A Deepavali Reflection on Ignorance & Wisdom

By Shashank Rao, active Sadhana member

Today, on the occasion of Deepavali, I would like to share a meditation on the meaning of the holiday. First, here are two companion poems from the famous Kashmiri saint-poet, Lal Ded, also known as Lalleshwari.

Who’s asleep and who’s awake? 
What is that lake in the sky
from which a rain of nectar is falling?
What is the offering that Shiva loves most? 
What is that Supreme Word you’re looking for
in the hermit’s coded dictionary? (135)

The mind’s asleep. When it outgrows itself, it will awake. 
The five organs are the lake in the sky
from which a rain of nectar is falling. 
The offering Shiva loves most is knowledge of Self. 
The Supreme Word you’re looking for
is Shiva Yourself. (136)

From I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Dĕd (Penguin Classics). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. Translation by Ranjit Hoskote.

In this poem, Lal Ded extols the virtue of knowledge (also known as ज्ञाना - jñana), particularly of self-knowledge. It is not only an act of self-inquiry, but also an act of worship for the enlightened. The five senses are not an obstacle but the means to understanding, to seek Shiva everywhere and see Their grace in all things, described as “nectar”. The partaking of that nectar allows one to see that Shiva as God is not separate from us on earth and in life, but in fact is embodied in us. The mind is asleep, but awakens when it experiences the knowledge that expands its understanding of the world.

To offer the knowledge of oneself to the Divine, recognizing it within and without, is a kind of holy mercy. It is mercy and salvation to those trapped by ignorance of the Self and by the acts stemming from the ignorance of others. Lal Ded, as a woman in Kashmir, is able to affirm her value through her wisdom, and even in death, has earned the love her people. Her poems continue to inspire and uplift the Kashmiri people, regardless of religion, and remind them of their intrinsic capacity to learn and be free. Truly, it is ignorance that binds one and all to the cycle of suffering and rebirth.

This meditation on ignorance is a theme of Deepavali, one with which I was raised. Diwali is not simply a festival of lights, but rather celebrates the victory of redemptory wisdom over ephemeral and ultimately impermanent ignorance. Whether we call this the victory of light over darkness or good over evil, this theme is present in the many stories told to commemorate Diwali.

In the South Indian tradition, we remember the victory of Krishna over Narakasura, an abusive and tyrannical king who captured 10,000 women to be his wives. In the final battle between the two, Narakasura knows that he is fighting with God and metaphorically with himself. Recognizing the divinity of Krishna allows him to see it within himself, and so he pleads with Krishna for mercy. Krishna acknowledges Narakasura as a full being, and hears him out.

Here, knowledge is expressed again as mercy to not only oneself but also to others. It does not mean that Narakasura forgets his abuses of power and patriarchy, but rather that he admits to them. He asks Krishna that if he takes his life, let it be a day for women to celebrate their freedom from abuse and control by men and for all to feast on the occasion. Remembering the spirit of this holiday, I give thanks to the power of wisdom to liberate and redeem, to remind us of the inherent value of all beings. Even in our darkest hours, we are able to see the truth.

The lighting of the diyas symbolizes the illumination of wisdom, and how it penetrates the darkness of ignorance. Though a diya is small, it is a ray of divine hope for all those who see and hold them. Wherever a diya may be lit, in the home of Hindus celebrating the return of Lord Rama, in the home of Sikhs on the occasion of Bandi Chhor Divas, or in any other place, the diya’s light glows the same. Knowledge appears in diverse forms, and that should be celebrated, not snuffed out. A diya offers the soft light of the flame, hoping to warm the hearts of communities and bring them closer together with the light of wisdom, a value worth celebrating.

The midterm elections yesterday were a kind of lighting of diyas in Congress, and it gives me hope that we may be able come out of the state of ignorance that we face as a nation. The election of a diverse set of Democrats from all backgrounds helps to check the violent ignorance of the Trump administration. They may not be the "blue wave" some hoped for, but they are powerful victories in their own ways. They, too, are lamps to light their communities and give the American people hope.

Inborn in every person, regardless of their race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, and so on, is the ability not only to experience liberatory knowledge to uplift themselves, but also to illuminate the world and bring hope to the lives of others.

ಎಲ್ಲರಿಗೂ ದೀಪಾವಳಿ ಶುಭಾಶಯಗಳು, Wishing all a Happy Deepavali, and that it be filled with light and time spent among friends and family.