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Let’s put nobility back into festivals

One man and a small child dead; another child in the intensive care unit.

That was the net effect of last week’s Diwali celebrations in Nairobi. Diwali is the Hindu festival of light, and is meant to signify humanity’s evolution from darkness to light, from the forests to civilisation. An apt metaphor for where we are in Kenya today.

However, modern-day Diwali, as we all know, has become the festival of loud explosions. While the festival is on, woe betide you if you happen to live close to a Hindu community hall. For several hours, you will wonder if you have stepped into downtown Baghdad during an air raid.

Light, in all cultures, signifies the attainment of knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment. Loud explosions, in all cultures, signify war, aggression, turmoil. There is no religious basis for the exaltation of noise in this way. Diwali should be a festival used to spread light, not to attack eardrums.

As we saw last week, events took a tragic turn. At one of the heavily attended community events, a man was killed when a large firecracker exploded in his face. A toddler in the crowd was hit by a stray missile and died; another’s life hung in the balance at the time of writing. Things were even worse in India, where several dozen people were killed by fires and fireworks related to Diwali.

Is it not time to rethink? Those things we call ‘fireworks’ are actually highly dangerous explosives. They are sold without proper regulation, and are often set off without adequate supervision. They are poorly packaged and contain incomprehensible instructions.

Grown men start behaving like juveniles when confronted by the explosive power of fire-crackers and rockets. Millions of shillings go up in smoke every year to indulge the immature passions of the well-off. When this stupidity starts resulting in the deaths of young innocents, however, it behoves everyone to stop and think.

There is a bigger issue at play here. Diwali is just one of Kenya’s many religious festivals that has lost its original meaning and been made macabre by modern-day revellers. Christmas was the festival of goodwill and a celebration of love in the world. Commercialisation has corrupted it so thoroughly that it has become a shopping spree, a time of hedonism, indulgence and excess.

Ramadan is the time for all Muslims to fast and experience self-restraint, discipline and denial of desire. It is a time of equalisation: it attunes the few to the deprivations suffered by the many. It culminates in Eid-ul-Fitr, to celebrate the breaking of the fast.

As many Muslims acknowledge, however, modern man has found a way to debase this noble festival, too. Ramadan and Eid are not supposed to be a time for excess; quite the opposite. Yet one only needs to observe the intemperate feasting that takes place every evening and the lavish banquets laid out during the Eid holiday to see that the original idea is lost.

It is perfectly possible to find a balance between enjoyment and spiritual uplift – but we seem to have no idea what that balance is. We can blame modern marketing machines all we like (and they have much to answer for) but the problem ultimately lies in ourselves. We reach into our wallets instead of our hearts. We debase the ideals of our forebears with great disdain (and a generous measure of hypocrisy).

Instead of using religious festivals to sit back and reflect and meditate on the state of the world, we buy junk, strut our stuff, make noise, over-indulge and then collapse. It is sometimes difficult not to wonder what the human animal was given higher consciousness for, given the trivial use made of it.

I have to ask: where are all the opinion shapers? Why do priests and community leaders sit back and allow the utter debasement of their festivals to happen? Why do we measure the boost to the economy when stupidity is exchanged for currency at the shopping tills, but fail to measure the damage to our souls?

Why do YOU get your kids brainwashed from an early age? Why do you not bother to teach them the higher values associated with religious festivals? Why do you reduce it all to gifts and partying? It is not easy to resist the peer pressure, I know: I have found myself succumbing many times. Yet resist we must. There is nobility in the human being, and it must be reclaimed.

Instead of just having a loud party, we should be using our festivals to spread goodwill and understanding. Why blow hundreds of millions in fireworks, when Nairobi still does not have proper street-lighting? Why feast to the point of pain, when thousands around you lack a square meal a day? Why buy crap for your rich relatives, when so many lack the basic tools and utensils of daily life?

Let the Diwali deaths cause us to take stock. There is much to be done, and much that we can all do. If only we bothered to look.

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