Diwali – The embodiment of joy, victory and harmony

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This article by Manisha Sarade

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Diwali – The embodiment of joy, victory and harmony

The majestic Indian festival season has already begun. No matter where we reside in this vibrant country and what faith we adhere to, if there’s one festival that truly ties us together, it’s Diwali. While most other festivals are celebrated in certain regions or are specific to a certain zone in the country, Diwali is celebrated widely across the expanse of India. Certainly, being the variegated country India is, every community, every region, every culture has its unique manner of celebrating this festival of lights.

Commonly, Diwali is marked as the celebration of King Rama’s return to Ayodhya after his victory over Ravana, as described in the epic Ramayana. Alternatively, the basis of the festival is traced back to the Mahabharata, where Diwali is marked by the return of the five Pandavas from their exile in the forest. In a different tale from the mountains of Himachal, the great war of Mahabharata commenced on the first day of Diwali. Another story in the background of the festival symbolizes the day of Narak Chaturdashi, the 14th day of the second half of the month Ashwin (also known as Aswayuja, it is the seventh month of the lunisolar Hindu calendar) and the second day of Diwali. It is the day when Lord Krishna exterminated the devil Narakasur and liberated the 16,000 women he had held captive.

Shri Rama Durbar

Though primarily celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and some Buddhists, the celebration of Diwali has crossed these boundaries way long ago and is thus observed by people hailing from all backgrounds and walks of life. Further, it is quite an the important cultural occasion for the Hindu, Sikh, and Jain diaspora. The Jains observe a Diwali distinct from others, which marks the final liberation of Mahavira (According to Jain texts, Lord Mahavira, the twenty-fourth and last Tirthankara, is said to have attained Nirvana on the day of Diwali), the Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas to commemorate the release of Guru Hargobind from a Mughal prison, while Newar Buddhists observe Diwali by worshipping Goddess Lakshmi, whereas the Hindus hailing from the Eastern part of India and Bangladesh usually celebrate Diwali by worshipping the goddess Kali. In regions of Himachal Pradesh, at Ani and Nirmand in Kullu district, Shillai in Sirmaur district, and Chopal in Shimla district, Diwali is celebrated a month after it’s celebrated in the remaining country. This is also the reason that it’s not known as Diwali, but rather as Budhi Diwali (implying old Diwali). As victorious Rama came back, the news circulated in his kingdom. The people of Ayodhya was ecstatic at their beloved King’s homecoming after fourteen long years and thus celebrated by lighting lamps and distributing sweets. But then, given the mountainous northern region was distant from the capital, it took nearly a month for the news to reach there. They started the celebrations as soon as they got the news, but it was a month after the celebrations took place in the rest of the kingdom. It is interesting to note that the principal day of the festival of Diwali (the day of Lakshmi Puja) is an official holiday in many places other than India, namely Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Ganesha-Lakshmi-Saraswati Lamp With A Sturdy, Engraved Stem

The aim of Diwali is to teach an enormously substantial lesson to everyone. That ‘good’ always triumphs over ‘evil’, the same way Lord Rama emerged victorious in the battle. The tradition of lighting oil lamps symbolizes the victory of good over evil and freedom from spiritual darkness.

The term ‘Diwali’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘deepawali’ meaning "series or trail of lights". This word is taken from the Sanskrit the word ‘dipa’, which indicates a source of "light that which glows, shines, illuminates or provides knowledge". Diwali is celebrated over five days generally, during the Hindu lunisolar month Kartika (between mid-October and mid-November) – each day has a legend as a backstory for why it is celebrated in the said manner.

The first day of Diwali: Dhanteras

The first day of Diwali is called Dhan Teras (Dhanvantari Triodas). The sixteen-year-old son of King Hima’s horoscope predicted his death by snake-bite on the fourth day of his marriage. On that particular day, his newly-wed wife did not allow him to sleep. With a plan to save her husband, she laid out all her ornaments and lots of gold and silver coins in a heap at the entrance of the sleeping chamber and lit lamps all over the place. Then she started narrating stories and singing songs to keep her husband from falling asleep. The next day, when Yamraja, the God of Death, arrived at the prince's doorstep in the guise of a Serpent, his eyes were dazzled and blinded by the brilliance of the lamps and the jewelry. Yamraja could not enter the prince’s chamber, so he climbed on top of the heap of gold coins and sat there the entire night listening to the stories and songs. In the morning, he silently went away. Thus, the young prince was saved from the clutches of death by the cleverness of his new bride and the day is celebrated as Dhanteras, ever since.

Small Size Lakshmi Ganesha and Kubera

The second day of Diwali: Choti Diwali

This day is also known as Narak Chaturdasi and Kali Chaudas. The legend behind the day is associated with the demon king Narakasur who was a ruler of Pragjyotishpur, a province to the South of Nepal. Lord Krishna destroyed the demon Narakasur on this day, freeing the world from fear and also releasing the imprisoned ladies from Narakasur's harem.

Pair of Lakshmi and Ganesha

The third day of Diwali: Lakshmi Puja

It is believed that Goddess Lakshmi manifested herself on this day when the demons and deities were churning the ocean together to find out the 'drink of immortality'. Thus, Diwali is also celebrated to commemorate the birth of the Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi.

White Marble Lakshmi Statue 

The fourth day of Diwali: Govardhan Pooja and Vishwakarma Day

Govardhan Pooja: 

Govardhan is a small hillock situated at 'Braj', near Mathura. As the legend goes, on this day, Lord Krishna taught people to worship the supreme controller of nature, God, specifically Govardhan, as Govardhan is a manifestation of Krishna and to stop worship in the God of Rains, Lord Indra.

Shri Krishna Lifting the Govardhana Mountain - Large Size

Vishwakarma Day:

The day is also dedicated to the Hindu God, Lord Vishwakarma, who, as per mythology, created the weapons used in mythological times. Lord Vishwakarma is considered to be the best worker, the symbol of quality and excellence in craftsmanship. His creations also include the mythical town of Dwarka, the capital of Lord Krishna. The day is also celebrated as Lord Vishwakarma's birthday in many parts of India.

Vishwakarma Ji

The fifth day of Diwali: Bhai Dooj

One of the most famous legends around Bhai Dooj narrates the story of Yamraja and Yamuna. Yamraja visited his sister Yamuna on this day. Pleased by her love and affection, Yamraja gave his sister a Vardaan (boon) that whosoever visits her on this day, shall be liberated from all sins. Since then, the custom of celebrating Bhai Dooj started and is also known as Yama Dwitiya.

It is also believed that it was on the day of Diwali that Goddess Lakshmi was rescued from a prison by the fifth incarnation of Vishnu in Vaman avatar. King Mahabali, was a powerful demon king who ruled the earth. Bali was invincible and even devas failed to defeat him in battles. Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a short Brahmin and approached Bali for some charity. The righteous and benevolent King couldn't refuse the Brahmin and was tricked into giving up his kingship and wealth (of which Lakshmi considered to be the Goddess). Diwali marks this overcoming of Mahabali by Lord Vishnu. This is the reason behind worshipping Goddess Lakshmi on the day Diwali. In Kerala, it is observed as Onam in the month of August.

Lord Ganesha, known as a demolisher of obstacles, is worshipped on Diwali for wisdom and intellect. A popular tale from Hindu mythology says that Lakshmi adopted Ganesha from his mother Parvati because the former was childless. Out of her love for Ganesha, Lakshmi declared that all her luxury, prosperity and accomplishments is Ganesh's as well. She also said that in all the three worlds, (trilok) anyone who doesn't worship Ganesh with her will never see prosperity in his life. Another explanation which surrounds the worship of both of them is that Ganesh is the most righteous God. There is no wealth without prosperity, there is no money without the wisdom to use it properly. All the material gains in the world would not be permanent without intelligence. So, Ganesha is worshipped to restore the balance between these two forces.

In rural areas, Diwali signifies Harvest Festival. Diwali which occurs at the end of a cropping season has along with the above custom, a few others that reinforce the hypothesis of its having originated as a harvest. Every harvest normally spelt prosperity. The celebration was first started in India by farmers after they reaped their harvests. They celebrated with joy and offered praises to God for granting them a good crop.

In fact, the four-day-long Chhath Puja festivities dedicated to the Sun God (Surya Bhagwan) and Chhathi Maiyya, begin four days after Diwali, i.e., on the Chaturthi Tithi of Kartik Shukla Paksha. On the first day, devotees perform the Nahay Khay ritual. And on the second day (Panchami Tithi), people prepare a Kheer and observe a vrat and break it in the evening after offering their prayers to Chhathi Maiya. This ritual is called Kharna or Lohanda. On the third day (Sashti Tithi), devotees offer their prayers to the Sun God by performing a ritual called Sandhya Arghya. And on the Saptami Tithi, they pay ode to the rising Sun by offering the Usha Arghya. After performing all the rituals, devotees who keep a vrat break their fast.

The preparation for Diwali begins many days prior to the festival. It starts with the thorough cleaning of houses and shops. Many people also discard all the old household items and get all the renovation work done before the onset of the festival.    It is an age-old belief that Goddess Lakshmi visits people’s houses on Diwali night to bless them. Hence, all the devotees clean and decorate their houses with lights, flowers, rangoli, candles, Diyas, garlands etc. for the festival. People cover streets and buildings in festive lighting and there are lively songs and dance. Dazzling fireworks go off, creating a spectacle of noise and light. Many consider Diwali to be a fresh start, similar to the Lunar New Year in January. Diwali is also a time to settle debts and make peace. It’s common for people to reach out to loved ones who may have lost touch and organise family reunions. It is in true sense the festival of unity in diversity. It brings people together inspite of religious, cultural, social or geographical barriers.

The Timeless Tradition of Rangoli on Diwali

Rangoli is a timeless tradition that is followed all over India. Rangoli is also known as Alpana, Aripoma, or Kolam. It is an ancient art, practiced by almost all households. In many cases, designs are passed down through generations with some of them being hundreds of years old. The word 'Rangoli' is said to have been derived from the words 'Rang' and 'Aavalli' which refers to a row of colours. Rangoli designs and colours vary between different regions but they all follow some basic patterns. A Rangoli usually has a geometrical structure that is also symmetrical. The design patterns often consist of natural elements like animals, flowers, etc. Diwali is celebrated, primarily to herald the coming of the Goddess Lakshmi. Prayers are offered to her, asking for her blessings in the form of wealth. As such, a Rangoli design is created at the entrance of the house, not only to welcome the guests that visit, but also the Goddess herself. Rangoli patterns are usually made using coloured chalk, rice powder, and crushed limestone. A Rangoli drawn during Diwali usually follows a certain theme. The central design or motif is symbolic and represents a deity or the main concept of the theme. A Rangoli design usually has a geometric shape, which is supposed to denote the infiniteness of time. A Rangoli is also bordered by a lotus design, to represent the Goddess Lakshmi. The lotus is also symbolic for the beginning of life. When drawn as an outline, it could also refer to a heart or a wheel.

In the northern parts of Bihar, Lakshmi's footprints are drawn on the doorstep, with the toes pointing towards the entrance of the house. A typical Rangoli drawn in Andhra Pradesh, has an eight-petal lotus which is formed by a variety of geometric patterns. This lotus is called 'Ashtadal Kamal'. In Tamil Nadu, an Eight-Pointed star, referred to as 'Hridaya Kalam', replaces the eight-petal lotus. This means the lotus of the heart. Gujarat itself is said to have almost a thousand variations of the lotus that are drawn during Diwali. ‘Sanskar Bharati’ Rangoli is very popular in Maharashtra which is drawn in a free hand style. It is mainly drawn in circular form. It is drawn in big as well as small circles. The way of drawing this style of Rangoli is a little different. In the beginning colours are spread on the floor and then design is made with white Rangoli on these colours. These designs include different holy symbols depicting Indian culture, rituals, customs and traditions. People also use different geometric shapes to make it look even more attractive. Sanskar Bharati Rangoli is an epitome of Indian Culture and tradition which represents the Sanskars (sacraments) of Indic tradition.

Diwali and Delicacies

One wouldn't actually be celebrating Diwali without having sweet delicacies. Indian sweets come in a variety of colours and flavours. Indian families celebrating Diwali prepare sweets prior ten days to the festival. However, the celebration features various rich savoury and sweet dishes. While eating out is popular, families will mostly cook food at home for when the relatives arrive in and exchange gifts and watch fireworks. Each family celebrating Diwali will more than likely have its own favourite meal for the festival. It’s customary to eat either vegan or vegetarian during Diwali. Traditionally Indian sweets are called ‘Mithai’. It is an old tradition of considering sweets to be pure and an offering to the gods. Sweets are a small gesture of greeting people, family, and friends with the joy of celebrating the festival. A wide range of choices of flavours and endless types are a must at any festival and especially Diwali. Shakkarpaara, Chevdo, Sev, Pakoras, Barfi, Kheer, Jalebi, Laddoos, Ghugra, Gulab Jamun, Gujia, Mathia Papad, Halwa, Batata Vada, Thattai, Murukku, Nankhatai etc, are some foods enjoyed during the festival.

Key Values We Learn from Diwali

1. Discipline 

  • Diwali usually starts with the brahmamuhurta (roughly one-and-a-half hours before sunrise) and that's usually around 4:00 a.m. This early wake-up is considered to be the first step to a disciplined life and is symbolic of mental and spiritual awakening. It is believed that the sages who started this custom wanted it to become a norm of life. The wee hours of the morning are said to be the ideal time for improving productivity, acquiring knowledge, achieving ethical discipline, developing physical and mental health, and thereby attaining professional and personal success.
2. Goodness

Diwali marks the victory of Lord Krishna over the evil demon Narakashura. This symbolizes the victory of good over evil. Humans are made of three basic qualities - sattva, rajas and tamas. These qualities symbolize goodness, passion and destruction. Since none of these qualities can be totally eliminated from a person, there needs to be a perfect balance among them.

3. Divinity

Divinity is the source of happiness. According to Swami Vivekananda, "Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest the divinity within you." Lighting earthen lamps is a symbolic representation of kindling the divinity within us by lighting the lamp of knowledge to drive away the darkness of ignorance. As Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa said, "A lamp cannot burn without oil; similarly, a man cannot live without God."

4. Humility

Lord Rama is the perfect example of how important it is to be humble and gentle. That is why he was known as 'Maryada Purushottam' (Lord of Virtue). He was always seen as being the perfect son to his parents, the ideal protector of dharma and a living example of morality.

5. Tolerance

Diwali isn't confined to Hinduism. Jains celebrate it as the day when Vardhamana Mahavira, the last Tirthankara or Teaching God, attained eternal nirvana - spiritual liberation. Sikhs celebrate this day as Bandichor Diwas (Day of Liberation) to mark the release of Guru Hargobind from Gwalior prison where he had been a political prisoner. In Nepal, people celebrate the day as the anniversary of King Ashoka's conversion to Buddhism. Diwali is, therefore, a great example of the brotherhood of religions.

6. Togetherness

Diwali is the time for family get-togethers. It signifies the importance of brotherhood and the joy of togetherness.

7. Kindness

The very purpose of celebrating festivals is to make people around us happy, for true happiness comes from little acts of kindness. Diwali is the time when we indulge in such generous acts.

8. Patience

Every unpleasant thing will come to an end one day for sure – what we need to do is to have patience. It helps build our reputations for persistence and improves our relationships with all those around us. Sometimes we don't have all the answers that we want in life when we want them. That's okay because we learn and grow through challenges along the way.

References and Further Readings:

Dev Sharma, Bhu. Hindu Festivals. New Bharatiya Book Corporation. 2021. Print.

Ganeshram, Ramin, and Vellotti, Jean-Paul. Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago. New York: Hippocrene Books, 2006. Print.

Lata Bahadur, Om. The book of Hindu festivals and ceremonies. UBS Publishers Distributors; 2nd edition. 1994. Print.

Robinson, James. Hinduism. New York: InfoBase Publishing. 2004. Print.

Torpe, Kate. Diwali. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 2008. Print.


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