Friday, January 5, 2024

Lights in Dark Times--A Reflection on Diwali by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 11/12/2023

I have had many friends who are Hindu and who celebrate Diwali.  They have spoken of it with great joy and reverence.  But before we explore a little about Diwali, I think it would be best to share a common understanding about Hinduism, for Diwali came out of the Hindu tradition—even though today it is celebrated by Sikhs, Jaines, and Buddhists and even people with no particular religious tradition.  

Hinduism is a collective term applied to the many philosophical and religious traditions native to India.  In a strict sense there was no 'Hinduism' before modern times, although the sources of Hindu traditions are very ancient.  Hinduism has no defined starting point that anyone has been able to discover. The traditions which flow into Hinduism may go back several thousand years and some practitioners claim that revelation in Hinduism is eternal.  So, like Unitarian Universalism, Hinduism is always in a state of change.  Most Hindus believe that there are several gods and goddesses; multiple levels of reality; and that all humans are involved in cycles of innumerable reincarnations on earth.

Many, but not all, Hindus believe these gods actively influence the world and interact with humans.  Hindus also believe in karma; karma is the sum of a person's actions, both helpful and harmful behaviors, in this and previous states of existence; karma is viewed as deciding a person’s fate in future existences. Hindus believe they are stuck here on this earth until reunited with their God, Brahma. Also, Brahman is the spiritual essence of the universe.  Many believe that material things around us, cell phones, tv's, possessions, even our bodies are temporary, seductive, and not always helpful in achieving ultimate connection with Brahma. Earth is viewed as a place where there are multiple opportunities for spiritual growth so that a person can ultimately come into connection with Brahma.  The Universe is Brahma's creation; and he/she is ultimately good and compassionate god.
There are four goals in life for a Hindu: to pursue material gain by lawful means; to follow the right, moral path prescribed in the Vedas and other scriptures; to reincarnate to higher levels of existence through pure acts, pure knowledge and pure devotion; and to be released from the cycle of rebirth/reincarnation and becoming one with Brahma.  

There are four very general paths to achieving connection with Brahma, and these are based on personality types.  (Huston Smith, World Religions) Some people are primarily reflective; some are basically emotional; others are essentially active; and some are experimentally inclined.  Those who are reflective generally choose the way to Brahma through knowledge--learning to discriminate the difference between what is surface and material, thus less important, and what is spiritual, for spiritual growth, thus more important in how one lives their lives.  Those who are emotional generally choose the way to God through love--love that is outgoing toward other people and to Brahma.  Those who are active, generally choose the way to God through work--how they do every activity in life with Brahma in mind.  And those who are experimental generally choose the way to God through psychophysical exercises—yoga and meditation for instance.

Fall celebrations, which eventually evolved into Diwali, started in India several thousand years ago. These celebrations recognized the harvest.  Fires and candles were lit around the fields to keep animals from stealing the harvest.  And over time, people began to celebrate the end of the growing season and the plentiful harvest rather than just to try to keep it from being eaten by animals.  At least this what anthropologists and archeologists have come to believe.
Over time cultural and religious traditions and stories were overlaid on these celebrations.  The story of Rama and Sita is one of the primary stories that became associated with this seasonal festival. There are varying traditions and rituals associated with Diwali, depending on the region of India and the specific religious tradition that celebrates Diwali.  There are Diwali celebrations across the world, even here in Miami.  

During these celebrations, it is hoped that Diwali will be a time of sweetness and friendship wellbeing and prosperity.  During Diwali, many Hindus speak a blessing to others that goes something like this: May the diyas, the little clay oil filled lanterns, that you light within and around your home nourish you own inner flame, so that you may be a source of joy, radiance and knowledge in this world.  

What I wonder is, without appropriating Diwali, what might we as Unitarian Universalists learn from this joyful celebration?  How might increasing our understanding of Diwali impact our lives, particularly as the nights grow longer?  
Well, the themes of Diwali are the good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, light over darkness, joy over despair.  This celebration grounds itself in spiritual reflection as well as communion with family and friends, welcoming anyone who enters your home.  The celebration is about prosperity, good luck, and hope.  
As I reflect on Diwali, what I experience is joy.  I see the smiling faces, the fireworks, and the gift giving.  If anything, this holy day seems to spark a spiritual practice of joyfulness in the people who celebrate it.  
Earlier this year, I talked about the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, a yearly Jewish tradition which anchors within its adherents the practices of reflection, forgiveness, confession, and atonement.  As I said during that service, I wondered if some Unitarian Universalist congregations could fold something similar into their programming year, an annual ritual or liturgy that grounds us in reflection, forgiveness, confession, and atonement.  After learning more about Diwali, I am wondering about building into our UU Miami tradition an annual ritual or liturgy that grounds us in the spiritual practice of joyfulness.  Perhaps some of you might feel curious enough to start adding a practice of joyfulness into your own spiritual practice.

Joyfulness can certainly be associated with what happens to us, like prosperity or good luck, but here’s the thing, I believe that joy can be choice rather than “I will be happy when…” During the meditation today you were encouraged to envision joy as available to you just on the other side of a door, that all you need to do is open it and let joy into your heart.  Where you able to do that?  If so, what were the characteristics of joy you experienced?  Maybe gratitude, being less worry, being excited, having fewer expectations, finding more beauty, seeing more blessings in your life, laughing more often, times when you enjoy your journey through life, believing in the existence of love, finding goodness in others.  

 If you were to build a spiritual practice to enhance your joyfulness, what would it look like?
Well, certainly Diwali gives us some ideas about practices that might enhance joy in our lives: being welcoming, giving and receiving with gratitude, gathering with beloved family and friends, and viewing joy as part of a spiritual journey.   
As I consider a joyful spiritual practices from my Buddhist perspective, I think of that which hinders joyfulness first.  Suffering can block joyfulness.  Suffering that comes from attachment, the transient nature of existence, expectations and certainty in a world of change, disconnection with other people, and an unwillingness to change.  Does that make sense?  Would an acknowledgement and acceptance that these hinderances exist, detract from the joy?  Well, I don’t think it would result in less joy.  I mean the Buddha had to recognize the causes of suffering before finding a path to deal with it.  

It doesn’t escape my attention that a holiday that celebrates joy over despair feels a little jarring to talk about when there is so much pain, grief, and horror in the world right now.  Sometimes it’s hard to make my heart stretch wide enough to hold grief and joy together, at the same time.  As English poet and painter William Blake wrote: “It is right it should be so; [humans] was made for joy and woe; and when this we rightly know, thro’ the world we safely go.  Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.  Under every grief and pine runs a joy with silken twine.”  Do you know that silk’s weight can be 5 times stronger than steel?  I think about that when I think about finding joy and holding onto it during dark days of woe.  Sometimes I’m holding onto the joy, but sometimes, the joy is holding onto me, stronger than steel under the grief and pain.  
My friends, may you find something that brings you joy or open the door to that joy that lies within you.  And let that joy give you strength to be a light in this world.  May it be so.    

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