Diwali or Deepawali is a very popular festival of Hinduism, also called the festival of lights and illumination. It symbolises the spiritual victory of “light over darkness”, “good over evil” and “knowledge over ignorance”. The festival is celebrated during the Hindu Lunisolar month of Kartika (between mid-October and mid -November every year).
The festival is widely associated with Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity and Ganesh a, God of wisdom and remover of obstacles. There are several regional variations and traditions associated with it in India. It is also a fusion of harvest festivals.
The day also coincides with Lord Rama returning after spending 14 years in exile and liberating his wife Sita after defeating and killing King Ravana and his brothers Meghanath and Kumbakarna.
The festival has been described by several important travellers from outside India. These include the Persian traveller Al Biruni , the Portuguese traveller Domingo Paes and the Venetian merchant Nicoolo de’ Conti.
Islamic historians of Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal empire era also mentioned this festival. Emperor Akbar welcomed and participated in the festivities whereas some of the Moghul emperors like Aurangzeb banned it.
Diwali in Jainism:
According to the Jain tradition, the day is celebrated and observed as a “Mahavira Nirvana Day”, the physical death and final state of peace and happiness achieved after giving up the body. The festival has nearly the same rituals as practiced by Hindus. However, the focus remains on dedication to lord Mahavira. According to scriptures the practice of lighting lamps first began on the day of Mahavira’s Nirvana in 527 BCE. It was proclaimed by 18 kings who had gathered for spreading Mahavira’s teachings. This belief is depicted in several artworks in the form of paintings.
Diwali in Sikhism:
Sikhs celebrate it as BandiChhor divas in memory of the release of Guru Hargobind from the Gwalior fort prison by the Mughal emperor Jahangir and the day he arrived at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This is contested by a Sikh scholar J S Grewal who maintains that it is older than that and the 3rd Guru, Amar Das who built a well in Goindwal with 84 steps and invited Sikhs to bathe in its sacred waters on Baisakhi and also celebrated Diwali as a form of community bonding. The festival of Diwali according to Ray Colledge highlights three events in Sikh history. The founding of the city of Amritsar in 1577, the release of Guru Hargobind from the Mughal prison, and the day of Bhai Mani Singh’s martyrdom in 1738 as a result of his failure to pay a fine for trying to celebrate Diwali and thereafter refusing to convert to Islam.
Buddhism and Diwali:
Although it is not a festival for most Buddhists. However, the Newar people of Nepal who revere various deities in Vairayana Buddhism celebrate Diwali by offering prayers to Lakshmi. Newer Buddhists in Nepalese valleys also celebrate the Diwali festival over 5 days like Hindus elsewhere. It is logical to assume that it all stems from the fact that Nepal has been a Hindu kingdom and its proximity to India.
Diwali of Kashmiri Pandits
Diwali does not have the same significance for Kashmiri Pandits as Shivratri (Herath), Navreh, Zyath-Atham, Huri-Atham, Pan (Roth Pooza) and Kava Punim. Diwali comes at a lower level. It is because most Kashmiri Pandits are Shavites. On the Diwali day, every family prays to Godess Lakshmi and make laddoos and puris and consume them. No exchange of gifts is customary and light festival was not a tradition. Now for those in mainland India also light Diyas as is customary in their neighbourhood.
Five days ritual of Diwali Dhanteras (Day 1)
Derived from Dhan (wealth) teras the thirteenth day of the dark fortnight of Kartik is the beginning of Diwali. Homes and business premises are cleaned. The doorways are decorated with rangolis and colourful designs. It is a major shopping day to purchase new utensils, home equipment, jewellery, fire crackers (which are banned these days). This day is a symbol of annual renewal, cleansing, and an auspicious beginning of the new year.
Chhoti Diwali, Kali Chaudas, Naraka Chaturdashi (Day 2)
It coincides with the 14th day of the lunar month. It is interpreted as a way to liberate any souls from their sufferings in hell (Naraka) as well as a reminder of spiritual auspiciousness. It again is a major day for shopping, particularly sweets. The sweets shaped into various forms from Milk solids (Khoya). The sweet meet makers (halwais) work hard for weeks together to get adequate stocks. These are put in boxes and decorated in their shops which are extended by putting several large tables so that the outlet becomes spacious enough.
In some parts of the country (Tamil Nadu, Goa and Karnataka) young men receive an oil massage from the elders in the family on the day and then take a ritual bath, all before sunrise after which they visit their favourite temples.
Lakshmi Pujan, Kali Puja (Day 3)
The 3rd day is the height of the festival and coincides with the last day of the dark fortnight of the lunar month. The homes are aglow with lights, thereby making it the “festival of lights”. Firework display is an important part. Small business owners give gifts or special bonus payments to their employees. Shops usually close early on this day allowing employees to enjoy family time. The owners perform puja rituals in their office premises. There are no fasts as in other Hindu festivals rather they feast and share the bounties at their workplace’s community centres, temples and homes. It reminds the Eid day celebration of Muslims.
As the evening approaches, people wear new clothes or their best outfits. At dusk, family members gather for the puja of goddess Lakshmi and often of other deities like Saraswathi, Rama, Lakshmana, Sita and Hanuman.
The puja and rituals in the Bengali Hindu community focus on Kali, the goddess of war, instead of Lakshmi.
Govardhan Puja, Annakut (Day 4)
This is the first bright day of the bright fortnight of the luni-Solar calendar. Different regions of India name it differently. According to one tradition the day is associated with the story of Bali’s defeat at the hands of Vishnu. In another interpretation it is thought to have been associated with Parvati and her husband Shiva playing a game of dice on a board of 12 squares and thirty pieces. Parvati wins and Shiva surrenders his shirt and clothes to her, rendering him naked. The mythological interpretation of it is a comparison with the cosmic power of creation and dissolution of the world through the masculine destructive power as represented by Shiva and the feminine procreative power, represented by Parvati, where 12 reflects the number of months in the cyclic year, while thirty are the number of days in the lunisolar month.
In some rural communities it is celebrated as honouring the legendry Krishna saving the cowherd and farming communities from incessant rains and floods triggered by Indra’s anger, which he accomplished by lifting the Govardhan mountain. The legend is remembered through the ritual of building small mountain-like miniature from cow dung. This ritual use of cow dung, a common fertilizer, is an agricultural motif and a celebration of its significance to annual crop cycles.
Bhai Duj, Vishwakarma Puja (Day 5)
This is the last day of the festival also called the brothers day celebrating the sister brother bond. On this day the womenfolk of the family gather perform a puja with prayers for the wellbeing of their brothers and then return to a ritual of feeding their brothers with their hands and in return receiving gifts. Often the brother travels to his sister’s place to get her blessings and invite her family to his house for a dinner etc.
The artisan Hindu and Sikh community celebrates this day as the Vishwakarma puja day. Vishwakarma is the Hindu deity for those in architecture, building, textiles and crafts trade. On this day the looms, the tools of trade, machines and workplaces are cleaned and prayers offered to these livelihood means.
One of the downsides of fireworks and crackers is to increase the concentration of pollutants and dust making the air quality indices of cities like Delhi and other metros worse. This needs to be checked and make these celebrations more environmentally friendly.
International Recognition of Diwali:
This festival has over the years attracted cultural exchanges. Religious leaders and diplomatic staff of several countries join in the celebrations as a symbol of support for diversity and inclusiveness. The Pope’s message to Hindus on this day has become a routine since 1990’s. Singaporean government in association with the Hindu organizations organizes many cultural events during Diwali days. Price Charles of England attends the celebrations of the large Hindu and Sikh gatherings in UK. It is also celebrated in 10 Downing Street at the British prime minister’s residence. Since 2003 Diwali is also celebrated at the White House. This was initiated by George W Bush. its importance was later recognized by the US State congress in 2007. Barack Obama became the first US president to personally attend Diwali at the White house in 2009 and he also made an official statement sharing his best wishes with those celebrating Diwali.
Every year on this day, Indian forces approach their Pakistani counterparts at the border especially Wagah taking traditional Indian confectionary for them. Pakistani soldiers also reciprocate by giving sweets from Lahore to the Indian soldiers and hug each other.
Festivals of this kind should make a bonhomie between all the communities and is an opportunity to forget differences and improve the overall relationships.
Prof Upendra Kaul, founder Director Gauri Kaul Foundation, recipient of Padma Shri and Dr B C Roy Award
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not refl ect the views of GK.