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!