The variety of stories associated with Deepavali shows that the festival has its origins as much in the folk and “lower” caste “little” traditions of India as the classical and “upper” caste great ones. What, then, is to stop us from taking the festival, with its festive lights and firecrackers and food and bonhomie, and making of it not a celebration of Rama or Krishna (as often done) but of our idea of community, of our notion of our connection to each other as human beings?

Yes, a very happy atheistic Deepavali to each and every one of you!

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4 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Dawn Morais and commented:
    On this day, when Malaysians celebrate Deepavali, I share two takes on emerging identity, on celebration, on beliefs from two very different creative spirits. With thanks to S. Shankar and in fond memory of a good friend, Yasmin Ahmad, celebrated film-maker and an important Malaysian voice, lost too soon.

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  2. To associate Devali with religion is a sad reflection of ignorance. Devali is the festival of light. It is cultural as Hinduism is cultural and the embodiment of the culture of Indians (meaning all those who trace their ancestry and cultures back to the region once called Hindustan. The sub continent. Deevali is celebrated by Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians (in India) and sectors of the Muslim communities there. Each refers to it by a slightly different name but the connotations are the same. A new era, light ending darkness and or a new dawn or new year.

    Like Judaism Hinduism is the umbrella a very diverse and seminal culture of a people. And that umbrella culture also harbours as a constituent component what in the west is termed religion, with others still rituals. It is culture. Every Indian by the Indian Supreme Court’s definition is a Hindu or an Indian in Anglo Celtic terms.

    Hindu Temples are works of art and science. They are laid out unlike Christian churches or other temples and places of worship. They are laid out in a specific way to reflect the very intricate symbolisms that are an integral part of the Hindu culture that embraces science,astrology,astronomy, physics and what we call today psychology .

    In Hinduism numerals are considered an expression of the structure of the universe and the interplay between universe and man. It is a highly scientific form of expression which reduces the complexity of man and his universe into a tangible and more absorbent form. How that expression in its physical form could be repulsive or unattractive to someone who considers himself an atheist therefore is not adequately explained in this article.

    Mathematicals schemes are frequently constructed by philosophers and theologians of Hinduism to describe celestial, terrestrial and even ethical worlds.

    Atheism has no meaning in Hinduism. It addresses the dichotomy well in itself. Hinduism is monotheism if you want it and a non religion of you want it too. In Hinduism you find the expulsion of the 12 lost tribes of Israel from after the battle in Dwarka. But of course Judaism finds that antithetical to their own ideas of how they sprout up from the ground in Israel.

    The western idea of religion which has taken root in many an isolated and desolate mind of a migrant to places like Malaysia makes it difficult for the migrated mind and soul to understand the idea of Hinduism not being religion but culture with religious connotations to it coupled with rituals of worship.

    Like the misunderstanding and exaggeration of the caste system (which the British and Moghuls cleverly and happily exploited to their ends in order to prevent social mobility and their overthrow) as with any other system or belief, Christianity and Democracy for instance, Hinduism has its own contradictions too. It must therefore be understood properly before being commented on.

    Whats not enlightening and perhaps in need of the “Deepak” Or the Light is the absence of understanding of devali, Deepak Wali or Theevali and Hinduism.

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    1. I must say I disagree with much of what is presented as fact and the spirit of all of what is in this response to my blog post. Indian is in no way synonymous with Hindu; Hinduism is in now way superior to other religions (which is not to say it is inferior either); etc. etc. The point of my post was precisely to wrest Deepavali away from such attitudes.

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      1. It is like saying you wish to wrest Christmas away from the Christians or Ham from the pig. Deewali or Deepakvali is synonymous with Hinduism and Hinduism is synonymous with the people of the sub continent. Disagreeing with what I have written in that respect in response to on your posting on the subject alone does nothing to enhance your point of view on the subject.

        You will need to substantiate your position and to demonstrate why ‘Indian is in ‘no way synonymous with Hindu,’ Nothing in my response suggests Hinduism is ‘superior to other religions’. ‘In no way’ meaning having no connection. Lets hear it then.

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