Deepawali is the festival of light celebrated since times unknown in every part of the land from a grass-thatched mud hut to a palace and from a commercial or industrial establishment to a shrine. Not merely Hindus or the followers of other indigenous sects – Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists..., even Christians and Mohammedans are enthusiastic about it, and it is not only the door of a Christian's house or that of a Mohammedan but even that of a chapel or a Dargah – a saint's holy burial, is often found lit with a lamp dispelling the darkness of the darkest night, the Amavasya in the month of Kartika – the eighth month of the Indian calendar. Crackers, an essential feature of Deepawali celebrations, are every youth's love, and which eye, old or young, does not glow when a spray of multi-coloured lights scatter over the high skies transforming into multi-forms from a peacock to the tri-colour national flag.
More than a religious festival or the festival of a community or race, Deepawali is perceived as the battle of light against darkness – a tiny lamp's determination to illuminate the earth and the sky setting them free from the all-enshrouding darkness. Deepawali celebrates this victory of the tiny lamp, its humble effort to fight out the gigantic darkness. People see in the effort of the tiny lamp their own effort to wade across the ocean of adversities, and this sense fills them with renewed confidence and fresh vigour for the days to come.
Indeed, Deepawali is the festival of renewing confidence in oneself and among all. It is a festival that inspires universal goodness and prosperity for all beyond caste and creed. Whatever its sectarian contexts, now for centuries it has attained the magnitude of a national festival which breathes a strange sense of belonging to all. Whether the lamp is lit in a temple or chapel, in a hut or palace, before the image of Christ, Mahavira, Buddha or Lakshmi and Ganesh, or before the sacred Bir – Holy Scripture, in a Gurdwara or at home, it is essentially a desire for light, an intrinsic determination to combat darkness, inherent compulsion for freeing oneself from all that is narrow, besides a lot of shopping and display of good taste, that now define the festival of Deepawali.
Sectarian contexts apart, light imparts to Deepawali universal breadth, unique magnificence and divine dimensions rarely associated with a festival. As light is benevolent and auspicious, light's birth, its emergence, is by itself a celebration. Seers saw light as both the Supreme Creator, as also the creation. Re-iterating Kabir, when Guru Nanak sang : 'Eka noor te saba jaga upaya', that is, the entire universe is born of one light, or when Prophet Mohammad uttered that the universe is nothing but the extension of His 'noor' – light, they both saw the Creator as a glow of light. It was hardly different for Shaivites who consecrated the Supreme Being as Jyotir-linga – the light combined with phallus, the fertility factor. This Supreme One wished : 'Ekoham bahusyami' – I am one but wish to multiply, and thus out of His expansion the cosmos came into being. Hardly different from these philosophical utterances is the common man's allegory when on a child's birth a mother sings : 'jaga ujiyaro hoya', that is, with the child's birth, which symbolises to her the emergence of light, 'the world is illuminated'. Alike, when a living self passes away, the wise say : 'jyoti mein jyoti samani', that is, the flame has merged with the Supreme Flame. The Buddhist tradition depicts, both in scriptures and art, a glowing flame passing off the body of Buddha to portray his Maha Parinirvana – final extinction.
The Rig-Veda holds Surya, the sun-god, in highest reverence for unless there was light even the manifest does not manifest. The Upanishadic interpretation of the Rig-Vedic Sukta is far clearer. Emergence of light is also the emergence of cosmos for even if the cosmos existed it would not manifest unless there was light. That is why the tradition re-iterated : 'Tamsoma jyotirgamaya' – let the darkness depart and the light emerge, in which manifested the desire of the Unmanifest. Metaphorically or otherwise, it is by the emergence of light that the factum of Creation has been indicated, not in India alone but also beyond. The Biblical tradition heralds : 'let there be light and the light was there'. Here also the Supreme One desired the emergence and once the light was there, there was the Creation too. Maybe, the light's relation with the Creation was just symbolic suggesting that the world existed in light and disappeared in darkness. However, light is God's verse that he writes on the face of the universe, and hence, whatever is divine is endowed with light, while dark avenues are devil's abode.
This light is the endless celebration, the man's as also nature's. Perceptions, perspectives, dimensions and forms, all are light's creation, and beauty, splendour, goodness, purity... its finer shades. With light is associated love, optimism, delight, festivities and everything that is auspicious, holy or divine. In its intrinsic form light is the attainment of ultimate knowledge and thereby of the supreme bliss, and thereafter there is no darkness and nothing in between the seer and the seen. The light is, thus, the ultimate vision of this world and the world beyond, and so its celebration, a thing of this world as also of the other.
Historical evidences reveal that the earliest celebrations that the semi-civilized man organised were held around light and fire, maybe for protection against wild animals that the fire frightened, and the light alerted against emergent dangers. Out of this cult people, perhaps those from early civilizations, developed their own festivals of light, independent ones discovering the glory of light, as the Indian festival of Deepawali, or those associated with some religious events such as the Christmas and the New Year in the Christian world, or the Shab-i-barat, in the Islamic. Whatever the theological contexts attached, the primary thrust of these festivals, in whichever degree, is the victory of light over darkness.
The origin of the festival of Deepawali, or Diwali – when or how it was begun or who initiated it, is not known. The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, has made brilliant efforts in its volume XXVI to trace the origin of Deepawali celebrations but even such efforts could take back its origin only up to the beginning of the Christian era, not beyond. The Hindu tradition relates Deepawali celebrations with the event of Rama's return to Ayodhya after his victory over Ravana but the Ramayana does not allude to any such celebrations. Massive arrangements were made to welcome Rama at Nandigram and every inch of land between Nandigram and Ayodhya was leveled, sprinkled and beautified, flags were posted on every house and all inhabitants of Ayodhya were out on streets to welcome him with folded hands but it all takes place during the early part of the day. In this sub-canto, perhaps only once allusion to lamps or light is made. As commanded Shatrughna, servants of the state rushed with oil lamps, beds and cushions etc. to the palace where Sugriva stayed. It seems that by the time of Valmiki auspices were carried out only during the day and there wasn't perhaps the tradition of holding corresponding celebrations during the night.
The so far known earliest text that alludes to celebrating a night with multitudinous lights – a kind of the festival of light, is the Kama-Sutra by sage Vatsyayana, datable to around the 3rd-2nd century B.C. to the 1st-2nd century A.D. Most significant among the nights that Vatsyayana recommends to celebrate is the night of Yakshas or the Yaksha-night. Vatsyayana ordains that on the Yaksha night the houses should be illuminated with the light of tiny earthen lamps placed in rows close to each wall and window ledges, and the gardens should have bonfires. Yakshas were celestial beings fundamentally inclining to enjoyment. Thus, Yaksha night was the festival of light and merriment. At another place in the text Vatsyayana recommends gambling as the sport for the Yaksha night. Thus, Vatsyayana's Yaksha night was celebrated with light, merriment and gambling, something that continues ever since as part of Deepawali celebrations. The term 'Deepawali' comprises two syllable : 'dipa' and 'awali', one meaning 'lamp' and other, 'row', that is, row of lamps, exactly with what Vatsyayana ordains Deepawali celebrations. In their commentaries on the Kama-Sutra the Jain Acharyas Hem Chandra and Yashodhara, too, have identified the festival of Yaksha night as an early form of Deepawali. Kalaratri – the deadly night, Maha Ratri – impenetrable night, Muhka Ratri – night of initiation etc. are Yaksha Ratri type other names by which the Puranas have addressed Deepawali.
In his play 'Nava-Nand', King Harsh, who had a long tenure from 606 A.D. to 648 A. D., talks of Dipotsava – festival of lamps. The Dipotsava of King Harsh is quite similar to the modern Deepawali. Nilamata Purana of the Kashmiri origin, composed between 500 A. D. to 800 A. D., gives more elaborate account of the Dipa-mala festival. All round illuminations, decorations, especially by hoisting up festoons, feasting Brahmins and relatives, gambling, music, passing nights in company of ladies, wearing rich apparel and jewels and making presents of new garments to friends, relatives, Brahmins and household were some essential features of Deepawali celebrations. In his Yashastilakachampoo (A. D. 959), Someshvarasuri makes special mention of decorating houses on Deepawali. According to him, the houses were white-washed and their tops were decorated with rows of bright lights. In his Tahkik-i-Hind, the known traveler Alberuni, who was in India in A. D. 1030, gives an identical account of Deepawali celebrations. In addition, he talks of people visiting temples, giving alms, exchanging betel leaves and areca nuts. He also talks of gambling and some Deepawali related legends. He says that it was considered as the day for trying one's luck, and it was on this day that Goddess Lakshmi was liberated from Bali's clutches. In his memoirs the Italian traveler Nicoloi Conti gives an elaborate picture of how Indians celebrated Deepawali, In about 1420-21 Conti was in Vijayanagara and recorded how in temples the lamps kept lit day and night, and on house-tops, the whole night. In his Ain-i-Akbari, Abul Fazl circumscribes Deepawali as the festival of Vaisyas – the trading community, but such was its popularity and attraction that Akbar himself participated in its celebrations.
Deepawali was now the most captivating annual event celebrated with enthusiasm by both household and recluses; however, except some ritual practices added to it, it had no mystic, mythological or symbolic dimensions. It was still seen as the epitome of people's endeavour to fight against darkness, which later widened into a battle against all that was evil, dark and gloomy – the victory of good over evil. The Marathi saint Jnyaneshvara, in Jnyaneshvari, equating Deepawali illuminations with the light of spiritual knowledge added to it divine dimensions. Chakradhara, the founder of Marathi Mahanubhava sect, a social-cum-religious organisation, prescribes for his Gosavi pupils the way of celebrating Deepawali befitting a saint. In his Chaturvargachintamani, a mid-13th century text, Hemadri laid the tradition of sisters feeding their brothers on the occasion of Deepawali. Brahma Purana and others had already prescribed worship of Lakshmi or Mahalakshmi on Deepawali but after some kings, such as the Kolhapur king Siddharaja, began worshipping the goddess, the cult reached every house. In his Prabandha Chintamani, Merutunga, a saint-cum-thinker of Gujarat, gives elaborate details of Siddharaja worshipping the goddess with offerings of gold, jewels, garments and camphor.
As reflects in the entire body of Indian theology irrespective this or that sect, some kind of utility aspect – ethical, social, moral..., is found linked with all major religious practices and popular beliefs. After Deepawali gained popularity among various sects, it was also linked with hygiene, strengthened ties – social and within the family, improved living, and inspired charity. As per one's status and means every household was required to repair and put in proper shape his monsoon-worn house and disinfect it with lime-wash. The Brahma Purana acclaimed that lighting lamps on Deepawali is as virtuous as distributing alms equal to one's body-weight. It cautions that one should not celebrate Deepawali unless the house has been duly cleaned and one wears new, or at least neat and clean bejeweled clothes, and further that it is inauspicious to eat any food unless one shares it with those held in reverence, members of the family and the village, and the household servants. As Holi, the other Deepawali-like popular festival, was associated with harvesting of one crop, Deepawali was associated with the other. Deepawali had now a set of rituals relating to dung-heap worship and the worship of cow-dung deified as Govardhana – the mythical mount, the worship of which Krishna had initiated. These rituals aimed at conserving the natural source of re-energizing agricultural lands which rains rendered dull depriving them of their fertility power.
By 17th-18th century the cult of celebrating Deepawali had spread over the entire subcontinent from Himalayan hill-region, Kashmir and Siam to deep South. It was celebrated by lighting the lamps usually in large numbers. The use of fireworks – crackers and sparklers, was a late addition, perhaps after the invention of gun powder in the 14th century. As becomes evident from the mid-17th century miniatures from the period of Shahjahan, fireworks had emerged as part of Deepawali celebrations by then, though their display became more popular by the 18th century.
Not restricting to crackers or sparklers, the gun powder was now also mixed with inflammable pulps for moulding out of them effigies of mythological figures like Ravana, Meghanatha and others. Such effigies were put in public squares and were shot at to put them ablaze. Maratha history contains an interesting episode relating to such gun powder effigies. Kota rulers used to cast, besides the effigies of Ravana, Meghanatha and others, a model of Lanka, monkeys and a huge figure of Hanuman from this inflammable pulp and gun powder. First of all Hanuman's tail was put ablaze, and then it burnt entire Lanka including Ravana and others. When at Kota, Mahadji Scindia, founder of Scindia dynasty and one of the generals of Peshwa Madhava Rao who ruled from 1774 to 1795, witnessed the episode and highly impressed as he was, he narrated it to the Peshwa when he was back at Pune. Later, Peshwa asked Mahadji Scindia to get constructed the similar model of Lanka and effigies of others including Hanuman beneath the Parvati hill, and when they were burnt he witnessed them with his courtiers from the Parvati temple. However later when Dashahara and Deepawali were linked with the Rama's conquest over Ravana, as two major events of the Rama-katha – the story of Rama, this part of Deepawali celebrations : burning the effigies of Ravana and others, was shifted to Dashahara, the day Rama had killed Ravana.
Hindus relate Deepawali to Rama's return to Ayodhya on completion of his fourteen years exile in the forest exactly twenty days after he had killed Ravana. Some astrological studies have established that the day of Rama's return to Ayodhya was the same as the one on which Deepawali is celebrated but when exactly the two were linked together is not known. As discussed earlier, the Ramayana by sage Valmiki, which tradition assigns to Rama's life-time, does not allude to any kind of celebrations held that night. It is the same with the Ramacharita Manasa by Tulsidasa. The Ramacharita Manasa, too, does not talk of any kind of night celebration, not even that people adorned their houses with light.
Another section of Hindus relates Deepawali to the elimination of Narakasura, the demon king of Pragjotipura in the north-east, by Krishna. Narakasura daily sacrificed one unmarried girl and abducted every woman he could lay his hand on. As the legend has it, every young girl was required to worship him and offer herself for sacrifice. The number of women he had abducted, before he was killed, was sixty thousand. In Bundelkhand and several other backward parts of the land the young unmarried girls still worship the cow-dung images of Narakasura for a fortnight preceding Deepawali. With lamps in hands these young worshippers of Narakasura move around the village in the form of a procession. Krishna killed the demon and rescued all sixty thousand women. After he was killed, the entire country was illuminated and his effigies were burnt, a tradition of which Deepawali is the continuum. Some traditions fix Chaturdashi as the day of the elimination of Narakasura, and hence celebrate it as Chhoti – small or mini Deepawali. It is sometimes called 'Naraka Chaturdashi'.
The Skanda Purana links Deepawali celebrations with the destruction of the demon king Bali and Vishnu's incarnation as Vamana, the Dwarf. As the legend has it, the demon king Bali, son of Virochana and grandson of the legendary Prahlad, had acquired enormous celestial powers by the observance of great austerities. With such powers he captured all three worlds, made Lakshmi his captive and deprived Indra and all other gods of their abodes. Unable to win back their lost position and prestige all gods and Indra went to Vishnu and prayed him for rescuing them from Bali's torments. On the banks of river Narmada Bali had held a great yajna – sacrificial ritual, to which hundreds of Brahmins were invited. Vishnu incarnated or transformed as Vamana, a Brahmin with the body size of a dwarf, and joined the yajna as one of the Brahmins. On his turn, during the course of the distribution of alms, he prayed Bali for giving him a piece of land measuring just three strides. Bali happily granted the prayer. To make surer Vamana prayed the demon king to take a vow as prescribed, which Bali did.
Thereupon Vishnu so much expanded his form that in two strides he covered all three worlds, and with the third, pushed Bali to nether land, his rightful place. This appears to have been the earliest of all three Deepawali related Hindu myths for, as becomes evident from the memoirs of Alberuni, the legend must have been quite popular even during the early years of the 11th century when Alberuni visited India. Alberuni mentions that people celebrated Deepawali for Lakshmi's liberation from the clutches of Bali.
Jains celebrate Deepawali, or Deva Diwali, as the day of the Nirvana – final extinction, of Mahavira, their twenty-fourth Tirthankara. When 72, Mahavira had his Nirvana at Pavapuri, in modern Bihar, in late night of Chaturdashi, that is, the early morning of the Amavasya of the month of Kartika, the day on which Deepawali is celebrated. As the Jain tradition maintains, after the Nirvana of Lord Mahavira eighteen kings who were his followers conferred and said :' since the light of holy knowledge has passed away, let there be material illumination', and then the lights were lit. The lights were lit in the morning as also in the evening that followed. Jain Acharya Hem Chandra holds that it was thus that the dipotsava was begun, and that the yaksha-ratri of Vatsyayana in Kama-Sutra was conceived on the line of the dipotsava, though with the objective of merriment. Jains' evening celebrations have the same form as under the common tradition including invocation of goddess Lakshmi, though its morning part is completely different and is ritualistic. The fast is observed on the day of Chaturdashi preceding the moment of the Master's Nirvana. The Jains would rise in early morning, take bath and reach the temple where they would offer last prayers to the departing Master and would offer as oblation Nirvana-ladu – sugar ball, something like the last mass. The tradition is claimed to begin from the day of Mahavira's Nirvana, which might be an exaggeration but, as becomes evident from early texts like one of Acharya Hem Chandra, its antiquity is doubtless.
Sikhs celebrate Deepawali in like manner, wearing new clothes, lighting lamps, burning crackers etc. but they have their own context of Deepawali, and it adds to it greater significance and auspiciousness. Sikhs celebrated Deepawali earlier also of which clear evidence is seen during the period of the fifth Guru Arjan Deva but it was because of the release and return of Guru Hargobind, Sikhs' sixth pontiff, to the Golden Temple on the day of Deepawali that it gained special significance for Sikhs. Annoyed for feeding his rebel son prince Khurram, who later succeeded him as Shahjahan, in his langara – community feasting, Jahangir had arrested Guru Hargobind and imprisoned him in the fort of Gwalior. Later, convinced by Mir, a Sufi saint, Jahangir ordered his release. He reached Amritsar on Deepawali. Baba Buddaji, the elder most Sikh, and other devout Sikhs lighted lamps and illuminated Sri Harmandar Sahib, distributed food to all, held special sabad-kirtan – musical recitation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, and ardas – prayer, and held special congregation. It continued for three days, and accordingly, Sikhs celebrate Deepawali for three days, though lighting in Sri Harmandar Sahib and decoration continue for about a fortnight.
In most of the major festivals in other traditions of the world celebrations stretch over a period of many days. Deepawali celebrations stretch into a group of at least five minor festivals and thus Deepawali is a festival of composite nature. The first of them is Dhana-Terasa. 'Terasa' is the corrupt form of Trio-dash, meaning thirteenth; 'Dhana' means wealth; and thus, Dhan-Terasa means 'thirteenth, the day of wealth', that is, two days before Deepawali which takes place on the fifteenth – Amavasya. Dhana-Terasa marks the beginning of the Lakshmi's welcome rites. In the evening some lamps are lighted and placed outside the door for Yama, the god of death, for keeping him away. Actual Deepawali shopping, especially of utensils and jewellery, is done on Dhana-Terasa and is considered exceptionally auspicious; these new things alternate the old. As already discussed, Chaturdashi is celebrated as minor Deepawali in all sects, as Naraka Chaturdashi in the Hindu tradition, and as the day of Mahavira's Nirvana, amongst Jains. Govardhana-puja, worship of Mount Govardhana, that takes place on the day next to Deepawali, is another minor festival. In some parts there is the tradition of worshipping a cow-dung model of Govardhana along with cows, while in the other, it is celebrated as Annakuta – the worship of the pile of the first harvested grain of the season.
The next day, which is 'Doja' – second day of the second half of the month, is celebrated as Bhaiya-Doja. It is the day when sisters put tilaka-mark on the foreheads of their brothers and feed them with the food they prepared with their own hands, a tradition which perhaps Acharya Hemadri had introduced in the 13th century. Bhaiya-Doja is also known as Yama-Dwitiya having Vedic context of Yama and Yami, the son and daughter of Surya. As is the story, Yami made a proposal to Yama for marrying her, something common in primitive society which did not see a man and woman as other than a male and a female. To change this position Surya instructed Yama to turn down Yami's proposal. In the course of time this relationship was identified as brother and sister. Bhaiya-Doja aimed at strengthening the ties in between them.
Deepawali celebrations are fixed for the Amavasya night of the month of Kartika but this Amavasya is not a mathematically counted day. It is rather the outcome of the planetary position. The Zodiac is divided into twelve parts having twelve Zodiac signs, namely, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. The cycle of the sun's movement across them is the basis for determining both Deepawali as well as Holi, the other as much popular festival of India. Deepawali occurs on the day when the sun transits from Virgo, the sixth sign, into Libra, the seventh – a planetary position on the Kartika Amavasya. From this Amavasya the later half of the planetary year begins. The planetary position on this day determines the prospects across the year not only of those born under this or that zodiac sign but also of the society in general, the nation and the world. Being linked with the arrival of crop which equips all with buying capacity Deepawali has special meaning for traders, and accordingly they maintain their account books from Deepawali to Deepawali, often maintaining this periodicity as their calendar.
Lakshmi is unanimously revered as the presiding deity of Deepawali.
In the Deepawali context Lakshmi is the presiding deity of riches, prosperity, fertility and well-being, and here her Vishnu contexts seem to become largely irrelevant. In its Gautami-Mahatmya part, the Brahma-Purana perceives her as God's grace, grace of penance and yajna, one who gives prosperity, fame, popularity, learning, intellect, happiness, salvation, forbearance, accomplishment of all desired, quiescence, and all faculties of mind, and as one who herself is the water, earth, space, light, darkness, Maya, and all that is manifest and unmanifest. Hence, in Deepawali rituals Lakshmi is thrice worshipped. Analogous to Kala-ratri, the first night after the Great Deluge when the process of re-creation was commenced, Deepawali begins its rituals with the joint worship of Lakshmi and Ganesh, one representing the primordial energy and the other who channeled it into creative process by controlling detriments.
The image of Ganesh, when accompanied by his consorts Riddhi and Siddhi, has greater auspices. While Ganesh checks negatives, Riddhi and Siddhi operate and produce results. This joint worship of Lakshmi-Ganesh is followed by the worship of nine planets, sixty-four Yoginis – manifest forms of primordial energy, sixteen mothers, knowledge of architecture, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Then Lakshmi is worshipped independently without Ganesh. Different from primordial energy she is now worshipped as the goddess of riches and abundance. Hence, before she is worshipped scriptures prescribe worship of Yaksha Kuber, the custodian of riches. And finally, after one has worshipped the means of livelihood, means of rituals and knowledge etc. Lakshmi is worshipped again, and this time the related hymn is thrice recited, thrice is made offering, and thrice should bow the head as the goddess pervades all three worlds and prayers should reach them all.
Rig-Veda Samhita: edited by F. Maxmuller; English translation by H. H. Wilson, Poona.
Mahabharata: Gita Press, Gorakhpur; Critical Edition, Poona; English translation by Pratap Chandra Rai, Calcutta.
Valmiki Ramayana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Skanda Purana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Bhagavata Purana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Vishnupurana: Bombay; Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Brahma Puarana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Vayu Purana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
The Magic Makers: P. C. Jain
Krishna : Raga se Viraga Tak: Dr. Daljeet & P. C. Jain
Sri Harmandar Sahib : Body visible of the Invisible Supreme Krishna: Dr. Daljeet & P. C. Jain
Hindu Myths: D. O. Flaherty
Indian Mythology: Veronica Ions
Festivals, Fairs and Fasts of India: Shakti M. Gupta
The Development of Hindu Iconography: J. N. Banarjee
Bulletin of the Bhandarkara Institute of Oriental Research, Pune, vol. 26
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