South African Hindus will celebrate this festival of lights next week.

Opinion - When will the porridge ous and roti ous get their act together over dates for celebrating Deepavali - or Diwali, as it is popularly known?

We are just a week away from the Hindu festival of lights and the North-South dissent over when to observe the joyous event prevails.

While the occasion is celebrated over five or more days in India, for decades it has been a two-day festival in South Africa, with Tamils observing the festival on the first day and the Hindi-speaking community, as well as the Gujju brothers and sisters, on the second day.

This year, Wednesday, October 18, has been set down for South Indians and Thursday, October 19, for North Indians.

For some indistinct reason, Telugus, who trace their roots to Andhra Pradesh in South India, align their Deepavali festivities with North Indians.

All was hunky-dory with the Deepavali dates in this country for years and years.

There was no dispute even under an apartheid South African government.

Racist whites in “old” South Africa were aware of the celebratory festival of Deepavali and referred to it as “Coolie Christmas”.

Indian schools would be closed for two days to allow the majority Hindu pupils (now called learners - as if they did not learn those days) to celebrate.

Christian and Muslim children scored two days away from school.

Then came democratic South Africa in 1994.

Indian languages did not feature among the nation’s 11 official languages.

The teaching of Indian languages during normal school hours was curtailed.

Anything Indian at the former University of Durban-Westville - such as the Indian Documentation Centre and Indian studies - was removed.

Deepavali was no longer automatically a school holiday.

In terms of a 2008 Department of Education directive, principals had to apply to have their schools closed to observe Deepavali.

Then, too, only one day would be allocated for a government-sanctioned school holiday.

To help determine which of the two days principals should ask for as a holiday, the South African Hindu Maha Sabha and its affiliates rightly decided that the date for a school holiday for Deepavali would alternate annually between the South and North Indian days of observance.

This year the school holiday will be on October 19.

Unfortunately, the president of the South African Tamil Federation, Marie Pillay-Ramaya, confused matters this year by issuing a statement announcing that “the public holiday” for Deepavali this year would be on October 19.

In its circulars, the Department of Education refers to an approved holiday as a “Government Public Holiday”.

However, the use of the word “public” is a misnomer as the holiday only applies to schools.

With the use of the words “public holiday” by Pillay-Ramaya (I have long wondered about this double-barrelled surname), many people were led to believe even workers would get a paid holiday for Deepavali, which most certainly is not the case. 

It is at the discretion of an employer whether to give staff off for Deepavali - whether paid or unpaid.

Holiday

In the wake of this gaffe, there have been many people - especially of South Indian descent - who were not happy that the North Indian date had been chosen for the so-called Deepavali “public holiday” that Pillay-Ramaya referred to.

Now, let’s get one thing straight.

There is no public holiday for Deepavali in South Africa - only a school holiday on October 19 and that, too, must be applied for.

Workers may negotiate time off with their bosses for either October 18 or 19.

This whole Deepavali date disagreement remains as contentious as the Kashmir territorial conflict between India and Pakistan - or whether our polygamist president Jacob Zuma who has married six times and has at least 22 children, should be allowed to take on more wives.

It baffles me why there is all this muddling when the date for Deepavali can be fixed hundreds of years in advance.

The date is calculated according to the Hindu lunar calendar and is usually in October or November.

The main festival night of Deepavali takes place on the darkest, new moon night (Amavasya) of the Hindu month Kartika.

Astrologers have already worked out that, in 2018, Deepavali is on November 7 (a day earlier for South Indians).

In 2019, it falls on October 27, in 2020 on November 14, in 2021 on November 4, in 2022 on October 24, in 2023 on October 12, and so on and on.

It is my humble submission that, in order to remove the confusion and commotion, it is time for a rethink by all Hindus in South Africa to agree on a common day to celebrate Deepavali each year.

There are only about 600 000 Hindus in South Africa, compared with 1.15 billion adherents worldwide.

Surely we can declare a Deepavali secession and do our own thing at the bottom of Africa.

This business of South Indians celebrating on one day and North Indians the following day is as troublesome as Ravana, the primary antagonist in the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, who abducted Lord Rama’s new bride Sita.

Different regions in India have different reasons for celebrating Deepavali.

A common significance associated with Deepavali is the return of Lord Rama with Sita to his kingdom Ayodhya in north India after defeating Ravana. The lighting of oil lamps and bursting of fireworks is symbolic of recreating the welcome festivities for Lord Rama.

Deepavali also commemorates Lord Krishna’s victory over the demon Narakasura.

It also hails Lord Vishnu’s marriage to Mahalakshmi.

Growing up, I was taught that as Lord Rama came from Sri Lanka where Sita had been kept captive, he passed South India a day before he reached North India.

Thus South Indians celebrated his arrival a day earlier.

Gullibility and childhood naivety did not allow me to question how Lord Rama could traverse such a large distance on foot - or even by chariot - in only 24 hours.

Myths

I suppose if I questioned this feat, my God-fearing mother would have plainly told me that he had divine powers and could cover great distances in a short space of time.

For the sake of unity, it is time to debunk the myths around Deepavali and embrace reality and sensibleness.

“Unity in Diversity” was an apartheid government’s motto to promote its divide-and-rule policy.

In this day and age, we must only cling to those traditions that do not trample on pragmatism and rationality. We must separate the chaff from the wheat.

Do we really have to prepare tons and tons of banana puree, gulab jamun, chana magaj, burfee, naan khatai, soji balls, poli and ladoo?

Even after distributing to two dozen families of relatives and friends, there will still remain Tupperware knock-offs of the tasty treats stacked high.

Add to this the sweetmeat parcels that are received - sometimes embarrassingly with an item or two of your own signature creations - to add variety and bulk.

Until a few years ago, even my household was guilty of this extravagance of baking and frying for Deepavali - with scant attention being given to time and resources being expended on mostly sweet delicacies.

Then, when I saw the wastefulness, I realised the only beneficiaries of such profligacy were the sugar and flour manufacturers.

Too many Indians are seriously diabetic - and Deepavali can be a health hazard for those who are insulin resistant.

In lieu of all the foods that go straight to the hips, what about making a donation to a charity for the needy? Grocery hampers are a good substitute for confectionery.

Now on to the touchy issue of fireworks. Although big bangs are now forbidden, Indian areas still resemble the former Beirut on Deepavali night.

Pets are traumatised and maimed - and are often even killed by cars while seeking refuge from the thunderous noise. Even humans lose eyes and fingers. Is this necessary?

Fireworks should be restricted to only those that are not too loud.

After all Deepavali is a festival of lights and not noise. Some people argue that bursting crackers is part of tradition.

But so, too, was the oil bath.

How many people nowadays actually take an oil bath on Deepavali?

You will notice I have deliberately used Deepavali instead of Diwali. Etymologically, Deepavali is a Sanskrit word meaning “row of lamps”.

Diwali is a corrupted and contracted form of Deepavali, probably invented by headline writers - and hence eliminates the true meaning when spoken. It is time to remove the darkness of ignorance and rekindle the light in all our hearts.

This Deepavali must hold special significance - our beloved country is facing a dark period.

Social evils such as hunger, poverty, illiteracy and ill health continue to afflict millions of men, women and children.

Politically, we are in a wilderness. Protesters have taken to marching, denouncing rampant corruption. In towns across the communities, residents are blockading roads with burning debris in protest against lack of service delivery.

The government is hard-pressed to convincingly challenge constructive criticism about the paucity of decent employment, failing healthcare, shortage of suitable housing for the poor, deplorable sanitation and crumbling schools. State-owned companies have been “captured” and funds looted.

Continuing acts of terrorism around the globe, coupled with the threat of additional wars on several continents, have all contributed to a world that is troubled and torn apart by a lack of understanding and trust.

Let us reflect on and evaluate our thoughts, words, and actions and see how we can better utilise our potential to improve the world. It is a time to acknowledge and better understand our prejudices, negative behaviours, and bad habits so that we may begin the process of transforming ourselves.

Whether you are of North or South Indian descent, Deepavali resonates the call of spreading happiness and spiritual prosperity.

The light of Deepavali is needed to dispel anger, pain, wickedness, violence, lust, envy, greed, bigotry, fear, injustice, oppression and suffering.

I wish you a light-filled Deepavali.

Yogin Devan is a media consultant and social commentator. Share your comments with him on: [email protected]

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