The last few years the Uttar Pradesh government has presented to its citizens some of the best immersive theatre experiences of all time. Last year, no less than 1.74 lakh earthen lamps lit up the city of Ayodhya on Diwali, as actors dressed as Ram, Sita and Lakshman got off a blue helicopter. It was a shame the vimaan was not painted saffron, because at heart that was the agenda of the reenactment. On the apron, Dasharatha’s gym-toned sons and Sita, who was decked in an ornate lehenga, posed for a photocall, before being greeted by the chief minister. This year, reports suggest there could be even more flash. The government, till a few months ago, wanted to build a 30-foot-high 3D styrofoam statue of Ram and float an inflatable Jatayu in the sky.
Until my late teens, I did not intimately know the story of Valmiki Ramayana, which defines the celebrations of Diwali today. For us, the festival was never about Ram. And firecrackers, which are now considered indispensable by the religious right, were never burst to mark his return to Ayodhya.
For a child from an upper-middle class Marwari Jain family, with moorings in business, Diwali was an extraordinary affair, bigger and better than birthdays. My grandfather would gift my cousins and me money in advance to buy clothes and forbade us from spending it on firecrackers. To inculcate the spirit of nonviolence, the central tenet of Jainism, the local Jain temples in Chennai in the 1990s distributed pamphlets decrying fireworks and urged youngsters to pledge against them. Those youngsters who promised not to burst crackers, and signed an undertaking, were rewarded in kind. (Such practices still continue in many Jain temples across India.)
In the days leading up to Diwali, my grandfather would bring home a form from the temple and make me sign on the dotted line. In return, over the years, I gathered ornamental boxes, sketch pen sets, pencil boxes and several other trinkets, but my focus eventually shifted from the gifts to the message. Unwittingly I was taught about the horrors and pollution that fireworks unleash – a lesson that, in hindsight, I’m glad I learned. To be sure, I did burst crackers a few years, but it was a childish act of defiance. Eventually sense prevailed.
For us Jains, nonviolence is the central theme of Diwali. The festival marks the day Vardhaman Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara, attained nirvana, and his disciple Gautama Swami followed in his footsteps. The passing of the last Tirthankara and the enlightenment of his first disciple makes this an important day in the lives of most Jains, many of whom associate the lighting of the lamp with kevalgyan, or enlightenment.
While as Jains we celebrate Mahavira’s nirvana, as a business community we worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. In my childhood, we would wake up early on Diwali and go to my father’s office for Lakshmi puja conducted by my devout grandfather. Soon after, as people began bursting crackers outside the office, my grandfather would leave for the Jain temple – upset, hurt and disappointed. He would then submit himself to a day of penance and meditation. At night, as the skies lit up with fireworks, noise rent the air and air pollution crossed safe limits, both my grandparents would settle down for long hours of meditation in an unlit room – just as Gautama had mourned and meditated after his teacher, Mahavira, had passed away.
When I told a friend of our Diwali, she exclaimed, “But how is it that you have all these Hindu gods? How is it that all your holy days are on the same days as the Hindu festivals, but you celebrate them for completely different reasons?” In jest I explained that all Indic gods and goddess are available under Creative Commons. They are not copyrighted to any group or religion, and are labelled “for reuse with modification”.
Poet-scholar AK Ramanujan wrote in his famous essay Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts that “nothing in India occurs uniquely”. Though Lakshmi, Saraswati and even Ganesha are considered Hindu, they find a prominent place in the Jain and Buddhist cosmos. For instance, Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, is found as Yang Chenmo in Buddhism, as Piwa Karpo in Tibet, Keleyin ukin Tegri in Mongolia, Tapien-ts’ai t’iennu or Miao-yin mu in China, and Benten in Japan. Even Rama and Sita belong to Creative Commons, from where anyone can download the image and create their own work from it.
Long before I read Ramanujan’s essay, in which he expounds on the Jain Ramayana by Vimalasuri, my grandparents narrated a version of the Ramayana that seemed strange when I first heard it. They told me that Ravana was a good man, and in fact the hero of the Ramayana. Time and again, I was reminded that the stories that surround us – and the Ramayana and Mahabharata playing on TV – were not absolute. This “counter-narrative” meant I grew up confused about Indian mythology. But it was this confusion which kept alive the inquisitiveness in me to know more about all sides. Even now, in the works of Ramanujan and other scholars, I continue to find coherent explanations for ideas and thoughts, which were once mere fragments and whispers in my head.
Ramanujan explains that “the Jain texts express the feeling that the Hindus, especially the brahmans, have maligned Ravana, made him into a villain. Vimalasuri the Jain opens the story not with Rama’s genealogy and greatness, but with Ravana’s”. No wonder then, it’s believed by some Jains that Ravana will be a Tirthankara in the future.
Vimalasuri’s is not the only Jain Ramayana – there are half-a-dozen other Jain versions. As Ramanujan writes, “The number of Ramayanas and the range of their influence in South and Southeast Asia over the past twenty-five hundred years or more are astonishing… Just a list of languages in which the Rama story is found makes one gasp… Through the centuries, some of these languages have hosted more than one telling of the Rama story.”
While Ramanujan was referring to the many retellings and versions of the Ramayana, the vibrancy extends to Diwali as well. Over the years, I have learnt of several celebrations that coincide with the festival of lights, such as the Sikh Bandi Chhor Divas; Kali Puja in Central, East and North East India; and Ashoka Vijayadashmi of the Buddhists. The reason why different communities celebrate Diwali is often unique, and, most often, completely divorced from the Ramayanas. These communities celebrate Diwali, and yet they don’t.
Truth and reality
This year’s grand celebration by the Uttar Pradesh government and some people’s claim that firecrackers are integral to the festival of lights goes against the very ethos of the many narratives of Diwali and the Ramayana. It reflects a great misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the history, culture and religion of the Indian subcontinent.
Romila Thapar spoke of the region’s cultural diversity in an interview, just after Ramanujan’s essay was removed from the syllabus of Delhi University in 2011: “You have to emphasise the fact that there were variants, or people tend to assume that there was only one version of the story or that that was the definitive version.”
There is no simple way to explain the varied mythologies, customs, traditions and beliefs in the Indian subcontinent. We have similar stories that are completely different, and it is this complexity that defines our identity. However, in recent times, we have been forced to construct a shared history, even as a basic reading of the past experience shows us that such a destination is but a mirage: always just ahead, never at our feet. In the futile process of constructing one overarching history and culture, we are adding yet another narrative to the existing ones.
The majoritarian mistake reminds me of another teaching from the past. Along with the gifts and the lessons on non-violence, if there’s one message my late grandfather left behind every Diwali, it was the Jain spirit of anekatavada and syadvada – truth and reality is multi-fold and as humans, we aren’t even witnessing one side fully.