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Diwali sparkles on vast Commonwealth Canvas

This is the first Diwali message that I have written as Chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation, which is a role I took up after an election in January of this year.

The Foundation is the counterpart of the Commonwealth Secretariat and is a people’s organisation, advancing the viewpoint of civil society regarding governance and cultural wishes and presenting their recommendations to governments.

The Commonwealth provides a very broad canvas on which to paint a picture of Diwali. The approximate Commonwealth population (with its 54 members including New Zealand) is 2.2 billion people; that is almost a third of the world population, of who 1.21 billion live in India with 95% in Asia and Africa combined.

Ancient Festival

Diwali is a celebration with origins in India and is primarily a recollection of the returning home of one of the most widely worshipped Gods, Rama, after 14 years of exile. To welcome his return, diyas or ghee lamps are traditionally lit.

Thus, colloquially Diwali is called the Festival of Lights, when families place small oil lamps and candles around their homes. It is one of the most important and ancient of Indian festivals celebrated by Indian communities around the world. It is also a celebration of Indian culture as a whole.

More generally, Diwali is also synonymous with making a new beginning, reflecting on the good things that families and friends provide, and noting how there are many less fortunate people in the world.

Sunday November 3, when Diwali occurs this year officially, will see a total solar eclipse and that will serve to underline these matters.

Cultural diversity

In the present era, Diwali in New Zealand and elsewhere has been transformed from something celebrated primarily by members of the Indian community, into a more public display and outward celebration of Indian identity. It has also been increasingly marked by wide cross sections of people, in the general community.

This transformation of Diwali reflects several factors, the foremost being growing cultural, religious and ethnic diversity. Inherent within that diversity are both challenges and opportunities, and as people address those issues, it is paramount that universal values of justice, tolerance and respect for others also prevail.

Within that diversity, though, Diwali is also a special time for people of Indian origin. Diwali has specific religious meaning for those of the Hindu faith about the triumph of truth over evil. But for all members of the Indian Diaspora, it symbolises the best traditions of Indian culture and history and a connection to the land of their ancestors.

Powerful message

Like the Chinese New Year, Easter, Eid Al Fitr and Christmas, as a Festival that speaks of bringing light to darkness, Diwali sends a powerful message of peace.

It urges people of all faiths, and cultures to reach out across the divisions that separate us and to seek greater understanding.

Diwali is a time to celebrate life and to look forward to the coming year with optimism and a renewed sense of purpose.

I wish everyone a Happy Diwali for 2013.

Sir Anand Satyanand is former Governor General of New Zealand. He is Chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation (London) and Member of the Board of Governors of the Indian Development Foundation for Overseas Indians’ of the Indian Government, in addition to his roles as Member and Chairman of a number of New Zealand Government agencies and boards. As Governor General he was the Chief Guest at the Auckland Diwali Festival held at Aotea Centre on October 30, 2010.

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