THE BLOG
10/20/2016 11:49 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2017

Truth, Light and Meaning in the Voting Booth: Diwali and the US Elections

Diwali is the Hindu festival of light, and we pray each year to be led from untruth to truth (asato mā sad gamaya), from darkness to light (tamaso mā jyotir gamaya), and from the transient to that which has ultimate value (mṛtyor mā amṛtaṃ gamaya). The truth that we pray for on Diwali is the truth of goodness and righteousness. It is truth that challenges us to search into our minds, hearts and traditions for the ethical values that guide our daily choices.

To reflect on Diwali this year, while disregarding the elections that are only days away, is irresponsible. It makes a major Hindu festival irrelevant to one of the most important choices that we must make as citizens of a democratic nation. How may this Hindu festival provide illumination for us in what is an especially turbulent time when we yearn for light and wisdom?

An election should be a time when a nation engages in a process of deep discernment. As in the Upanishad prayer that I just mentioned, that discernment must be guided by the light of knowledge (jyotih) and not ignorance, by a passionate concern for seeking truth (sat) and not falsehood, and by a commitment to what ultimately matters (amṛta) and not the trivial. Sadly, what we see today is a reckless indifference to truth and an appeal to narrow self-interest. Untruths that demean others, and that stir hate and fears are peddled daily. The attainment of power, and not truth and wisdom, has become the object of ultimate value. Truth is equated with expediency and convenience and redefined as that which ensures electoral victory; the means justifies the end.

More specifically, what is the truth that matters in the voting booth? The Hindu tradition answers with an explicit moral criterion. The Bhagavadgita advises us, twice, that all choices must be exercised with a concern for the universal common good. Consideration for the universal common good is equated with wisdom and virtue; it is what distinguishes the unselfish and wise person from the one who is selfish and unwise. The Hindu tradition requires that we make the public good the purpose of public policy.

The Sanskrit expression, lokasangraha, which I translate here, as "universal common good," is inclusive. It includes all human beings, but also the world of nature. One who is concerned about the universal common good values and respects all beings and is devoted to their flourishing. Such a person does not privilege unjustly the interests of a particular race, religion, nation, or gender. Concern for lokasangraha does not exclude the pursuit of personal or national interests. What it does exclude is the pursuit of such interests in ways that impede the flourishing of other beings or nations. It excludes trying to lift oneself or one's nation by crushing others.

Commitment to the universal common good is not just an abstract or "feel good" response to the world. Policies and actions that aim to overcome suffering are a necessary concomitant to a commitment to lokasangraha. Human beings do not flourish when they are the victims of injustice and violence and when they lack opportunities to attain life's necessities that include health care, housing, education, good work and leisure. Women do not flourish when they are denigrated, and disrespected and reduced to sexual objects. No one flourishes in a culture that is obsessed with national greatness and not the overcoming of suffering.

Lokasangraha requires thoughtful and compassionate consideration about the implications of our choices for the interrelated fabric of life. The ripple effects of our actions go deep and far. The Hindu teaching on karma reminds us that the consequences of our actions reach into the future and even beyond the span of our own lives. Through our choices today, we are shaping the world for future generations, and determining the quality of their lives. Our freedom to choose comes with a profound responsibility, but this must not deter us from exercising it.

The Hindu tradition also makes a very specific moral demand on those who aspire to leadership. The Bhagavadgita (3:21) reminds us that leaders significantly influence the moral character of a society by their words and actions. The text repeats the word, "whatsoever,' to emphasize that everything a leader says and does is important. The moral significance of words should never be trivialized, especially when words demean and strip others of dignity. The Hindu tradition does not sanction moral compartmentalization in a leader's life to permit double standards and hypocrisy. It demands sincerity and moral consistency for the sake of a nation's moral health. Regard for the universal common good requires that we carefully examine the morality of a leader's words and actions in evaluating competency for office.

Is it too much to hope that lokasangraha can become the central moral criteria by which we evaluate the qualification of those who run for office and the relevance of the policies that they offer? Admittedly, lokasangraha, if present at all in today's political discourse, is on the remote margins. The prevailing rhetoric arrogantly champions narrowly construed national interests, divides communities, and ignorantly dismisses the real threats to the fragility of our life-supporting ecological system. Our political discourse is not grounded in an understanding of the unity of life and of the flourishing of the whole. It is fragmented, fractured and partisan. Sadly, even the religious voices that we hear most at this time do not rise above the fray to offer us an alternative vision of the good life for all. These voices show little concern for justice and moral values in public life.
At a Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) event in New Jersey on October 15th for example, the organizing committee seemed more concerned about Green Cards than lokasangraha. There was an uncritical equation of Hindu with India leading Donald Trump to declare, "I am a big fan of Hindu and I am a big fan of India." It was difficult to identify any elements of the Hindu worldview that informed the organization's philosophy. On the contrary, being an RHC "Hindu" appeared to be little more than a mere marker of socio-political identity.

The lights of Diwali, however, are the lights of hope. These are meant to remind us of our responsibility to transform our world by a passionate commitment to the overcoming of suffering and to truth and knowledge. Diwali is traditionally celebrated on the darkest night of the year to show us that even a tiny flame in a small clay vessel can dispel the gloom. Every additional flame widens the circle of light. Placing lokasangraha at the center of our political life will not happen overnight, but every compassionate moral choice for truth, wisdom and the overcoming of suffering makes a difference.

When commitment to the universal common good becomes the norm by which we measure the meaning of all that we do, voting takes on a profound moral significance and becomes a moral choice and obligation. No choice is perfect and no outcome can be guaranteed. Inaction, however, as the Bhagavdgita teaches, is never an option. We align ourselves with the highest truth when we make a choice in the voting booth for lokasangraha.