Diwali, Lakshmi and good winning over evil

The return of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana to Ayodhya. (From Ramayana online).
The return of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana to Ayodhya. (From Ramayana online).

Today we mark a day of solemnity, remembering all those who fought for our country. I salute you on Veterans Day, especially those of you I came to know well in Iraq. I think of you often, not just on days reserved to honor you.

Today is also a day of joy. It’s the festival of lights. Happy Diwali, everyone!

Hindus and Jains mark the day by decorating their homes and streets with rows and rows of diyas, or oil lamps. Well, these days, many folks use more convenient candles or electrical lamps.

Light is such an important metaphor in so many religions. It is the presence of a higher being. Hindus see light also as a metaphor for self-awareness and self-improvement.

The word Diwali comes from the Sanskrit Deepawali — a row of lights. The festival celebrates a triumph of good over evil.

The story stems from the Hindu epic, “Ramayana,” in which Prince Rama returns to the kingdom of Ayodhya from 14 long years of exile with his wife, Sita, and brother, Lakhsmana. Rama comes back a hero after defeating the nasty Ravana, the 10-headed king of the demons.

Rama becomes king and Ayodhya prospers in peace.

Lakshmi
Lakshmi

This was my favorite story of all from the Hindu epics, partly because I was born on Lakshmi puja, the day when Hindus pray to the goddess of prosperity. Sita is an avatar of Lakshmi, just as Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu, the preserver.

The story of the  good Sita ends with a dramatic account of the ground splitting apart and Sita enters Earth’s womb. It’s a rescue for her from the cruel world that challenged her purity.

My pishi (aunt) read me stories from the Ramayana when I was a little girl. On Thursdays, I sat with her and my great-aunt in a mezzanine level room that housed the altars to the gods. The two women chanted mantras in Sanskrit in worship of Lakshmi while I gazed on the idols and detailed photos of the gods and goddesses, especially Lakshmi.

I think of those days every year on Diwali. I am so far from home and feel so connected at times through my memories. I don’t have diyas at my home but tonight I will light a candle and think of all the times I have borne witness to goodness winning over evil, something I don’t do often enough.

 

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Hindus to NYC: Why Eid, but not Diwali?

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Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are like Christmas and Yom Kippur now for New York City schools. Mayor Bill Blasio announced the city will recognize the two important Muslim holidays. It’s a landmark decision.

New York is the first major metropolis to reach out to its Muslim residents — a handful of smaller cities have already done so.

It’s a great move, a show of tolerance and acceptance at a time when Islam is under fire in many corners of America.

But it also means that other religions deserve consideration. That call came from Asian Americans who are urging recognition of the Chinese Lunar New Year and the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali.

“While the addition of two Muslim holidays is commendable, the mayor’s decision to exclude Diwali, a festival that is celebrated by thousands of Hindu, Jain, and Sikhs in NYC is beyond disappointing,” said Sheetal Shah, senior director of the Hindu American Foundation.

“These communities are a vibrant and integral part of this city and deserve to be able to celebrate their festivals,” Shah said. “In excluding Diwali, the mayor is falling short on his responsibility to equally represent all New Yorkers.”

It’s certainly something to think about considering the hefty Indian population in the United States, especially in urban areas that are home to many Hindus. The education board in Glenn Rock, New Jersey, for instance, voted last month to add Diwali to its list of school holidays.

Diwali is the largest festival of India and is celebrated in the fall. It signifies a victory of light over darkness.

This year, Diwali falls on Wednesday, November 11. I think I will ask for that day off.

Hotel Death

monimukti

My story on a home for the dying in Varanasi, India, came out on CNN.com today.

I spent a week reporting in the fabled holy city and was fascinated by its spirituality much more this time than I was on previous trips. Part of it was because I was reporting on faith. But another part of it was that I think I have transformed over the years; my rebellion against organized religion has mellowed.

As I have grown older, I have lost people who were close to me. My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and good friends. I was in shock after I returned from India in February to the death of my colleague Lateef Mungin. He was 10 years younger than me.

That kind of loss makes you think about the things that are important in life and also about what happens to us after we stop breathing.

The people I spent time with in Varanasi were, for the most part, steadfast in their beliefs, though there is one man in my story who may surprise you.

moksha

Read my story, “Hotel Death,” on CNN.com

Varanasi (aka Benares, aka Kashi)

Varanasi or Benares, as the British called it, is known for a lot of things.

It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, the oldest, certainly, in India.

It is the holiest of seven holy cities for Hindus, known as Kashi in olden times. The might Ganges, flows through here and yes, thousands of people visit Benares every year. Hindus come here for obvious reasons. Foreigners flock here to take in the myriad rituals of Hinduism and walk the chaos of the city, now 3.5 million strong.

There are about 3,600 temples in Benares, I’ve been told. I walked through the old city last week and it felt as though there was a temple on every corner. Many of the ancient ones are gone, razed by Muslim invaders but some date back several hundred years. The city also claims 1,400 mosques.

I was mesmerized as I walked the narrow alleyways and snaking lanes of the old city. The smell of fresh cow dung mingled with motorbike exhaust and turmeric and cumin as I walked past homes and shops that all seemed stacked one on top of another.

Indians look down on Benares, a city that reminds me of how my native Kolkata was 30 years ago. Grimy, dusty, filthy with little order to the daily machinations of life. I, too felt that way about the city on my previous visits.

This was my third trip to Benares. I understand the magic of this city a little better now. I owe that to my superb guide Nandan Upadhyay, who a few years ago began running a tour company here. Nandan knows a lot about his hometown. If you are ever here, look him up. He has a website called Groovy Tours.

I’m posting a ton of photos with this dispatch. None capture the essence of the city, really. You have to not only see but smell, hear and touch Benares. And that’s not possible with a camera. Not even with a iPhone 5s.