Celebrating diversity & Diwali

A blog by Barnet Fairness Commissioner, Reema Patel.

This weekend, millions of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists across the world celebrate the festival of Diwali; otherwise known as the festival of light. The occasion marks a sense of new beginnings – it is the Hindu New Year – but also a sense of learning and reflection for the year gone by.

The festival of light, by definition, celebrates diversity and pluralism. Light is a universal theme across many religious traditions, but for Eastern religions it holds a special significance. This significance is best embodied in the Sanskrit verse in Vedas, one of Hinduism’s most ancient scriptures.

“Lead me from the unreal to the Real.
Lead me from darkness to Light.
Lead me from death to Immortality.”

Light in this sense represents a moment of self-awakening that we strive towards. It represents the uniquely human ability to recognise what truly matters and distinguish it from that which is immaterial. And it also represents a spirit of optimism – that in difficult and dark times, we can be the source of our own guidance- if we can only work out how.

In my own religious, cultural and historical tradition, Diwali has a particular significance for other reasons as well. It marks an occasion recorded in Valmiki’s epic story, the Ramayana, which is the return of Lord Rama from 14 years of exile as an ascetic in the forest to the city of Ayodhya, where he takes up his rightful place as the city’s ruler. It is said that the citizens of Ayodhya were so overjoyed to hear of his return that they lit small lamps to light his way back home.

Diwali is therefore a story of homecoming after a long and difficult journey. In the forest, Rama is forced to give up his princely privileges – learning how to live and fend for himself. He does so because of the support of his wife and his brother Lakshman who voluntarily follow him into the forest to establish their own, temporary home together.

In Valmiki’s Ramayana we are given a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of a family not so different to those of our own. It is by no means a flawless family – there are moments of regret, anger, overstepped boundaries and lines, and crossed wires of communication. These are the moments that lead Sita towards her kidnapping by demon Ravana, whom Rama has to slay before he goes back to Ayodhya.

This recurring theme of homecoming – of leaving, returning, coming home, and, where necessary, building your own home has arrested me for many years. In part, this is because my own family are no strangers to this process – as East African Asians who found that the security and stability of their own home was threatened, I see a striking resonance between the experience described in the Ramayana and the lived experience of my family. The only difference is that in the lived experience of my family there was no great moment of karmic retribution – no opportunity to reclaim what was once yours. We had to find a new and different way of coming home.

Homecoming, as these stories perhaps illustrate, is something that is not physical, but rather, something that has to be constructed time and time again. It is a dynamic relationship between a group of people – a family, bound by their kinship to each other – and a place.

It is no accident to my mind that communities and families celebrate Diwali in the home. Each year Diwali marks an annual occasion where I go to the house I grew up in, share and eat food with my extended family, and reflect on the year gone by. This is a privilege that was not afforded to those of my parents, and those of my grandparents’ generation.

This Diwali, as with any other, I will be lighting lamps at the doorstep of my own home, and decorating it with vibrant colours – grateful for all that we do have, and thinking of all of those across the world who cannot share that same joy.

I wish you a very happy Diwali, and a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.