Sunday, December 17, 2023

Diwali Celebrations: Sugar, Sins and Salvation


The festival of lights is upon us! That time of the year when we overdress, overspend, overindulge on ghee laden sugary treats, and argue about whether we ought to burst crackers or not before doing it anyway. Feeling guilty over the excess, we wonder if there is a point to all this…

This is the moment when we dredge up legends of yore for their entertainment and edification value. My favourite Diwali story is the one where Narakasura, a legit villainous type whose every pore supposedly oozed evil was slain in a twist worthy of Hitchcock. Naraka was born at the end of Krita Yuga when Vishnu in his Varaha (Boar) avatar took out Hiranyaksha, another legendary baddie whose shocking shenanigans ensured that Bhumi Devi sank to the bottom of the ocean. While Varaha bore her to the surface on his tasks, a single drop of sweat which was the only sign of his mighty exertions, landed on her, impregnating the Goddess.

Besotted with her boy, Bhumi Devi, asked Lord Varaha to grant him immortality. She was gently refused but told that Naraka could only be slain by her hand. Breaking off his tusk, Varaha offered it to Naraka, urging him to stay true to Dharma. This advice was disregarded and Naraka, armed with the promise of invincibility began his reign of terror. His stronghold – Pragjyotishapura, was impregnably fortified and guarded by the deadly Mura.

Naraka eventually went too far, when he raided Indra’s capital – Amaravathi and carried away 16,000 damsels but not before snatching the ear - rings mother Aditi was wearing. Krishna was asked to set him straight. He was with Satyabhama, who had just been complaining that he was always too busy for her. Playfully, grabbing her by the waist he placed her on Garuda, and they took off on a date/perilous mission.

Krishna made short work of Pragjyotishapura’s vaunted defences and slew Mura, earning himself the title of ‘Murari’. Naraka acquitted himself more respectably and using the tusk gifted by Varaha, managed to strike Krishna in the chest. Seeing her husband drop in a dead swoon, Satyabhama realized her date was officially ruined. Enraged, she picked up a bow and released an arrow, which to their combined surprise, mortally wounded Naraka. It was then, that Krishna rose and allowed the truth to shine through. Naraka understood that Varaha’s weapon could not be used against an avatar of Vishnu and that Satyabhama was an incarnation of Bhumi Devi, his mum. Prostrating himself before his parents, he died peacefully having been cleansed of his sins, embracing dharma in his dying moments, fulfilling his purpose in the grand design of the universe, and achieving moksha.

A tearful Bhumi Devi asked Krishna to ensure that Naraka’s memory be preserved for all of time, his life and death celebrated with lights and sweets so that his legend may remind humanity to dispel the evil in their hearts and stay true to Dharma in order that someday, they too may be deemed worthy of redemption. Krishna acceded to her request. True to his word, Diwali has been celebrated ever since and we continue to fight the demons within and without, knowing that damnation is always closer than salvation, but that is no reason to stop trying to be better than we are.

An edited version of this piece was published in The New Indian Express.

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