As Hanukkah is the most well-known Jewish holiday, Diwali is probably the most well-known Hindu holiday because shops and homes are lit up with small oil lamps called diyas while it is celebrated. The word “Diwali” is Sanskrit meaning “rows of lighted lamps.” The festival lasts five days.
There are many different stories detailing why Diwali is important to the different gods of the Hindu religion. One has to remember that the Hindu gods and goddesses are like signposts to the believers, each pointing the way to Brahman, the One God. The gods who are representations of Brahman generally arise from three types, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. We can relate Diwali here in the context of the blog both as its similarity in form to Christmas (see below), but also in terms of its relation to its religion. “Many Hindus have considerable empathy for Christianity, recognizing Jesus as divine (but not unique) and respecting the church’s ethical teachings” (Kerven 12).
According to the legends of southern India, Diwali marks the victory of the god Krishna over Narakasura, a demon of hell. Narakasura had abducted 16,000 beautiful young women, among them the goddess Lakshmi, Vishnu’s consort. Therefore, Lakshmi’s rescue is celebrated by veneration of her. In another story, another incarnation of Vishnu, as the dwarf Vaman Avatar, tricked Bali, benevolent king of the underworld. Vishnu thus got the better of Bali and pushed him back down into the underworld with his foot, but then gave him the lamp of knowledge to illuminate his dark domain. So, once a year Bali returns to Earth on this date to light millions of lamps from his own lamp. Also the festival honors Lakshmi, with the lighted lamps to help the goddess find her way into people’s homes, to bless them. (The third day of the festival is especially dedicated to Lakshmi and is called Lakshmi Puja.) However, not only Hindus but all religions in India now celebrate Diwali. Crump describes it as “the largest annual, commercialized event of India given to shopping, decorating, gift-giving, and feasting” and makes its equivalent in the West Christmas (which you knew already because it’s in this blog) (111).
The new business year in India starts during Diwali. The celebrations include exchanging gifts (often sweets), sending greeting cards, preparing special meals, putting on new clothes for the first time, and viewing big fireworks displays. Diyas are made of clay (to represent the body), oil (to represent energy), and have a wick (to represent intelligence). Due to the joyous and illuminated nature of the holiday, it is one of the most festive events in the Hindu calendar.
Mithai (sweets), as I said, are popular gifts. Some of these include moti choor ladoo (made of besan gram flour, cardamom seeds, pistachio nuts and saffron), jalebi (made of besan and sugar), kajukatli (made of cashews), kadju-pisla rolls (braided rolls made of cashews and pistachios), badam barfi (made of almonds, cardamom seeds, and pistachios), and ras malai (made with curd cheese).
Preparations start weeks beforehand when people clean and freshen up their homes. In India, Hindus will leave the windows and doors open so Lakshmi can come in. Rangoli are drawn on the floor. These are patterns drawn in rice flour mixed with pigment and have different meanings. Fish, birds, and snakes reflect the unity of man and beast, and circular patterns (representing the endlessness of time) are also popular. So too are footprints, representing Rama’s return or Lakshmi’s visit. Torans made of mango leaves and marigolds are hung in doorways. It is considered auspicious to buy metallic items (like silver) during Diwali. Markets get ready weeks before in order to present gift ideas. Krishna temples venerate cows, which are considered to be an incarnation of Lakshmi.
In the north, public performances are given of the Ramilia, which is a dramatic form of the Ramayana, one of the great pieces of epic world literature. Also gambling is popular, because, according to legend, after the goddess Parvati defeated her god/husband Shiva at dice, she blessed all who gamble at this time.
The meaning of Diwali celebrates the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, however, the specific meanings vary with the regions. The festival is tied to the stories of Hindu religious scriptures, mostly the Puranas. One of the Diwali legends involves the return of Rama and Sita to Rama’s kingdom after fourteen years of exile. Lord Rama was a great warrior-king who was married to Sita. On the advice of his wife, Rama’s father, King Dashratha, had Rama, Sita, and Rama’s younger brother exiled. Rama returned from exile to slay the demon Ravana of the Lanka. The people in his father’s kingdom welcomed Rama back by lighting clay lamps.
This year, Diwali began on October 26th. Dhanteras, the first day of Diwali, is the thirteenth lunar day of Krishna Paksha in the Hindu month of Kartika (October/November). (Diwali occurs as the last two days of the month of Asvina and the first three days of the month Kartika.) Dhanteras means “wealth” and is celebrated two days before the new moon of Diwali. According to legend, Yama, god of death, wanted to take the life of a 16-year-old son of King Hima on the fourth day of his marriage. The boy’s new bride blocked the entrance to the bedchamber with a large pile of coins, jewelry and lighted lamps. This, and her singing, blinded Yama, who was disguised as a serpent, so the god let the boy live. This is one of the reasons jewelry and silver are popular gifts.
Choti Diwali / Narak Chaturdasi is Diwali on a smaller scale; it is celebrated the day before Diwali. According to legend, after Krishna had defeated the demon Narakasura, he smeared his forehead with the demon’s blood, after which he was anointed with an oil bath. In the south of India, this day is marked by performing a pre-dawn ritual. People trample on bitter fruit (representing the demon) and anoint their foreheads with vermilion and oil, then ritually bathe in oil and anoint themselves with sandalwood paste. They watch displays of firecrackers, and after visiting the temple, they enjoy a breakfast of fruit and sweets.
In the north and west, the third day is devoted to Lakshmi. Ganesh is also worshipped. Cleanliness most impresses Lakshmi, so brooms are venerated on this day. In west Bengal, this day is given over to the worship of the goddess Kali.
Kartik Shuddh Padwa, the fourth day, celebrates when Bali emerges from the underworld with the lamp of knowledge. It is also the day of Gudi Padwa, the celebration of marital love between spouses. Parents throw a feast for their newlywed children. Also on this day is the anniversary of the coronation of King Vikramaditya, an event which began the Vikram era of history. In the north, people celebrate by erecting mounds of cow dung, decorating them with flowers and worshipping them in a ceremony called Govardhan Puja. Also there is Annakoot, a custom where households cook over 100 varieties of food as offerings for Krishna (not unrelated to the gros souper of Provence; see December 4). It’s also Bestavarsh, the New Year in the Gujurat State, where it is auspicious to buy and sell salt before dawn.
The fifth day is known popularly as Bhai Dooj and is a day for sisters to look after the welfare of their brothers. Inspired by the legend of Yami and her brother Yamaraj, the god of death, sisters perform puja for their brothers and the brothers in turn treat their sisters to gifts.
To the Sikhs, Diwali celebrates the return of the 6th Guru, Hargobind Ji, from captivity in the city of Gwalior. The Jains celebrate it is as the Nirvana of their founder, Lord Mahavira, in 527 B.C.E.
BBC – Diwali.
Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India.
BBC – Diwali.
Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India.