As nature changes its hues illuminating the Earth with its glistening autumn beauty; celebrating the festival of lights rings in the perfect balance between energy settling into the earth and enlightened human spirits. Diwali, also popularly known as Deepavali is a prominent festival featuring the Hindu calendar and is widely celebrated across the length and breadth of India. Several other countries also observe an official holiday on this day. It marks the new moon phase of the Hindu lunar month of ‘Kartika’ that typically falls between mid-October and mid-November, as celebrated in the northern hemisphere is chronicled as the beginning of new Hindu year. While the festival spiritually signifies triumph of light over darkness, it simultaneously resonates victory of good over evil, hope over despair and knowledge over ignorance. People engage in elaborate preparations and rituals that extend over five days for many. With a perspective of vanquishing evil, people extensively participate in cleaning, renovating and decorating their homes and place of work. Wearing new clothes, lighting ‘diyas’ or candles both inside and outside the house, worshipping goddess “Lakshmi” signifies embarking on a new glorious phase anticipated to reap wealth, fertility and prosperity.
A historical glimpse of the festival:
The history of Diwali is awash with legends that claim relevance from Hindu mythology. Mostly the ‘puranas” and several other religious scriptures transcend the classic theme of defeating evil through various modes of presentations. Let’s explore a couple of mythological narrations here:
In the epic Ramayana, when Lord Rama returned to his kingdom Ayodhya after 14 years of exile, where he defeated Ravana of Lanka, who despite being highly learned had an evil dominated mind; people welcomed Rama with rows of clay lamps lightening Ayodhya to signify the victory of virtuous over foul.
Another narration describes the generous yet ambitious ruler King Bali’s story. To assess Bali’s power, Lord Vishnu descended on the Earth in a disguised form of a dwarfed priest. He approached King Bali and said that since Bali was known to rule the three worlds comprising the Earth, heavens and world beneath, if he could spare some space that Vishnu (approaching in the form of dwarf) could cover with three steps. King Bali laughed and agreed to the dwarf’s request presuming that a dwarf could not cover much with three strides. However, when lord Vishnu regained his form at this point to cover the entire Universe, Bali was resorted to hell. Many Hindus remember and observe this episode as part of the Diwali celebrations.
In an alternative avatar as Krishna, Lord Vishnu in his eight incarnation destroyed demon Narakasura who caused havoc amongst people of the Earth. Krishna rescued them from the evil clutches of this demon. Many believe that defeating the demon signified winning over malevolent deeds.
Diwali celebrations are not restricted to the Hindu community alone. The Jains also observe this occasion to celebrate Nirvana of Lord Mahavira. In Sikhism, this festival marks the ‘Bandi Chhor Divas’ when Guru Har Gobind freed himself and some fellow prisoners from the Gwalior Fort in the Mughal period. Their arrival at the Golden Temple in Amritsar is commemorated with annual lighting-up and festivities at the ‘sacred’ temple. As pronounced by some scholars, Newar Buddhists in Nepal traditionally worship Lord Vishnu and Laksmi during Diwali and this reflects freedom granted in the “Mahayana Buddhism” tradition that sanctifies worshipping any deity for their worldly progress.
The Rituals: Commencing almost weeks before, people gear up with their rigorous cleaning efforts to refurbish their homes, temples and offices. While the religious significance of Diwali varies regionally within India, subject to different legends, philosophies and beliefs, the festive days are also named and recognized differently. In most northern and western parts of the country, Deepavali revelries begin with the ‘Dhanteras’ day, followed by ‘Naraka Chaturdashi’ observed on the second day and the dark Diwali night, centring on the new-moon day. The festivities protract to the fourth day, known as Diwali ‘Padwa’ dedicated to nuptial relationships or Govardhan puja and ends with ‘Bhai Dooj’ reinforcing the sister-brother bond on the fifth day. Along with goddess Lakshmi, devotees make offerings to lord Ganesha who symbolizes virtuous beginnings and is known as a mighty power in overcoming obstacles. In eastern India, such as in Odisha and West Bengal, goddess Kali is deified on this day.
Diwali connotes celebrations that include annual cleaning, buying new items and clothes, offering prayers, feasting on delectable traditional food, lighting homes, exchanging gifts and sweets with folks and engaging in endless exultation. While rituals begin days in advance, each has its own significance.
Day 1: The first day, Dhanteras is considered auspicious for purchasing gold or silver articles as it symbolizes source of prosperity and sustenance. Traders and merchants decorate their retail stores and put articles on sale. This day in mythology marks the churning of the cosmic milk ocean between the good and the evil forces and honours the birthday of ‘Dhanvantari’, known as the harbinger of health and healing.
Day 2: Naraka Chaturdasi, better known as ‘Choti Diwali’ narrates the defeat of Narakasura by Krishna, Saytabhama and Kali. Celebrated across most regions in southern India as Diwali, it entails colourful floor decorations with flowers and colours called ‘rangoli’. People engage in special bathing rituals using ‘home-made uptans’ and fragrant oils that signify cleansing, purification and beautification. Earthenware lamps ignite the splendour of the house, especially placed on entrances to ward off evil forces.
Day 3: Observed as the primary festive day, people adorn themselves in new outfits, offer prayers to the deities and seek blessings to be bestowed upon them for a good year ahead. It is believed that goddess Lakshmi traverses the Earth on this night and visits devotees who welcome her with lights and noble intent. Retailers and traders decorate their workplaces with flowers and luminosities to invoke goddess Lakshmi for blessings to start a new fiscal year.
A lot of people set-out firecrackers that are typically understood as driving evil spirits away with its blinding light and sound. However, with recent increase in pollution levels across the country, in a more realistic drive, use of crackers has been curtailed as a measure to check air effluence.
The tradition of gambling or playing cards has a legend behind it too. It is considered that on this day, goddess Parvati played dice with her husband lord Shiva and decreed that gambling on the Diwali night would bring prosperity throughout the following year. This day resembles togetherness of family and friends as they visit each other to exchange good wishes.
Day 4: Known as Balipratipada or Padwa, traditionally celebrates love and mutual admiration between married couples. Many regions observe this day as the Govardhan puja in honour of Lord Krishna who had saved the villagers by lifting the mountain with his little finger to shelter them from the torrential downpour caused by lord Indra to reinstate and exhibit his power. The offering of food ‘Annakut’ to the lord on this day is a subtle reminder of explicating gratitude to the almighty for the bounty obtainable from nature.
Day 5: Bhai Dooj is similar to ‘Raksha Bandhan’ as it revels in the eternal loving bond between brother and sister. While sisters pray for the well-being of their brothers and mark their foreheads with ‘tika’ symbolic of a safety shield; conversations, gift exchange and good food seal the day’s celebrations. In historic times, this day was revered as one, when brothers would visit their sisters in their village homes to celebrate their bond and gift abundance of seasonal harvest.
Significance of Deepavali: Beyond illuminations, decorations, fun and rituals, Diwali is a time to initiate positive changes for the ensuing year. The festivities and customs are not mere practices, but transmit values of forgiveness, discipline, embracing people with loving greetings and transcending forms of hatred. As the seasonal jubilations bring in joy, it disposes responsibility on each individual to engage in illuminating the supreme light within. While the deities ensure us munificent blessings, let’s seek eternal bliss in lighting lamps in lives of those who need it most.
Article by Rochita.