Diwali 2020 – Srī Rāma and the triumph of light over darkness

Saturday’s new moon occurs in the middle of the five day festival of Diwali, a festival celebrating the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. For many Diwali celebrates the return of Sita and Rama to the kingdom of Ayodhya after being exiled to live in the forest for a period of fourteen years. The Ramayana, is a long epic tale telling of the life of Rama, his marriage to Sita, their exile to the forest as a result of rivalry between the wives of Rama’s father, the kidnapping of Sita by the evil demon Ravana, the meeting and friendship of Rama and Hanuman, an epic battle between Rama and his army of monkeys and bears with Ravana’s demon army, Ravana’s defeat and Sita’s subsequent rescue from Lanka and finally the triumphant return of Rama and Sita to the kingdom of Ayodhya followed by Rama’s coronation, to the joy and exhilaration of all of Ayodhya’s citizens.

The pivotal event that leads to Sita’s capture takes place during their time banished in the forest. Sita becomes enamored by a golden deer playing in the forest near their hut. The golden deer is Mārīca, (Different to the sage Marīca of Marīcāsana!) a demon who can use his mystic powers to take any form he likes. Sita convinces Rama to capture the golden deer for her and thus Rama chases the deer deep into the forest. Rama has great difficulty capturing the deer and when He has not returned in a timely manner, concerned for His safety, Sita sends Lakshmana to find Rama. While left alone in the forest, with both Rama and Lakshmana now gone, Sita is abducted from their hut and taken to Lanka by the evil and lustful demon Ravana, who is Mārīca’s nephew. Upon his return Rama is distraught to find Sita missing and begins to search for her. After a long time of searching, Rama becomes despondent and not sure how to proceed. But there is a turning point for Rama when he meets Hanuman. After searching all over the country for many months they hear from the great eagle Jatayu, who has witnessed Sita’s kidnapping and advises that Ravana had taken Sita toward Lanka. Rama sends Hanuman to Lanka and there Hanuman finds Sita desolate but surrounded by demonesses in an Ashoka grove in Ravana’s kingdom. Despite her situation, Sita keeps her mind fixed on Rama and is described by Hanuman as being in the state of Samadhi. Hanuman returns to tell Rama of Sita’s whereabouts and Rama and his army invade Lanka. After a long and tiring battle Rama finally defeats Ravana and rescues Sita. Finally, their triumphant return to Ayodhya, on a new moon night, is celebrated by all of the citizens who place thousands of glowing lamps throughout the kingdom to welcome them home. Hence the tradition of lighting lamps on Diwali, removing the darkness of the new moon and celebrating the victory of good over evil.

According to one interpretation by Vedantadesika, the Ramayana story is an allegory for our own separation from the divine. Sita represents the Jivatman (individual soul), living happily with Rama who represents the supreme being or Paramatman. In a moment of weakness, the Jivatman’s attention becomes diverted away from the Paramatman, who is full of bliss, toward transient external objects, represented in the story by a golden deer (illustrating those external objects which are illusory such as is the illusion of a golden deer.) The moment the Jivatman’s attention is diverted, it falls prey to the senses, denoted by the ten headed Ravana. While the Jivatman is held prisoner in the control of the sense organs, it repents and yearns for reunion with the Paramatman. Through the Jivatman’s (Sita) devotion and constant remembering of the Paramatman (Rama),  a guru finally appears (represented by Hanuman, an embodiment of universal Prana) to meet the Jivatman. The guru offers consolation and gives news of the Lord, guides the sadhaka and instills hope that the day of deliverance is not far away and so there is no need for despair. The overly perturbed Jivatman, is encouraged to continue it’s sadhana  and looks forward toward redemption. Sure enough, Paramatman and Jivatman, like Rama and Sita, are finally reunited after conquering the mind and senses and turning back toward the inner light of the Paramatman.

This is just one interpretation of the story of the Ramayana, from the point of view of Vaśiṣṭādvaita. While many other religions and traditions have different stories associated with Diwali, they are all ultimately about the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness.

The Ramayana story is a beautiful allegory for our own journey in yoga as an attempt to overcome the darkness of our own separation from the divine. Spurred  by an inner yearning, through the limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, we work to gradually purify our system and bring our own mind and senses under control, slowly removing the darkness of our own conditioning and revealing the inner light of sattva and clarity. It is by perfecting that which is internal that we find peace and light in the external world as well.