DIWALI IS INDIA’S Christmas, a festival that’s celebrated in spectacular fashion all across the country by people of all religions, though it’s actually Hindu. Families gather to enjoy time together, to perform Lakshmi Puja, to create rangolis, eat sweets and light candles and fireworks. The origin of Diwali is the epic Ramayana, the tale of Lord Rama, and the lights are meant to help guide him back from exile.
There are five days of Diwali, each with a different significance, and the festival culminates on the night of the new moon, the darkest night of the year. Diwali is also known as the Festival of Light because on this night, diyas (small clay lamps) are placed in rows all along balconies, stairs, rooftops, walls and other places outdoors. After dark, the diyas are lit and people shoot fireworks into the night sky. The entire country lights up in a spectacular display that signifies the triumph of light over dark, and the victory of good over evil.
The dining hall of Aurovalley Ashram lit up for Diwali
I’ve spent three Diwali’s in India — two with my Indian family in Delhi, and the most recent one at Aurovalley Ashram near Rishikesh. I chose to spend Diwali at the ashram because Delhi becomes clogged with traffic and ultra-high levels of air pollution (due to the millions of fireworks ignited) — and because Aurovalley is my other home in India. I’m so glad I did.
On the day of Diwali, everyone staying at the ashram (about 20 people, from Canada, England, Colombia, Russia and of course India) spent the day cleaning, decorating and affixing small candles along pathways, stairs, balconies and walls.
The Meditation Hall at Aurovalley decorated for Diwali
As always, we spent one hour in collective meditation before dinner. The Meditation Temple was elaborately decorated with flowers and candles, and shone with incredible brightness that seemed to penetrate my consciousness.
Just before dinner, we lit the outdoor candles and watched the ashram glow, while the sounds of firecrackers from the nearby village broke the usual stillness. After dinner, we all went into the World Temple where we watched a music and dance performance. Then we went up to the roof and danced with sparklers and lit fireworks, everyone including Swami Brahmdev beaming with joy and happiness, like children. Finally, someone started playing Bollywood dance tunes and Bhangra, and all the women ran downstairs, onto the World Temple lawn, to dance into the night.
Fireworks on the roof of the World Temple during Diwali
Spiritual significance of Diwali
Swami Brahmdev during Diwali. Photo Ashleigh Holman.
It was a fun night, and also a significant one. During Satsang, the daily question-and-answer period, I asked Swami Brahmdev (Swamiji) for the spiritual significance of Diwali, and he said: “You are made of light. But you forget. Diwali helps you discover that you are light. The ritual helps to awaken the light within. It helps you journey from darkness to light.
Diwali should be each moment of life.
“Light means consciousness, wisdom. It refers to your higher self, your best self, your true nature. The whole year, you should be remembering your light, not just one day.
“This is the darkest night of the year, and the festival reminds us to light a candle within. Burn your candle on the inside. We are habituated to look outside, but the real work is to burn the inner light. Diwali should be each moment of life.”
I have written about Aurovalley Ashram, as I have been visiting this lovely, peaceful spot for almost 10 years. For those who are cynical about spiritual centres, like ashrams, and “godmen” as they are called in India, I can certainly empathize. There are so many frauds, and so many superficial retreats. In India, there are people who dress up like swamis to cheat the innocent and vulnerable. Among westerners, there are those who take one-month yoga teacher training courses, set themselves up as gurus and open yoga studios and retreats.
Satchidinanda during Diwali. Photo Ashleigh Holman
Others may not be as cynical, but just may wonder about the purpose of time spent at an ashram. They may think they don’t need it, or that it’s unnecessary, and they don’t see the point.
Well, of course, if you’re not drawn to visit an ashram, there’s probably no point in going. But if you are curious, you may find, like me, there is a kind of luxury at an ashram you won’t find anywhere else, not even at a seven-star tropical resort.
At a place like Aurovalley, there is the luxury of time to be with yourself. By yourself, I mean your inner self, your higher self. An ashram is the one place where you are encouraged to sit quietly and ponder questions such as:
- How should I live my life?
- What is the purpose of life?
- Who am I?
- How can I bring more consciousness to my life and my work?
- What is my gift, what am I supposed to manifest in my life?
Aurovalley is a particularly special place because it offers two things in ample amounts: peace and freedom. I would not be surprised to learn there is no other ashram like it in India. It is physically and materially very well made and comfortable, with spacious clean rooms and hot showers, two asana classes per day in a beautiful yoga hall and a stunning library, among other amenities. It’s also well-located halfway between Rishikesh and Haridwar, surrounded by fields, close to the Ganga River and ringed with the mist-covered hills of Rajaji National Park.
Sunrise at Aurovalley Ashram
But much more importantly, it is a deeply peaceful place, where your entire being can unwind. There is a daily routine, which you are expected to take part in, and you are given the freedom to discover your own unique spiritual path.
As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. – Carl Jung
Ashrams give you a break from the daily grind of life — but much more so than any vacation can offer. This is hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it. At Aurovalley, the silence and peace allow you to hear your innermost thoughts, to feel your deepest emotions, to sense the movements of your soul … and “to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
Your cares are lifted for a time and you have the opportunity to reflect and meditate, and gain increased awareness about your life. Every time I come to Aurovalley, I undergo an important paradigm shift in awareness, and I feel my consciousness expand a little. Cares seem to grow smaller and become more manageable, and I leave with a spring in my step.
Photo courtesy Ashleigh Holman
Relevance in times of tragedy
You may also wonder: What’s the use of sitting around meditating when there is war, poverty, terrorism and other horrors in the world. Are ashrams and places like them an anachronism is today’s modern world?
The day after the Friday the 13th attacks on Paris, I asked Swami Brahmdev about how we should respond. He said:
“Any kind of catastrophe, horror, attack, tragedy shakes us up. They make us ask ourselves about finding sense and purpose in life. These attacks are a clear sign that we need to grow our consciousness. Sometimes people learn from these incidents.
“We are social animals, and social animals fight. But we have the chance to be more. Every day we have the chance to make changes, to progress, to learn. Change is the most beautiful secret to life. Consciously participate in positive change.”
Then Swamiji recited a short Hindi poem, and translated it. He said, about life, “You’ve given me many ups and downs. But now I’m in charge, I’m calling the tune!”
This powerful and radical message lit a spark in me and has helped move me forward more positively and confidently. I now feel better able to deal with some major challenges in my life. Personally, I think most of us could benefit from a better understanding of how truly powerful we are. And how capable of igniting change.