Diwali and the beguiling "Universal Consciousness"

“But why do we have to pray now?” asked my five-year-old Chook Chook on Diwali night. Dressed in her Wonder Woman outfit, all she wanted to do was to run around the house rescuing her stuffed animals and her three-year-old brother.

My Mum had specially called from India to say that the time for the Aarti (prayer) was between 6:30 and 8:30pm. Growing up in India, it wasn’t a question I had ever dwelt on. We prayed at a prescribed time on Diwali because… that is what everybody did! It was the norm.

But for my Melbourne-born Chook Chook, it wasn’t the norm, and her question stumped me.

Why pray at a prescribed time only?

I started cautiously, dipping my feet with the tried and tested. We pray to the universe to spread good wishes, good will and good health. “Why now only?” continued Chook Chook, not one to be fobbed-off easily.

I tried harder.  “Well, imagine if everyone around the world prayed at the same time for good wishes, how much good will we could create…”

Something clicked as I said that. A satsang session on the Bhagavad-Gita came back to me, in which Swami Gopal spoke of how all our individual consciousnesses were connected to a universal consciousness, and the high aim of meditation was to become one with it.

Which is why we all prayed at the same time on Diwali. It is an attempt to focus all our individual consciousnesses to connect with each other, and the universe. If billions of minds focussed on the same thought at the same time (hopefully the thought being the health and harmony of life on earth), perhaps we could get all humanity to tap into the universal consciousness. Prayers are always a form of meditation but by praying together we could perhaps magnify its impact.

Of course, reality is somewhat different. It is only a section of humanity (Hindus) that do so on Diwali. Geographical distance and time differences mean that the “6:30 to 8:30pm” is different for different Hindus living in different parts of the world. Besides, prayers for most people are often self-involved rather than outward looking, focused on what we wish for ourselves than general humanity. But was there any merit in the idea itself?

That depends on where you stand with respect to the bigger question: what does universal consciousness even mean? As a concept, consciousness is difficult to comprehend. The best we have gotten to it is feeling it – feeling a connection to all things earthly. But for skeptics like me that remains a frustratingly unsatisfying answer.

Which is why articles such as this one in The Guardian fascinate me. It heartens me to think that it is a question that interests neuroscientists too, and that they are using their knowledge and tools to explore this beguiling question. And while the answer hasn’t been established yet, and is unlikely to be established any time in near future, it hasn’t been unproved either. In fact, neuroscientists are looking into the possibility of all things, even phones, thermostats and vacuum cleaners, having a level of consciousness. They define consciousness as something where information is sufficiently interconnected and organized such as in a brain of a man, cat or a dog, or in a vacuum cleaner or a computer for that matter. The more complex the information contained in it, the higher is the object’s consciousness.

(Now, I have read enough by Deepak Chopra to know that it sounds like mumbo jumbo. Which is why I recommend reading the lucid and grounded article rather than my awkward attempt at paraphrasing it. )

If true, it would rather neatly tie into how I understand Hinduism describes consciousness, as something that is present in things to varying degrees (stronger in animate and weaker in inanimate) and capable of flowing between us.

With this epiphany, I kept my faith in Diwali, our collective, synchronised prayers, and their symbolic attempt to bring us together as one humanity, and pulled Chook Chook into our beautifully lit, incensed prayer corner for a few minutes of family togetherness!

Chetna Prakash is a writer and intermittent yoga practitioner at Yoga in Daily Life, Richmond Centre.