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Diwali shines a guiding light on togetherness

By Rabbi Marc Gellman, Tribune Content Agency on

Happy Diwali!

Unfortunately, regular readers of this column might conclude that the only religions in the world are Judaism and Christianity, with an occasional nod to al-Islam. I call these religions the Abrahamic faiths because they come from a common biblical root and have formed Western religious thinking for over 2,000 years. Even though one out of every three people on planet earth is a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew, the religions of the East are profoundly important to the history of the world -- particularly Hinduism, which accounts for almost a billion people and is considered to be over 5,000 years old.

The reason that Eastern religions are not sufficiently known in the West is not merely the geographical distance. It is also the fact that Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion like Christianity and Islam. It does not seek or accept converts. The reason is that Hindus believe in a caste system (varnas) that is given at birth. So if one is not born a Hindu within a certain caste, one cannot truly become one.

In this world, there are tribal religions and open religions. Tribal religions like Hinduism define membership by birth. You must be born into the religion. Open religions define membership by belief. Christianity and Islam are the two largest open religions in the world. To become a Christian, one decides to become baptized and accepts Jesus as the Christ and as one's personal savior. To become a Muslim, one must recite and believe the shahada, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." Judaism does not fit the mold. It is party tribal in that Orthodox Judaism considers a Jew a person who is born to a Jewish mother. However, Judaism does allow conversion though it is not a proselytizing faith.

One of the attractive elements of open religions is, well, their openness. Anyone can join the faith community. One of the attractive elements of tribal religions is that they tend to be more tolerant of other faiths. Hinduism does not claim to have the absolute truth and does not teach that non-Hindus cannot be saved.

Hinduism is totally focused inward to the culture and faith of India that it has built over the centuries.

Now, to Diwali.

Hindus, Sikhs and Jains celebrated their most joyous and colorful and popular holiday called Diwali (or Deepavali) last week on Oct. 19, which is actually the third day of a five day Diwali festival. Because of its antiquity, Hinduism, like Judaism, uses a lunar sacred calendar. Diwali always occurs on the day before the New Moon at the end of the lunar month of Ashwin and the beginning of the month of Kartik. This is usually in October or November.

Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. It believes in many gods, although at the top of the Hindu pantheon are three main gods: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, called the Trimurti. According to the Hindu sacred scriptures called the Ramayana, Diwali celebrates the return of the god Rama to his kingdom in Ayodhya after a 14-year absence. Rama defeated Ravana, the demon king, who had kidnapped Rama's wife, Sita. It also celebrates Krishna's victory over Narakasura, the demon of ignorance. Rama and Krishna are avatars of the main god Vishnu. That is the story behind Diwali -- but Diwali is in fact a massive world-wide holiday of Hindu solidarity and joy.

Diwali is a Sanskrit word meaning "a row of lights." Like the lights on the Hanukah menorah in Judaism and like the lights on the Christmas tree in Christianity, Diwali is a holiday where light is used as a symbol of the victory of good over evil. One of the light-inspired customs of Diwali involves lighting "diyas," which are clay oil lamps, in one's home. Added to the oil lamps in homes and public places are strings of colorful lights. People dress in special new clothes for Diwali, and parties and festival meals with special sweets are hosted in Hindu homes. Outside, something that looks like a Hindu pinata but it is filled with fireworks is set ablaze. There are also prayers (puja) directed specifically to the goddess Lakshmia for prosperity in the year ahead.

A particularly beloved Hindu tradition for Diwali is for people to anoint themselves with oil followed by a sprinkling of water taken from one of the holy rivers of India: the Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Indus and Kaveri. Powders of dried lentils, roots, aromatic seeds, leaves and flowers are then used to remove the oil and leave a scent of a joyous and beautiful time.

Diwali is one of the great holidays of the world. I pray that all our worlds might come to the light together.

Happy Diwali!

(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at godsquadquestion@aol.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)

(c) 2017 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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