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Diwali – the inner light guiding us
October 30, 2016, 7:13 am

Diwali is by any measure the biggest and brightest of all Indian festivals with religious, historical and spiritual connotations for people across the vast country.

To the Hindus in India, and around the world, the celebration of Diwali depends on rituals and practices that differ based on regional and local interpretations of myths and legends from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. For their part, the Sikhs celebrate Diwali as ‘Bandi Shor Divas’, or Day of Liberation. The day commemorates the release of Guru Hargobindji, the Sixth Guru and leader of Sikhs from Mughal imprisonment in the 17th century. Meanwhile, to the Jains, Diwali venerates the attainment of ‘Moksha’ — the highest and noblest objective of the soul — in the 6th century, by Lord Mahavira, the 24th and last ‘Tirthankar’ or spiritual leader of Jains.

While the religious aspect of Diwali is the highlight of the festival for the Hindus, to the Sikhs and Jains it is the historical and sacred implications of the festival that take center-stage. No matter what the contextual differences are, to people across the vast sub-continent Diwali, or the Festival of Light, symbolizes the inner light that guides us throughout our life. The festival resonates with the message of the ultimate victory of light over darkness, of hope over despair, of good over evil, of knowledge over ignorance.

Historically, the origin of Diwali can be traced back to ancient India, where 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 Goddess Lakshmi 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 Lakshman from their 14-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 Lord Rama’s kingdom, illuminated the town with earthen diyas (oil lamps) and burst fire-crackers.  Today, a symbolic re-enactment 'Ram Lila', or the killing by Rama of Ravana and the freeing of Sita, takes up center-stage in the ancient town of Ayodhya and elsewhere, with effigies of the ten-headed Ravana being burned.

The word Diwali comes from a fusion of two Sanskrit words, Dipa or Deepa meaning light or lamp, and Awali meaning a row, series or line. In many parts of India, the festival is celebrated by lighting rows of small earthen- oil lamps called diyas that symbolize the driving away of darkness. In other parts of India, the Festival of Light marks the start of a new year in the Hindu calendar. Today, in many areas, Diwali has taken on a more temporal note, with a great deal of shopping, socializing and entertainment taking place during the festival.

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 are lit with diyas and decorated with rangoli (colorful floor designs) and new clothes are worn. While each day of the festival is marked by different traditional rituals, what remains true and consistent throughout the days of Diwali is the celebration of life, its enjoyment and goodness. The five days of celebration are as follows:

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 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.

Naraka chaturdasi: The second day of the Diwali festival is Naraka Chaturdasi 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 Ganesha symbolizes ethical beginnings and is a fearless remover of obstacles. Saraswati symbolizes 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 wives on 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.

Bhai Dooj: The last day of festival, called Bhai dooj, 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.

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, even if you are away from the sights and sounds of Diwali, light a candle or a diya, sit quietly, close your eyes, breathe deeply and concentrate on the supreme light that illuminates your inner soul.

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