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Diwali – from darkness unto light
October 19, 2014, 2:41 pm

Diwali,or Deepavali as pronounced by some,is the biggest and brightest of all Indian festivals with its religious, historical and spiritual connotations varying across the vast country.

To the Hindus, it is the religious aspect of Diwali that is celebrated, while to the Jains and Sikhs it the sacred and historical implications of Diwali that takes center-stage. But in all three religions there is also a spiritual resonance to Diwali, symbolizing the ultimate victory of light over darkness, of good over evil, of knowledge over ignorance.In modern times Diwali has also taken on a more temporal note, with a great deal of shopping, socializing and entertainment taking place during the five-day festival.

The Hindu celebration of Diwali varies across India, based on various regional interpretations of myths and legends from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Jains commemorate Diwali as the time when in the 6th century, Lord Mahavira, the 24th and last ‘Tirthankar’ or spiritual leaderof Jains attained Moksha, the highest and noblest objective of the soul. Meanwhile, to the Sikhs, Diwali is celebrated as ‘BandiShor Divas’, or Day of Liberation and marks the release from Mughal prison of Guru Hargobindjithe Sixth Guru and leader of the Sikhs in the 17th century. In many areas of India, Diwali is celebrated as the start of a new year as per local Hindu calendar.

Despite all these variance, Diwali is a ‘Festival of Lights’ with the word Diwali being a fusion of two Sanskrit words, Dipa or Deepa meaning light or lamp, and Awali meaning a row, series or line. The festival is celebrated over five days with people decorating their homes and businesses with rows of lights. Each of the four days in the festival of Diwali is separated by a different tradition, but what remains true and consistent is the celebration of life, its enjoyment and goodness.

Historically, the origin of Diwali can be traced back to ancient India, when it was probably an important harvest festival during the Hindu month of Kartika. Over time, various legends and myths from the Ramayana and Mahabharata were associated and celebrated with the early agrarian festival. While some believe Diwali to be a celebration of the marriage of the GoddessLakshmi with Lord Vishnu, in Bengal, the festival is dedicated to the worship of Mother Kali, the dark Goddess of strength. Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed God, the symbol of auspiciousness and wisdom, is also worshiped in most Hindu homes on this day.

Diwali also commemorates the return of Lord Rama as king of Ayodhya in Northern India along with Sita and Lakshmanfrom his fourteen year-long exile, and the vanquishing of demon-king Ravana. In joyous celebration of the return of their king, the people of Ayodhya, the capital of Rama, illuminated the kingdom with earthen diyas (oil lamps) and burst fire-crackers. Today, a symbolic re-enactment 'Ram Lila', or the killing by Rama ofRavana and the freeing ofSita, takes up center-stage in the ancient town of Ayodhya and elsewhere, with effigies of the ten-headed Ravana is burned.

Like any major festival preparations for Diwali begins days or weeks ahead, with the formal festival limited to five-days beginning two days before the night of Diwali, and ending two days after. Each day of Diwali has its own tale, legend and myth to tell. Sweet treats are exchanged, houses are thoroughly cleaned homes, lit with diyas (lamps) and decorated with rangoli (colorful floor designs) and new clothes are worn.

Dhanteras: In many regions, Dhanteras marks the start of Diwali. This day marks the birthday of Lakshmi - the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, and the birthday of Dhanvantari - the Goddess of Health and Healing. Diyas or earthen oil-lamps are lit and kept burning throughout the night in honor of Lakshmi and Dhanvantari. Dhanteras is also a major shopping day, particularly for gold or silver articles. A special Lakshmi Puja is performed in the evening.

Narakachaturdasi: The second day of the Diwali festival is NarakaChaturdasi marking the vanquishing of the demon Naraka by Lord Krishna and his wife Satyabhama. Homes are decorated with rangoli and women embellish their hands with henna designs. Families are also busy preparing homemade sweets for the main Diwali.

Diwali: The third day of the five-day festival is usually celebrated as the main festive day of Diwali. People don their new clothes, diyas are lit and special pujas are offered to the Goddess Lakshmi. Windows and doors are left open to provide easy access for the Goddess.  After the puja people go out and celebrate by bursting fire-crackers. Visits to friends and relatives and exchange of gifts and sweets also take place on this day.

In some places, additional deities usually Ganesha, Saraswati, and Kubera are honored on this day with offerings and pujas. Blessings are invoked from Lakshmi as she symbolizes wealth and prosperity,while Ganeshasymbolizes ethical beginnings and is a fearless remover of obstacles. Saraswatisymbolizes music, literature and learning and Kubera symbolizes book keeping, treasury and wealth management. Among some business communities, new account books for the year ahead are opened.

Padwa: The day after Diwali celebrates the love and mutual devotion between the wife and husband. The husbands give gifts to their wiveson this day. In many regions, newly married daughters with their husbands are invited to parents’ home for special meals. Sometimes brothers go and pick up their sisters from their in-laws home for this important day. The day is also a special day for the married couple, in a manner similar to anniversaries elsewhere in the world. The day after Diwali devotees perform Govardhan puja in honor of Lord Krishna.

BhaiDooj: The last day of festival, called Bhaidooj, celebrates the strong relationship and bonds of love between sisters and brothers. The day ritually emphasizes the love and lifelong bond between siblings and is a day when women and girls get together, perform a puja with prayers for the well-being of their brothers and then get together with the rest of the family to share food.

Significance of Lights & Firecrackers: All the simple rituals of Diwali have significance and a story to tell. The illumination of homes with lights and the skies with firecrackers is an expression of obeisance to the heavens for the attainment of health, wealth, knowledge, peace and prosperity. According to one belief, the sound of fire-crackers is an indication of the joy of the people living on earth, making the gods aware of their plentiful state. Still another possible reason has a more scientific basis: the fumes produced by the crackers kill a lot of insects and mosquitoes, found in plenty after the rains.

Tradition of dice games:The tradition of playing dice games on Diwali also has a legend behind it. It is believed that on this day, GoddessParvati played dice with her husband Lord Shiva, and she decreed that whosoever did so, on Diwali night, would prosper throughout the ensuing year.

From Darkness unto Light:In each legend, myth and story of Diwali lies the significance of the victory of good over evil. It is with each Diwali and with the lights that illuminate our homes and hearts, that the truth behind this simple message finds new reason and hope. From darkness unto light — the light that empowers us to commit ourselves to good deeds, that which brings us closer to divinity.

During Diwali, lights illuminate every corner of India and the scent of incense sticks hangs thick in the air, mingled with the sounds of fire-crackers, symbolizing joy, togetherness and hope. This year, if you are away from the sights and sounds of Diwali, light a diya, sit quietly, close your eyes, breathe deeply and concentrate on the this supreme light that illuminates the soul.

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