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Diwali – a very secular festival since ages

It is celebrated by Sikhs, Jains and apparently some Buddhists, reflecting the substantial religious diversity of India

Diwali – a very secular festival since ages

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As Diwali is here and now, one must acknowledge the fact that the festival of lights has become very secular in nature over the years. Even non-Hindus too celebrate it in their own way. For instance, the members of the Brotherhood of the Ascended Christ society, which is also known as DelhiBrotherhood Society (DBS) would also illuminate their Brothers House in national capital. It was started in 1877 based upon the vision of Bishop Westcott, initially under the title of the Cambridge Mission. Westcott's vision was for an Anglican community of celibate brothers from Cambridge University to set down roots in India. The venerable St Stephen's College that has produced Indian president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad and Pakistan President Zia ul Haq respectively was established by the Brotherhood Society.

Brother Solomon George, an authority on Christian religion and member of the Delhi Brotherhood society, says:"After two years, India is celebrating Diwali. The dreadful Corona is behind us. The nation is in a festive mood. We are also celebrating Diwali with our Hindu friends, colleagues and countrymen. In our several projects across India, many Hindus work. We celebrate Diwali with them." Adding that: "As Christmas has become an Indian festival which is celebrated even by Hindus, Christians also celebrate Diwali."

And while talking Diwali, we must mention here that close friend of Gandhi ji, Charles Freer Andrews (12 February 1871 – 5 April 1940) was an Anglican priest and member of Brotherhood society. He was an educator and an activist for Indian independence. He became a close friend both Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi and identified with the Indian liberation struggle. He was instrumental in convincing Gandhi to return to India from South Africa, where Gandhi had been a leading light in the Indian civil rights struggle.

Solomon George says that it is good to see Diwali is celebrated even in US. The US President Joe Biden plans to celebrate Diwali at the White House on October 24 while his predecessor Donald Trump is working on celebrating the festival of lights at his Mar-a-Lago resort.Biden plans to celebrate Diwali with eminent members of the Indian-American community and members of his administration. First Lady Jill Biden will also join the festivities at the White House on October 24.

For the Hindus, Diwali symbolises the return of Prince Rama of Ayodhya with his wife, Sita, and brother, Lakshman, from a 14-year-long exile and a war in which Prince Rama stood victorious. People of Ayodhya lit lamps along the way to light their path in the darkness.

For the Sikhs, Diwali is a story of the struggle for freedom. It celebrates the victory of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, from the designs of Emperor Jahangir, who had imprisoned him and 52 other princes with him, in 1619. Guru Hargobind refused to leave the prison for freedom until he was able to bring all of the princes with him.

To the Jains, it has a whole different meaning. For them, Diwali is the day when the last of the Jain Tirthankaras, Lord Mahavira, attained nirvana, also known as complete knowledge and enlightenment. Lord Mahavira established the dharma followed by the Jains worldwide.

Meanwhile, Muslims have been celebrating Diwali since ages. It is said that Muhammad bin Tughlaq, who ruled Delhi from 1324 to 1351, who became the first emperor to celebrate a Hindu festival inside his court. It was celebrated with bonhomie and good food, organised by Tughlaq's Hindu wives.

According to noted author, Ishmeet Nagpal: "During Akbar's time, Diwali become a grand festival in the Mughal court. Akbar also began the tradition of giving sweets as Diwali greetings. Chefs from across kingdoms cooked delicacies in the Mughal court for the occasion. The ghevar, petha, kheer, peda, jalebi, phirni and shahi tukda became part of the celebratory thali that welcomed guests to the palace for Diwali celebrations."

On Diwali in Akbar's court, the Ramayana was read, followed by a play depicting Lord Ram's return to Ayodhya. This tradition strengthened Akbar's empire, (noted by his biographer Abu'lFazl in Ain-i-Akbari), as it helped the king bond better with his Hindu subjects and encouraged many Muslim merchants to take part in the festivities.

Meanwhile, Diwali is celebrated by Sikhs, Jains and apparently some Buddhists, reflecting the substantial religious diversity of India. But it's the kind of festival that anyone can participate in, whether you're in India or elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Diwali is really a scary time for Owls,the chariot of Goddess Lakshmi, pets and plants. If we start with owls, this is time when they are killed in hordes in the name of black magic, superstition and taboos. While we worship Lakshmi on Diwali, there are many who spare no concern in killing her chariot.

It is no secret that there are communities in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh which are involved in illegal trade of owls. If they keep on killing owls with such a rapid pace, this would be only seen in the pages of books.

In a report on illegal trade of Owls in India titled "Imperiled Custodians of the Night", it is said that owl is highly endangered species now. Hunting of and trade in all Indian owl species is banned under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 of India. While the exact number of owls traded each year countrywide is unknown, it certainly runs into thousands of individuals and there are anecdotal reports of owls becoming rare throughout India due to loss of suitable habitat especially old growth forests Owls play beneficial and vital role in the ecosystem, particularly to farmers through their predation of rodents and other crop pests.

And at the end, let us celebrate the fact that the festival is celebrated by one and all in India. It truly becomes a very secular festival.

(The author is an eminent bi-lingual writer and columnist based in New Delhi. The views expressed are personal)

Vivek Shukla
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