Faith & Reason: A flight into fireworks in Delhi for Diwali

Faith & Reason: Akhandadhi Das; The freedom to choose is at the heart of one of the great Hindu festivals next week. But it is not the freedom of consumerism
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The Independent Culture
THIS WEEK, I get the opportunity to repeat a magical experience I had seven years ago - to fly into New Delhi on the evening of Diwali. Last time, as the plane descended towards the city, we were surrounded by the benign ack-ack explosions of fireworks creating a Disney-like fantasy. The experience was all the more enjoyable for being a modern approximation of the Diwali story in which the hero and heroine, Ram and Sita, after 14 years of exile, return to their capital city in a flower aeroplane with millions of tiny lights guiding their route.

Ram's banishment to the forest was not enforced; it was by choice. But a choice that he made in order to uphold the will of his father. The freedom to choose for ourselves has become the guiding principle of modern politics and ideology. Hinduism would not disagree with that. Too often religion is seen as a dictatorial hierarchy with scant regard for the individual's inclinations, perhaps viewing human freedom only as something to be curtailed lest it unleashes our lower nature.

Yet, the freedom to choose is part of the irrepressible human spirit. We want consumer choice, health care choice, schools choice and digital TV choice. We are also concerned to protect our ability to make free decisions. We can choose our representatives in Parliament, but we now feel the need to limit how much is spent by political parties on influencing our choices.

Someone once described joining a faith community as a choice similar to that of enlisting in the Army. Having made the initial decision and surrendered your decision-making faculties, you are then bound by the rules and regulations of your faith. However, the Aquarian age has little respect for traditions and structures that require such docile adherence. This is the era of pro-choice for everything.

Part of my attraction for the Hindu faith is that it is not a religion based on rules. That seems strange considering the vast array of injunctions in its scriptures covering all topics from daily ablutions to ethics - even how best to eat an orange. (Cut into quarters diagonally and suck to get the goodness and avoid too much pith.) But, these statements are generally sound advice to help an individual achieve a particular goal. Hindu scriptures recognise that our goals vary considerably and they simultaneously provide the sexual suggestions of the Kama-sutras as well as the ascetic philosophy of the Upanishads.

Whilst providing for choice, these texts do not play to the illusion that all choices yield the same benefits. Rather, they provide guidance in a way that questions the individual's motivations and opens their mind to a higher agenda. That is the responsibility of religion - to question our agenda and to provide spiritual insights that should be borne in mind when making our choices.

The Bhagavad-gita concludes with the challenge, "Now that you have heard these truths, deliberate on them fully and do as you wish." The message is that the responsibility for choice is ours, but that we should choose only after having understood the full picture.

This is the same approach being adopted by the Government as it tries to promote better eating habits in schools this week. It cannot legislate that children must eat their greens, but it does want schools to teach the importance of healthy eating for general well being and fitness and then to provide suitably healthy selections. Religion must query our choice without the use of fear or guilt. It should raise the questions that may get omitted in our everyday consideration of life. What if my life does not end with the demise of the body? What significance is there for me if there is a transcendental authority for the universe?

In the Diwali story, the choices of two key characters, Ravana and Hanuman, are contrasted. Ravana became enamoured with Ram's wife, Sita. He kidnapped and tried to seduce her, stubbornly ignoring the repeated advice of his brothers to see the evil of his actions and to make amends with Ram. His intransigence was not only from his lust for Sita, but in his attempt to establish his independence from anyone else's authority or interests.

Hanuman also sought out Sita, but with the singular intent of reuniting her with Ram. His example is said to symbolise the type of selfless devotion essential to the experience of love.

Love cannot exist without freedom of choice. The opposite of love is not hate, but envy. Envy means that I derive my pleasure from another's pain, and pain from their pleasure. Conversely, love means I enjoy witnessing the pleasure of my beloved, and I suffer seeing their pain. The devotional texts of Hinduism say that the freedom to choose to love another being is so fundamental to our nature that God will never interfere with it.

There is a progression of intensity of service and love. Service to others which is enforced is simply slavery. Service, which is motivated by a sense of responsibility, is duty. But service inspired by selfless devotion is an expression of love. When it comes to receiving affection from our loved ones, neither slavery nor duty will move our hearts. The same is true of God. He would like the choice to love Him to be ours.

Akhandadhi Das is a Vaishnav Hindu priest

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