Let it Burn: the Hindu Festival of Dusshera by Gauri das

Many years ago I received a hand written note from an acquaintance of ill intention. On reading the note I felt ill and aggrieved. The words were so cruel they tangibly hurt my soul. Dreadfully upset I took the note outside, crouched down and ceremoniously set fire to it. I watched as the golden flames turned the horrid words and the paper on which they were written to charcoal black and then silvery ash. In that pyrogenic act, I recovered something of myself, as if burning out the evil that I allowed to enter me which now took the form of hurt. 

Once a year Hindus around the world gather together and set fire to the towering effigy of a demon called Ravana. As families look on, enthralled by flames rising high into the sky, the embodiment of evil, Ravana, is burned to ashes. Though according to legend it was Lord Rama, the righteous, who killed Ravana, on Dusshera it is we who set fire to Ravana. The celebration’s name itself, meaning either the tenth day (dashami) of the Hindu month of Ashvin (September/October), or the destroying (hara) of evil (dus), brings focus to the immolation of evil. All that poses threat to love, togetherness and a shared prosperity, in our personal self or greater community, is ceremoniously burnt to ash.

The element of fire fascinated me as a boy. Despite the continued parental warning of ‘don’t play with fire’, the boys on my estate were always playing with matches and magnifying glasses, lighting little fires with whatever combustible material they could get their hands on. We were mischievous and fire fed our fascination. On one such occasion, around age seven, I returned home after play and announced to my dad: ‘I’m just going to put my pyjamas on’. Returning to the sitting room in my pyjamas, I sat down on the sofa and my dad got up and left the room. Shorty thereafter he returned with my manky clothes in hand, which were rich with the aroma of fire. As it was then, I got a smacked bottom and sent off to bed. When naughty boys play good, dads are quick to pick up the scent, especially of fire smoke. Years later, I watched a teenage friend catch fire as he threw fuel on a bonfire. The element fire is irresistible and pleasing but it has a destructive capacity far beyond the power of humankind.

A pyromaniac’s addictive compulsion with lighting fires is driven by a deep-seated need to relieve amassed tension or stress and the immediate pleasure derived from it. In the pyromaniac that which exists within us is manifested to the extreme, a dangerous and distorted extreme. In each decade, rock or pop songs revisit the theme of ‘let it burn’ in addressing the pain we feel in letting go, or in our base requirement to destroy objects that threaten us, including ourselves. On bonfire night, as a nation we burn Guy Fawkes, who threatened the seat of those that ruled at Westminster. The element of fire reduces its object to an unrecognisable state from which there is no return. Though Ravana was killed by a mystical arrow shot from Lord Rama’s bow, we kill the effigy of Ravana by ritualistic fire. We let him burn, religiously and with gratified hearts.

In much the same way as the barbaric public stoning of a criminal, wherein society also project their own deep-seated fear of the potential criminal within, specifically of the sexual type, and through public demonstration exhort themselves against it, we too burn Ravana, an image not a real person. Ravana fell victim to all that is evil in us and to what in turn threatens civil society. His greatest crime just happened to be the seduction of women. It was only when he abducted Sita, wife of Ram that his demise was assured. We protect ourselves in the communal burning of Ravana, who is none other that our objectified worst self. As football may be a good substitution for warring tendencies, our primitive need to destroy what threatens us—human evil is substituted in the festival of Dusshera. Even the good of Lord Ram is somewhat dwarfed before our fascination with fire and need to burn the evil that threatens us. In the act of burning Ravana, no more than the sublimation of our own human destructiveness, not only do we reconcile and integrate ourselves, the human subject, but also it is upon this act that we bond as a community beyond evil, as civil society.  Guy Fawkes or Ravana, the effigy is the substitution of you and me, that is, our worst self.

As the dark autumnal night draws close on Dusshera, in the simple religious ceremony handed down through generations, we listen to the timeless narrations of Lord Ram and Ravana, then set fire to our hurt, tension and evil, objectified in the effigy of Ravana. And by that great and bewitching element of fire, we are purified and live on with relief, gratification and togetherness, beyond evil.

Let it Burn: the Hindu Festival of Dusshera


By Gauri das



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