Professor Brij Maharaj
Monday marks the 160th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa and the 110th anniversary of the official recognition of the festival of Diwali in South Africa (1910).
It is also the 108th anniversary of the SA Hindu Maha Sabha established in 1912.
Historically, indentured Hindus (with fellow Muslims and Christians of Indian origin) in South Africa struggled against discrimination, poverty, lack of education as well as political and civic representation, and religious and cultural marginalisation.
The indentured built temples which provided comfort and encouraged communal worship observing birth, marriage and death ceremonies, and celebrating festivals.
Apartheid not only suppressed political freedom but also stifled religious choices in favour of a narrow Christian Calvinist agenda.
South African Hindus have come a long way from the era of memory, oral tradition (and distortions) in religious rituals and practices.
Tamaso ma jyothir gamaya – lead us from darkness to light – is an important concept in Hinduism, and is the essence of Diwali.
Dispelling darkness and illuminating truth, honesty, integrity, morality, righteousness with Divine radiance – the ultimate triumph of good over evil – are messages which permeates all faiths.
There are many explanations about the significance of Diwali, and the most well-known is the celebration of Lord Rama’s return after his banishment and exile.
The Ramayan is one of the most popular scriptures among Hindus in the indentured diaspora because of this theme of exile and return.
The indentured laboured in the belief that like Lord Rama, they would overcome adversity in the colonies, and triumphantly return to India from exile.
The message that we must all work positively to build inclusive communities of love, justice and peace, where the dignity and equal worth of every human being is emphasised especially important in South Africa.
This is partly because of its complex colonial history, and also, because of the betrayal of the non-racial struggle, 26 years into democracy, the country remains as divided, polarised and corrupt as in the apartheid era, and minority groups increasingly feel threatened and marginalised in the land of their birth.
When South Africans (including Hindus and those of Indian descent) seek inspiration and enlightenment, they inevitably turn to the voice and words of Nelson Mandela, and his views on Diwali are apposite:
“The Hindu faith is as much a part of South Africa as any other religion…
“Justice, truth, integrity, humility, freedom, are values that the Hindu scriptures, like the scriptures of most other religions, espouse…
“At this time of Diwali and as I light this sacred lamp I am aware of how this lamp symbolises the triumph of: Enlightenment over blind faith; prosperity over poverty; knowledge of ignorance; good health and well-being over disease and ill health; freedom over bondage.”
As we celebrate the triumph of radiance and righteousness over darkness and evil, it is appropriate to reflect on how we can illuminate the lives of those around us who are less fortunate, regardless of race or religion.
Scriptures compel all Hindus to engage in some form of charity (daan) and social upliftment, according to ability, selflessly, without expectation of reward (Nishkhaam Karma).
Some give money, while others offer time and labour in support of worthy causes.
According to the Bhagavad Gita (17.20) charity that is given as a matter of duty, desiring nothing in return, to a deserving candidate at the right place and time, is sattvic.
So as we celebrate Deepavali let us do it with purpose and meaningfulness – beyond the crass conspicuous consumption in which the elite indulge.
Let it not be just for the day.
Rather, the spirit of Diwali must guide us through the year to ensure that righteousness and justice triumphs in our homes, communities and country, as well as in the world at large.
- Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN and an executive member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha. He writes in his personal capacity.
The Independent on Saturday