For centuries now, Bharat has been called a civilisational state that binds its people together with a shared consciousness, traditions and identity.
In the backdrop of such an axiom, one can only guess the impact that the stoppage of traditions and festivals can have on the fabric of Indic identity.
Diwali is one of the most-widely celebrated and hallowed festivals of India, the history of which can be traced back to the seventh century.
One of the first mentions of the festival can be found in the Skanda Purana, which mentions the lighting and holding of ‘ulkas’, which roughly translated into English would mean ‘firebrands’, ‘diyas’ or ‘fire falling out of the sky’.
This is of great significance to the interpretation of Diwali, since ulka fulfills all the criteria of a modern firecracker, that is, it illuminates the sky and produces sound.
The knowledge about agniyoga and the use of explosives in the fourth-century Arthashastra by Chanakya, along with the tradition of Akasha-Deepam, where one guides ancestors' spirits back to heaven, suggest that the introduction of firecrackers to Diwali is not a modern phenomenon.
These ancient practices reveal a historical context for the use of fireworks during the festival. Understanding this connection doesn't require extraordinary insight.
Other mentions of Diwali, including various rituals such as the use of kandeel (literally, lantern of the sky) and celebrating newly-married couples, can be found in various other sources.
These are Padma Purana (believed to be written as far back as fourth century CE), the Harivamsha Purana (written by Jain Acharya Jinasena in AD 783), the play Nagananda (seventh century), Kayvamimansa (ninth century), Valmiki Ramayan, Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanasa, as well as the writings of the Persian historian Al Beruni, who followed Mahmud of Ghazni to India.
Over the past decade or two, every effort has been made to deem this piece of tradition, that has been mentioned in centuries old literature, as an accretion over the centuries and, thus, a figment of one’s imagination.
In this light of facts, however, keeping this view, being actively propagated, would be a wholly misguided thought.
Although, even with this historical background, if this tradition of bursting firecrackers was to be seen as an accretion, what escapes the domain of logic is why needs would arise as to its condemnation.
Kerala High Court recently pronounced "No holy book commands bursting firecrackers to please God" while enforcing a ban on firecrackers in the state.
The Supreme Court in its recent pronouncement has declared that the "festival of lights should not become festival of noise". I leave the readers to ponder, in light of all of the information, whether these assumptions are, in any way, true.
Traditions are not a hostage of time, they evolve. To find examples of the same outside of the Hindu fold, one does not have to look too far.
Since the time of the Deobandi Movement which was founded by Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawai to transform Islam into its purest form, as was practised by its earliest followers in a time when loudspeakers did not exist, one can find records of Deobandi-debates over the use of loudspeakers in the offering of namaz by mosques.
Would any court of the country even try to suggest that this activity may be leading to noise pollution, not on one day of the year but on all the days?
The modern 'thanksgiving' traditions too can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century, which is more than two centuries after the Pilgrim’s first harvest.
If these have been accepted as accretions to religion, why do firecrackers need to be denounced in the case of Diwali, especially when the same crackers are allowed to be used on Christmas and New Year celebrations in many of these states to ‘ward off evil spirits’ or spread the feeling of cheeriness?
At the risk of sounding unscientific, it would seem that the latter diffuse oxygen into the air and are neither visible, nor produce any sound.
It should be clear, beyond any shadow of doubt, that there is an institutional bias when it comes to Diwali, even after the protection that the Constitution may afford the essential religious practices under its articles.
The authorities of Mumbai have banned the sale and bursting of firecrackers, citing dangers to public property. It is highly ironic that in a country where people regularly lose rights to their properties under the provisions (Section 40(1)) of the Waqf Act of 1995, it is firecrackers that are banned rather than the act that is repealed.
The Delhi and Bihar governments, among others, have come out to ban firecrackers during Diwali, citing dangers to air quality, over and beyond the orders of Supreme Court pronouncing a ban of firecrackers containing certain salts across the country.
The Karnataka government too has enforced this ban in spirit, restricting the bursting of crackers from 8pm to 10pm.
As per studies conducted by various IIT stakeholders, one would find that it is just the local vehicles that contribute to 49.3 per cent of the pollution and not the crackers during the Diwali week.
Further, as per a study entitled "Chemical speciation and source apportionment of ambient PM2.5 in New Delhi before, during, and after the Diwali fireworks" [Science Direct in Volume 13 Issue 6 (June 2022)], it can be safely concluded that while the pollution was significantly worsened on the day of Diwali.
The level of pollution went back to the pre-Diwali standards, still extremely dangerous, within the next two days.
This would show that factors, that the government is reluctant to call out, other than the bursting of crackers on Diwali are responsible for the dangerous pollution levels in Delhi and adjacent states.
Various courts, however, even in the light of these studies as well as well documented history of the tradition of bursting firecrackers on Diwali, in their short-duration hearings concluded that the bursting of firecrackers was neither essential to religious beliefs nor beneficial to the society.
The Supreme Court had, earlier, famously declared, "let people breathe clean air, spend money on sweets" while supporting the Delhi government’s ban on green firecrackers.
In my view, if all such directions by the courts and the governments of various states, including the recent Supreme Court pronouncements, limit or solve the pollution problem, then they should be most welcome.
However, the reality is quite different. Even before firecrackers were burst, the air in many states was shrouded with smog, and post-Diwali, this smog will remain to haunt everyone with the same intensity, not an increased one.
In a country like India, where every small tradition binds the people together with a common culture, cultural erosion through the stoppage of rites or traditions can only lead to a disappearance of those ceremonies, traditional crafts and cultural knowledge.
Where the impacts of a tradition, relating to the social cohesion, diversity, and pride over heritage that it gives rise to, are taken for granted, it can only lead to disaster.
Thus, I can only implore all Bharatiyas to celebrate Diwali, with full knowledge of their traditions, with pride over their history and with an ‘ulka’ in their heart, if not their hands due to the restrictions imposed, to show them the way to demand change from the present double-standards over Hindu festivals.
ॐ तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय। (बृहदारण्यकोपनिषद्) Shubh Deepavali.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.