Diwali: Hearing Earth's Cry

Anantanand Rambachan*

On the occasion of Diwali 2014, I want to share a reflection on one of
the central narratives associated, in the Hindu tradition, with this
festival. This is the narrative that connects Diwali with the
celebration and rejoicing over the return of Rama to his home, after a
lengthy exile, and his defeat of the oppressive and tyrannical,
Ravana. Citizens welcomed him by lighting thousands of lamps, even as
over one billion Hindus do today throughout the world. The story of
Rama has become a central narrative of Diwali because of the Hindu
understanding of Rama as embodying divinity and also because it
addresses the universal human longing for freedom from oppression and
the hope of living in a world where there is peace, justice and

Rama's return to his home in Ayodhya and the joyous illumination of
the city with earthen lamps conclude the story of his life as told in
most versions of the Ramayana. I want, however, to return to the
beginning of the story. For this, I turn to the version of the life of
Rama authored by the religious poet Tulasidas in the 15th century.

The Ramayana begins with an account of unbridled greed, the violent
exercise of power and oppression perpetuated by Ravana and those who
served him. He ravaged the earth, and used its resources, human and
natural, to serve his own ends. "There is no limit," says Tulasidas,
"to the evil of those whose hearts delight in violence."

The first to protest the suffering of the world is Earth herself.
Tulasidas personalizes her describes her as being alarmed and
distressed. "The weight of mountains, rivers and oceans," she says to
herself," is not as burdensome to me as one human being who oppresses
others." She notices also that people are silent from fear of speaking
out. After careful consideration, she takes the form of a cow and goes
to the place where all the good beings are hiding in fear. With tears
flowing from her eyes, she tells them of her suffering, but receives
no offers of help. In her condition of grief and sorrow, they
accompany her to the world of the deity, Brahma. Realizing his own
inability to help, Brahma advises that they seek the help of God, who
alone can bring the suffering of the earth to an end.

There is a predicament, however, before they can approach God to seek
God's intervention. "Where can we find God so that we may plea for
help?" they wonder. Someone suggested that they all go to heavenly
world of Vaikuntha. Another reminded them that God dwelt, not in
Vaikuntha but in the ocean of milk. As the discussion went on, Shiva,
who was present among them, offered a word of wisdom. God, explained
Shiva, is identically present everywhere. There is no place and no
time when God is not. God pervades the entire creation. There is no
need to go anywhere. "It is love alone," said Shiva, "that reveals
God, even as friction reveals fire." Shiva's words bring tears of joy
to everyone and a beautiful hymn of love spontaneously rises. In
response, a heavenly voice assures them that God will incarnate among
them as a human being to relieve the earth of her suffering. Shri Rama
is then born in Ayodhya as the child of Dasaratha and Kausalya.

I chose to describe Tulasidas' profound and poetic framing of the
advent of Rama since it speaks powerfully to our contemporary context
and especially to our degradation of the earth and its fragile
climate. His narrative deepens our understanding of our relationship
with the earth and suggests a fundamental value for our
transformation. There are three insights from Tulasidas that I want to
lift up and share.

The first is that human actions are consequential. The consequences of
our actions, however, are not limited to impacting other human beings.
Our actions disrupt the balance of the natural world. Greed, and the
violence that inevitably accompanies greed, rupture the web of life
and earth suffers. The effects of greed can never be compartmentalized
or limited to the world of human beings. Tulasidas is calling our
attention to deep unity of existence in which human choices always
have implications for the natural world. In Tulasidas' account the
earth is the first to speak out against human evil and its effects on
her. "The weight of mountains, rivers and oceans is not as burdensome
to me as one human being who oppresses others."

The second insight from Tulasidas is that the earth is a living
system. Earth is alive. He represents her as suffering and distressed
by human choices. The earth is not a passive and inert field,
dualistically separate from us that we may thoughtlessly and
inconsequentially exploit for our purposes. Our lives are inextricably
bound together and our well being inseparably linked. The earth
community includes every creature depending on her for sustenance and
so Tulasidas has earth speaking of her pain in the voice of a tearful
cow. The impact of climate change adversely affects every life form.
The cow is a powerful symbol of the generosity of the natural world
pleading for human reciprocity and concern.

The third insight of Tulasidas is embedded in the words of Shiva. When
the helpless gathering is debating God's location, Shiva reminds them
that there is no need to search for God anywhere. God is equally
present everywhere and in everything (hari byāpka sarbatra samānā).
God becomes manifest, Shiva explains, only through love even as fire
is made visible through friction. The teaching that God exists equally
in everything, repeated twice in this conversation, is a call to us to
see the radiance of God in the earth. In the Hindu tradition,
everything in which God is present is regarded as God's form (rūpa).
This means seeing the entire universe as embodying the divine. The Isa
Upanishad opens with the beautiful invitation to see the world as
enveloped by God (isa). Such seeing, described in the beautiful
Sanskrit word darshan, must express itself in a profound and loving
reverence for earth. This loving reverence, as Shiva attests, calls
forth and releases a tremendous energy that is devoted to saving the
earth. God's energy is manifested when our actions are inspired by

The tears of our earth, poignantly described by Tulasidas, have not
ceased, afflicted as she is by pollution, the rapid loss of her
bio-diversity and by climate change that threatens her ability to
sustain life itself. Our religious traditions must awaken and
re-awaken us to a reverence for the earth and inspire energy and
action to respond to her plea and to relieve her from suffering.

We celebrate Diwali with lamps molded from the earth, in which we
place cotton wicks soaked in oil. As we hold these fragile lamps in
our hands this year, may we be mindful of our earth. May we know our
unity with her and be filled with gratitude for her gifts. May we be
attentive to hear again her cry and may we respond with loving

(Inspired by the Religions for the Earth Conference at Union Seminary
NY (19-21 September 2014) and the UN Climate Summit that followed)

The article originally appeared in Huffington Post on 15th October 2014.

*Anantanand Rambachan is Chair and Professor of Religion, Philosophy
and Asian Studies at Saint Olaf College, Minnesota, USA, where he has
been teaching since 1985. Prof. Rambachan is the author of several
books, book-chapters and articles in scholarly journals. Among his
books are, Accomplishing the Accomplished, The Limits of Scripture,
The Advaita Worldview: God, World and Humanity, The Hindu Vision and
Gitamrtam: The Essential Teachings of the Bhagavadgita.

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