Diwali, or the Festival of Lights is arguably the biggest and brightest of festivals celebrated in the Indian subcontinent and among the Indian diaspora spread across four corners of the globe.

Diwali, or Deepavali as it is known in some Indian states, is celebrated over five days during the Hindu lunisolar month of Kartik that corresponds to mid-October and mid-November each year. In the Indian subcontinent, Diwali is concurrent with and analogous to various other religious, spiritual and historical celebrations marked by other communities, cultures and religions in the region. Besides Diwali among Hindus, the festival is celebrated under different forms and names by Jains, Sikhs, and among Newar Buddhists in Nepal, as well as by many tribal cultures in north-eastern states of India.

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 aspec, as well as the spiritual implications of the festival that take center-stage. To the Hindus in India, and around the world, the celebration of Diwali has religious associations that vary based on regional and local interpretations of myths and legends from the Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

In Nepal it is celebrated as Tihar or as Swanti by Buddists, especially Newar Buddhists in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. For adherents of the Jain faith, 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. Meanwhile, the Sikh community around the world celebrate Diwali as ‘Bandi Shor Divas’, or Day of Liberation, in commemoration of the release from imprisonment of their sixth Guru and leader, Guru Hargobind ji, by Mughal invaders in the 17th century.

In India, the origin of Diwali can be traced back historically to the ancient period, when it was celebrated during the Hindu calendar month of Karthik as an important harvest festival. Over time, various legends and myths from the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata were woven into these agrarian festivals. Today, Diwali is celebrated among HIndus in different places based on the religious legends they believe in.

In some places, Diwali is a celebration of the birth and also marriage of the Goddess Lakshmi with Lord Vishnu; in Bengal, the festival is dedicated to the worship of Mother Kali, the Goddess of strength. Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed God, the symbol of auspiciousness and wisdom, is also worshiped in many Hindu homes on this day.

To many other Hindus, Diwali commemorates the return of Lord Rama as king of Ayodhya in Northern India, along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman, after a 14-year-long exile, and having vanquished the 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.

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.

Besides its religious, cultural or historical importance to people across the vast sub-continent, and the contextual differences of the celebration, Diwali remains symbolic of 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.

Light is one of the oldest and among the most significant and enduring symbols in the evolution of mankind, with different spiritual, mystical and metaphorical connotations in various cultures and religions around the world. Notions and symbolisms of light influenced centuries of philosophical speculation and gave rise to a host of religious and philosophical theories over the ages.

In many mythologies of early cultures and religions, light was believed to emanate from the divine ‘supreme being’, and was considered as an attribute of the deity that led to the creation of life, and endowed humanity with health, wealth, and knowledge. While throughout eons light was seen as an embodiment of the divine, both gnostics and agnostics considered light to also be a symbol of life and hope, of joy and happiness, of truth, wisdom, and guidance.

In Christianity, Christ is called ‘Light’ in the sense that He enlightens every man, although man is free to turn toward or away from this Light. The physical light symbolizes the divine presence that penetrates all things while still maintaining its purity. Light is also seen as a molding power that leads man forward to ultimately unite with the divine. In many parts of the world, light is represented by candles, lamps, fires and fireworks, and depicts the ultimate victory of light in its perpetual fight against darkness.

Today, in too many places, Diwali has taken on a more temporal note, with merchants, retailers and corporates using the festival to market and sell their products. Today, the five-day long Festival of Lights has become almost synonymous with shopping frenzy, of bargain offers and special discounts, as well as a time of socializing and entertaining among family and friends.

Like any major festival, preparations for Diwali begin 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, the colorful designs and patterns created on the threshold to homes and on the floor during the festival using natural colors, dyes, flowers and other material. New clothes are worn and each day of the festival is marked by different traditional rituals.

Through all this celebration and festivities, what remains true and consistent throughout the five days of Diwali, is the celebration of life, its enjoyment and goodness. This year, even if you are away from the sights and sounds of Diwali celebrations at home in India, take a moment to light a candle or a diya, sit quietly, close your eyes, breathe deeply and concentrate on that supreme light which illuminates your inner self and guides you along the path of life.

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