The myth perpetrated by Max Mueller and other orientalists that we are a spiritual people as opposed to those in the materialist West has in turn been internalised by us. While the West is supposed to focus on the twin pillars of consumption and investment, we are doomed to retreat into forests wearing rough clothes of tree-bark and constantly engaging in wild-eyed penance. We actually seriously believe this tosh! Diwali or Deepavali is the best argument to negate this point of view.
This festival is about multiple celebrations, all in the very real material economic world, not in some soporific maya-laden universe. We worship Lakshmi, a goddess mind you, not just a patriarchal ascetic male god! A goddess of prosperity, plenty, wealth and the celebration thereof, a goddess embedded in the earth itself, of this planet, representing the bounties of the material world. The pursuit of artha, or economic well-being, is a very legitimate one for the denizen of this peninsula. The only injunction is that such pursuit of artha must go hand in hand with the pursuit of dharma, or righteous conduct. A modern interpretation of this would be to suggest that a business should pursue profits by selling high quality goods and services to its customers, not by selling shoddy or adulterated products. That would constitute the right combination of artha and dharma. A more contemporary view would be to suggest that the pursuit of market capitalisation must not be at the cost of good corporate governance! In fact they need to be intertwined.
It is fascinating to note that one of the indulgences encouraged during Diwali is gambling. Our ancients knew that gambling is an authentic human need deeply etched into our unconscious. Nala and Yudhishtira may be considered foolish for indulging in excess, but not for the act of gambling itself. Both these characters have a Camus-like approach to the problem of the human predicament. Is living itself not a gamble? Are we not all gamblers each time we ride a bus or take a flight or merely step out? Playing cards late into the night also helps us understand that wealth is a means to an end and that wealth is not necessarily granted to the most deserving. There is an element of the throwing of the dice of fate in any explanation of the crossings of lines of profit and loss.
A more fundamental question is whether in fact this dichotomy between the spiritual and the material is valid at all. It was Vivekananda who debunked the idea of selling spiritual solace to the starving poor. We should apply the same logic to those who aspire for wealth. Earn it with dignity, spend it with a large heart, and don’t feel guilty about having it or wanting to have it. Such a balanced approach is what Lakshmi and Krishna would urge on their devotees, not a choice between hedonist excesses or ascetic extremes.
In this context I would like to examine the phenomenon of Diwali baksheesh, an important custom that helps bind neighbours together and serves a crucial function of voluntary wealth distribution in an atmosphere of good cheer. We give it to the postman because it is our dharma and because if we don’t, our letters may get delivered to the apartment downstairs! We simultaneously ensure good service for ourselves, acknowledge the fact that our socialistic state pays postmen insufficiently and that it is right and proper to distribute largesse when we ourselves are in a mood to celebrate. We give baksheesh to liftmen (a growing profession as we add ugly, tall buildings to our cityscapes with frenzy), to watchmen (who can barely protect themselves, let alone protect us), to dhobis (who may ruin our clothes more often if we ignore them), to domestic servants (who may otherwise revolt in the face of our consumerist indulgences, thus buying both social insurance and social goodwill). The puritanical British of 19th-century evangelical persuasion left us with a crazy foreign notion that baksheesh was about bribery, corruption and the innate moral chicanery of their “native” subjects. It is high time we liberated ourselves from these racist, colonialist, imperialist, politically incorrect notions. Baksheesh, especially during the festive season, is the alchemical lubricant that holds our society together. And we as recipients (our employers call it ‘bonus’) or as givers are twice blessed for baksheesh has all the attributes of the quality of mercy that the Bard talked about. It blesseth both the giver and the receiver!
Noisy crackers are objected to by crackpot environmentalists who see pollution everywhere and deny that life on this planet is about joy and its pursuit. Varuna tells Bhrigu in the Taittriya Upanishad that the core of being human is not about the fact that we eat or that we breathe or that we think, but that we have the capacity for ananda. And what can give more ananda than a series of burning flower-pots followed by a series of red crackers going off and assaulting the ears. Karl Marx or Noam Chomsky will doubtless remain unimpressed. But P.G. Wodehouse and Walt Disney (infinitely more important and intelligent personages than Marx or Chomsky) would have agreed emphatically with Varuna and urged us to “go for it”. When crackers accidentally burn down country houses, it tells you what country houses are really meant for!
Ananda needs to be pursued individually and collectively. Ananda is to be underpinned by prosperity that Lakshmi blesses us with. Ananda is to be shared and distributed especially to those who live around us and who have the capacity to help or harm us. Ananda in festive times should be characterised by staking our hopes on a roll of the die. Ananda propels us towards lights, especially in our power-cut-ridden, grimy, socialist cities. Ananda must be noisy, rejecting at least at this time the hushed tones of patronising kill-joys. Let us learn to celebrate with wholehearted vim and gusto our wonderful traditions of gambling, baksheesh, lights and deafening noise!
Jaithirth Rao, Oct 21, 2006
Happy Diwali, dear, dear reader!
The writer is chairman and CEO, Mphasis