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The meaning of Deepawali

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-12

FOR someone born into Hinduism, educated in Christian missionary schools in India and at predominantly Jewish universities - Brandeis and Columbia - in the United States, the idea of secularism resonates far more powerfully than religious parochialism. If globalisation needs an overriding faith, then it must be secularism - because anything else would surely strain the carrying capacity of our ideologically overwrought world to bursting point.

I write this during the Deepawali season, when the world's one billion Hindus - one-sixth of the global population - mark their New Year. It's not so much a calendar year in the manner of, say, the Gregorian register; nor do Hindus - even deeply observant ones - do anything more than garland deities at the temples of their choice, and generally engage in one long thundering ecstasy of gift-giving, gluttony and, yes, benign gambling. Deepawali is a time for fun, not so much for reflection. At any event, the traditional fireworks that accompany Deepawali festivities would make it difficult for anyone but the most dedicated Sanskrit scholar want to do anything more than partake of more sweetmeats.

But this is my first Deepawali in Singapore, and as I walked around the city it occurred to me how secular the celebration here was, how widely shared by different communities and ethnicities. In Little India, Hindus jostled with Muslims to buy traditional Deepawali savouries; I met Christian friends slipping into temples, if only to take pictures. A Buddhist monk was holding forth on how much his religion owed to Hinduism, being an offshoot - albeit one in protest - of it two millennia ago. A Jain businessman, who, too, spoke about the Hindu origins of his austere religion, handsomely endorsed the Buddhist's peroration.

A Chinese taxi driver asked if I was a visitor to Singapore. Well, I told him, I'd come recently to live and work here.

"Then you must have this," he said, producing a box filled with mithai, the calorific candies devoured by Hindus year-round, although Deepawali gives them the licence to engage in excess.

Mithai? From a Chinese gentleman?

"It's Deepawali here, sir," he said. "It's everyone's festival. Happy time for all. But more traffic."

It occurred to me, as I witnessed these things with the fascination of a newcomer, that if globalisation is Singapore's driving credo, then secularism is its national creed. Secularism spawns tolerance. Or is it the other way around? It doesn't matter, really.

What counts is that festivals such as Deepawali highlight those qualities that anchor enlightened nation-states in an irreversible social compact: acceptance of different faiths, the ability to live side by side with those of different religious persuasion, and the acknowledgement that people don't have to shed their spiritual differences in order to accomplish common temporal goals such as economic and social progress.

If it works in Singapore, can it be made to work elsewhere? This is an especially pertinent question as our interdependent world is being convulsed with frightful clashes of civilisations - from the Middle East to the Far East, from the votes of evangelical Christians that re-elected the incumbent president of the United States to those of poverty-stricken, but canny, Indian peasants who threw out a Hindu fundamentalist national government in favour of a more broad-based one.

I've spent most of my life in two of the world's most cosmopolitan cities: Bombay, where I hail from a liberal middle-class family, and New York, where I became a professional journalist more than three decades ago. My journalist travels have taken me through lands of staggering religious and animist diversity where one group would demonise deities worshipped by another. I learned early in life that, notwithstanding all the generous talk about the common ground occupied by the world's religions - peace and tolerance - practitioners of those theologies can be extremely possessive of what each sees as its high moral ground.

In China, I've met Muslims who deride Hinduism's pantheism; in Myanmar, I've met Hindus who are disdainful of Muslim customs such as circumcision and the purdah; in Iran, I've met Christians who hold that Muslims are barbarians; in Brazil, I've met Buddhists who, through their deep silence, suggested more strongly than by any words they could utter, their despondency with other religions; in Nigeria, I met animists who wondered what all the fuss over religions was all about - what was there to worship beyond Nature itself? And in the US, of course, I've even met people who didn't know the difference between Muslims and Jews.

The point that is being made in Singapore, I think, is that it shouldn't matter what these theological differences are. What matters is the cause of nation building and of creating prosperity for all people, whatever their birthplace or beliefs. It is a cause that should be common to societies everywhere, especially in this millennium of terrifying financial, political and ideological anxieties.

It is a cause that needs to be espoused more vocally by leaders everywhere, but especially in Third World countries that tend to be more riven by tradition, tribalism and theology. It's all very well to talk loftily of "Millennium Development Goals" as the United Nations does with annoying frequency when it discusses poverty alleviation and sustainable development. But at the heart of the matter is the simple, central question of whether a developing country has the social fabric of communal harmony. It takes cautious but courageous leadership to weave that fabric.

And so, on this first Deepawali of mine in Singapore, it's impossible not to return to the question of whether this nation's experience in chiselling social harmony and creating a multiracial and tolerant society could be replicated elsewhere. The most facile answer would be: of course not, because of Singapore's small size where different communities perhaps had no choice but to learn to live and worship together, and respect one another's sensibilities, in order to make economic progress.

But I don't think it's a matter of scale or demography alone. As I go out and buy my own box of mithai to share with the next taxi driver - Chinese or Indian or Malay - who takes my custom, I like to think that it's more a question of social and political will when it comes to developing communal harmony. I don't think that Singapore had any magic formula in creating such harmony. Its leaders decided, wisely and with foresight, that fissiparous tendencies in a developing society could only be thwarted by summoning its people toward common national goals - but without dismantling social diversity.

Isn't there a lesson in that for other parts of the world? Of course. Will agitated, failing societies listen? Tradition dictates that during Deepawali one should be hopeful. But I've been around long enough to recognise that Deepawali isn't observed everywhere in the world.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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