THIS WEEK, I get the opportunity to repeat a magical experience I had seven years ago - to fly into New Delhi on the evening of Diwali. Last time, as the plane descended towards the city, we were surrounded by the benign ack-ack explosions of fireworks creating a Disney-like fantasy. The experience was all the more enjoyable for being a modern approximation of the Diwali story in which the hero and heroine, Ram and Sita, after 14 years of exile, return to their capital city in a flower aeroplane with millions of tiny lights guiding their route.
Ram's banishment to the forest was not enforced; it was by choice. But a choice that he made in order to uphold the will of his father. The freedom to choose for ourselves has become the guiding principle of modern politics and ideology. Hinduism would not disagree with that. Too often religion is seen as a dictatorial hierarchy with scant regard for the individual's inclinations, perhaps viewing human freedom only as something to be curtailed lest it unleashes our lower nature.
Yet, the freedom to choose is part of the irrepressible human spirit. We want consumer choice, health care choice, schools choice and digital TV choice. We are also concerned to protect our ability to make free decisions. We can choose our representatives in Parliament, but we now feel the need to limit how much is spent by political parties on influencing our choices. Someone once described joining a faith community as a choice similar to that of enlisting in the Army. Having made the initial decision and surrendered your decision-making faculties, you are then bound by the rules and regulations of your faith. However, the Aquarian age has little respect for traditions and structures that require such docile adherence. This is the era of pro-choice for everything. Part of my attraction for the Hindu faith is that it is not a religion based on rules. That seems strange considering the vast array of injunctions in its scriptures covering all topics from daily ablutions to ethics - even how best to eat an orange. (Cut into quarters diagonally and suck to get the goodness and avoid too much pith.) But, these statements are generally sound advice to help an individual achieve a particular goal. Hindu scriptures recognise that our goals vary considerably and they simultaneously provide the sexual suggestions of the Kama-sutras as well as the ascetic philosophy of the Upanishads. Whilst providing for choice, these texts do not play to the illusion that all choices yield the same benefits. Rather, they provide guidance in a way that questions the individual's motivations and opens their mind to a higher agenda. …