Diwali is one of my favorite times of the year. Known as the festival of lights, it is one of the largest holidays of South Asia and is jointly observed by all members of the Dharmic traditions -- Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains -- as a celebration of the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance.
When I think of Diwali, however, these themes are the last to cross my mind. Instead, I think of family and cleaning the house to welcome Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity. Wearing new clothes and going to countless Diwali parties. Dancing and doing fireworks. Listening to my father retell the stories of Diwali and gorging on my mother's melt-in-your-mouth gulab jamun and delectably flaky balushai. Caught up in the revelry of the loud and colorful holiday, it is easy to lose sight of what the festival really represents: a celebration of light.
All of that changed this year. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, as many in New York and New Jersey struggle to return to normalcy and continue to deal with the loss of power, homes, and loved ones, Diwali and light take on a new meaning.
Perhaps it is the inability to go home for the holiday this year, or maybe being back in school is enabling my mind to finally think more deeply, but as I reflect on Diwali today I am reminded of how important a role light plays in my life. Both literally as electricity and metaphorically as knowledge, I almost always take light for granted.
Sandy, however, flipped the switch. In the days after, I counted my blessings that the storm's damage was limited in New Haven, and I was amazed to see how quickly individuals who were not severely struck rallied to the support of those who were. Before the storm was even over, a handful of my business school classmates were already organizing relief efforts on campus and making plans for a group of us to travel to New York to help with the recovery. Likewise, within two days of the storm, even before power had returned to all of their houses, a group of friends in New Jersey were collecting and distributing food, clothing, and blankets to those Sandy had rendered homeless.
For me, light represents knowledge and the responsibility to use it effectively to improve the quality of life for those less fortunate. I consider my time back in school as a mechanism to develop my interests into a career that allows me to accurately apply business acumen to instrumenting social benefit. Ironically, however, it was not until I entered business school that I was able to look past the material celebration of Diwali and come to this realization.
Thinking back over the events of the past few weeks, I have a newfound meaning for Diwali. There is more to the festival of lights than lighting diyas (lamps), wearing fancy clothing, asking Lakshmi to bless us with wealth, and eating delicious food. Don't get me wrong -- that's an important part of the holiday and one I won't think twice about partaking in -- but the real lesson of Diwali is to move beyond these material aspects in order to recognize the value light holds in our lives.
This year on Diwali, irrespective of your faith (or abstinence from) background, I encourage each of you to celebrate light in a manner that is unique and meaningful to you.
Start small. After you clean your house for the Goddess of Prosperity, spend some time cleaning up your neighborhood park so Lakshmi will follow there too. Fill up on tasty Diwali treats and then volunteer at the local food bank. As you put on your new clothes, take a pair (or 10) of your old clothes to a nearby shelter so that someone less privileged can also wear new threads this Diwali. Celebrate your wealth by donating to a charity of your choice, a cause that represents and promotes what light means to you. Remember, as the philosophy of karma (and Justin Timberlake) points out, "What goes around... comes around."
Happy Diwali and Saal Mubarak!
Happy Diwali! How are you celebrating Diwali this year? Share your story with us. Email your photos and reflections to us at email@example.com. Text submissions should be 300-400 words in length. We will accept them until Nov. 15, 2012. Check out our Diwali liveblog.