When I was a child, each year on the night of Diwali before going to bed, our family unlocked and slightly opened all the doors to our home. The reason, I was told, was that so on this night, Lakshmi Devi, the goddess of fortune, could freely enter and bless our home with prosperity. In my childish way, I imagined Lakshmi to be something like a more selfless version of the tooth fairy -- leaving coins for us on the altar as we slept.
As I grew into an adult, and embraced the path of Bhakti within Hinduism, Diwali became more focused on celebrating the story of Lord Ramachandra -- the Divine in the form of an exemplary king -- returning home to his kingdom of Ayodhya.
Although there are so many narratives that embody the spirit of this holiday, for many of us Diwali centers on these two personalities, Lakshmi and Rama. This year, I believe it is especially meaningful to reflect on the deep and esoteric connection between these two aspects of Diwali, and how that connection may enrich our own spiritual journeys.
The basic story of Lord Ramachandra, which is known as the Ramayana, is that Lord Rama's beloved wife, Sita Devi, is abducted by the demon king Ravana. Rama valiantly rescues her, liberates the people from Ravana's demonic rule and returns home to Ayodhya, where the citizens have lit the city with candles in celebration of His return. For those of us within this tradition, there is certainly a historical significance to these events, but there is also rich symbolic meaning that traditional Hindu scholars beautifully explicate. Who is Rama? Rama is the supreme embodiment of dharma -- spirituality, righteousness, the purest manifestation of our very essence. Who is Sita? Sita is the very same Lakshmi Devi we celebrate as the goddess of all fortune, all auspiciousness. And who is Ravana? Ravana is the personification of our basest instincts -- lust, wrath, envy, greed. He is the epitome of exploiting others. Seen in this way, the whole Ramayana is about the epic quest to reunite Rama and Sita, to have fortune and dharma side by side once again.
The Ramayana offers a stark warning of what happens when the darkness of greed threatens to extinguish the light of justice. It is a story of hope, for in the end the light prevails over the darkness. And judging by the impassioned and heartfelt sense of collective outrage that has given birth to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is a story that is as relevant to our time as it was millennia ago.
Diwali is, I believe, a special time to find our own role in the narrative. If we look at all of the other characters in the story, they are all either trying to help Rama reunite with Sita, or keep them apart. That choice is ultimately ours -- day-by-day and moment-to-moment.
It is easy to point the finger at the modern-day Ravanas on Wall Street, but Diwali invites us to honestly search out the Ravana lurking within each of our own hearts. He is there whenever we act on an opportunity to capture Lakshmi -- prosperity and fortune -- even at the expense of exploiting, cheating or hurting others.
Diwali allows us a particularly fitting opportunity to choose an alternative. While it is natural to mark this joyous day by celebrating, we might also use the occasion to pause and take stock of our lives and priorities -- individually and collectively. If we are struggling, we can take that struggle as an opportunity to discover that real wealth is not in possessions or currency, but in our relationship with God and our relationship with his creation. If we have been blessed with wealth or resources, we can -- we must -- see it as a gift from the Divine, to be used responsibly and in the service of God and one another. Rather than to exploit, we can choose to serve.
To the extent that we fail to do that, Lakshmi remains like my childish conception -- a fairytale-like character to beg some coins from. To the extent that we can sincerely try to do it, however, Lakshmi Devi runs into our homes and resides there happily.
Diwali reminds us that we abound in opportunities to choose light over darkness. As we observe the holiday this year, we can re-dedicate ourselves to living out our spiritual principles in all that we do. We can choose to see this one sacred day as the first in a year full of sacred days ahead, each one giving us a new chance to help and heal rather than to divide or destroy. We can choose to be instruments in the hands of the Divine, humble but bold carriers of light in a world that is so desperately in need of it.