Diwali’s golden tradition losing import for businessmen

Issue Date: October 16 to 31, 2006, Posted On: 10/19/2006

By Bal Ram Singh

Most societies have festivals of one kind or the other, but India remains the undisputed superpower of festivals. Not even counting the weekly occasions such as Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, biweekly Ekadashis, or monthly poornimas, there is on an average at least one major festival every month, for a wide diversity of community of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains in India.

Some of these festivals cycle over 144 years, such as the Kumbh Mela of the year 2000 that attracted an estimated 100 million people over a  one month period. Among the festivals, Diwali has assumed a major international dimension for a variety of reasons, including its similarity with Christmas lights and exchange of gifts, and perhaps due to its significance to the Indian business community.

Some among the Indian diaspora actually put up their lights at Diwali and keep them through Christmas till Makar Sankranti in January.

Amongst many ancient stories for celebrating Diwali, a common theme that emerges relates to the victory of good over evil. The strings of diyas (or lamps), referred to as Diwali, represent overcoming of the darkness of ignorance with the light of wisdom.

There is an intricate relationship between light and the darkness whereby the existence of one actually depends on the other. Nevertheless, it is the light that is mostly cited for good things. For example, Albert Einstein used the speed of light as the reference point for developing his theory of relativity even though darkness travels with exactly the same speed. In fact, darkness is more prevalent than light on earth.

Furthermore, whereas light needs efforts to bring out, the darkness comes effortlessly, other than at birthday celebrations where the birthday person usually tries to put down all the candles in a blow.

The most contrasting aspect of light and dark is that whereas the presence of darkness can never kill light, in the presence of light, darkeness always vanishes. The victory of good over evil is celebrated with light in the night because it represents that eternal truth.

The challenge for the mortals is to practice a lifestyle that will keep one on this path of eternal truth. Mahatma Gandhi, the most famous NRI (non-resident Indian) whose return from South Africa on January 9, 1915 is now celebrated as the NRI day by Indian government, pursued the path of truth to the highest level in the modern history. Consequently, he has now become a prophetorial figure throughout the world.

Living civilization of India for millennia is a milestone always cited to represent the practice of truth in various aspects of Indian life, as was propounded by the Buddhist emperor Ashok Maurya in his edicts of “satyameva jayate” carved around 262 BC.

The same “satyameva jayate” adorns the Indian national emblem today, but alas, there is lesser practice of it. Perhaps the time has changed, and the degradation of values has begun where the ideas of darkness are being adopted for their speed and vastness.

Diwali is a major occasion traditionally for India’s business community. By all accounts, India has remained a prosperous nation throughout history, attracting numerous foreign invasions from Alexander, Arabs, Turks, to  the British East India Company, largely due to India’s business community or the vaishya varna.

The businessman was traditionally referred to as Mahajana or a great person. This tradition still continues at least in the rural India, for people who have yet to be educated in the art of stock market or brokerage. Interestingly, the word for those practicing the latter is dalal, a term which still harbors a less than reputable connotation, although many people do not actually know that the Master in Business Administration waving crowd is in fact nothing but  an Anglicized version of dalals.

History of dalals in India goes back a long time, although  the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE, established in 1875) is much younger than the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE, established in 1792), and may have been inspired by the latter. If Indians had an equivalent of Wall Street Journal, it will be called the Dalal Street Journal.

Of course, Indians never brought up a Dalal Street Journal. In fact, there is no mention of the BSE being located at the Dalal Street in media even though their building is located at Dalal Street since 1928. What they have brought to the fore is Sensex (SENSitive indEx; I have seen many abbreviations but this one beats all conventions of abbreviating) to gain some attention.

Sensex is equivalent to Dow Jones Industrial average (a more economic-sounding term) as a market index, but the name reflects more of a mindset of dalal than that of mahajana. The dalal mindset is becoming all pervasive, creating its own brands and even intellectuals.

One of those dalal intellectuals by the name of Andy Mukherjee wrote a column in Bloomberg.com on Mahatma Gandhi’s 2006 birth centenary. In his article entitled “How India Can Open $290 Billion Treasure Chest,” he uses the occasion of Diwali to take his dalali shot at Indian tradition.

“With the onset last week of the annual Hindu festival season, a busy period for jewelry purchases, bullion prices have started climbing, increasing the cost of what is already a colossally wasteful national habit,” retorts Mukherjee.

He is referring to, of course, the Indian obsession for 24-carat gold being exchanged as gifts, most commonly by the business community of India at Diwali but also by all Indians at various occasions, most conspicuously at marriages.

Mukherjee goes on to trash the tradition for all kinds of practices from property rights of women to dilapidation of temples, for one reason: Indians are not willing to sell their gold. One thing the dalal intellectuals can never fathom is the value represented by the gold. Chemically, it is one of the least reactive elements representing eternity and purity, which is closer to the true spirits of Diwali than stocks and bonds.

No one likes to be stocked or bonded, no one likes to be broke, but gold standards are available as standards in every field, every walks of life, and in every era or yug.

Bal Ram Singh, director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Center for Indic Studies, may be reached at bsingh@umassd.edu.