Diwali: the Indian Festival of Lights

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Diwali or Deepawali is one of the main Hindu festivals celebrated by Indians all over the world.

(Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

The festival gets its name from the row (avali) of clay lamps (deepa) that Indians light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects them from spiritual darkness. This festival is as important to Hindus as the Christmas holiday is to Christians.

The festival signifies the triumph of good over evil and is celebrated with a lot of aplomb by all Indians regardless of religion. Diwali has a very rich history, is deeply rooted in Hindu mythology and teaches us very important moral values.  

Let’s learn about the biggest Indian festival and its significance. 

History

Observed by more than a billion people across faiths, this five-day festival of lights brings prayer, feasts, fireworks and, for some, a new year. The dates of this festival are based on the Hindu lunar calendar, which marks each month by the time it takes the moon to orbit Earth.

Diwali begins just before the arrival of a new moon between the Hindu months of Asvina and Kartika—which typically falls in October or November of the Gregorian calendar.

In 2022, the five days of Diwali begin on October 22, with the most important festival date taking place on October 24.

The legends of Diwali vary from religion as well as region. While every religion (and sect) has its historical narrative behind the festival, the ultimate meaning of the celebration of the downfall of evil remains the same. 

(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In Hinduism, which is considered the oldest religion in the world, there are varying versions of the story of Diwali. Through hundreds of years, these mythological stories have travelled across the world by word of mouth, texts and translations. Therefore, the difference in geographical location dictates the belief of the people.

While all tales are different, they are epic stories, revolving around the Hindu god, Vishnu, and his reincarnations. Vishnu is considered the sustainer of the universe and his role is to restore the balance between good and evil. 

In northern India, Diwali commemorates Prince Rama’s triumphant return to the city of Ayodhya after 14 years of exile due to the plotting of his evil stepmother—and after a heroic rescue of his wife Sita, an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, who had been kidnapped by the rival king Ravana.

In the Hindu tradition, Prince Rama is seen as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and an embodiment of dharma or righteousness. Sita is an incarnation of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. The residents of Ayodhya were so glad the rightful king and queen had returned, they lit lamps in their honour, an element of the festivities that’s still an important part of the festivities today.

(Eranga Jayawardena/The Associated Press)

In South India, meanwhile, Diwali honours the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon king Narakasura, who had imprisoned 16,000 women in his palace and meted out harsh punishments to any of his subjects who dared to stand up against him.

And in western India, the festival celebrates Vishnu’s banishment of King Bali—whose immense power had become a threat to the gods—to the underworld.

No matter the story behind the meaning of the festival, the Indian population celebrates the festival with great enthusiasm and jubilee.

Why is Diwali celebrated?

Regardless of the region, the celebration of Diwali is the celebration of the defeat of evil. More realistically though, the festival is the time for families to gather together and celebrate. Most families have extravagant dinners and exchange gifts with each other. Some people also shower their friends, neighbours and colleagues with “mithai” (Indian sweets) and gifts. This is a way of bringing people closer and letting go of grievances.

(Rajanish kakade/The Associated Press)

How is it celebrated?

The weeks leading up to Diwali are traditionally a time for redecorating the home, buying new clothes and jewellery, and exchanging gifts such as sweetmeats, dried fruits and nuts. This is the season for dinner parties, outdoor food festivals and craft fairs, all of which help build up excitement ahead of the main Diwali celebration.

Dhanteras is the first day dedicated to the goddess Lakshmi, and people often mark the occasion by cleaning their houses and making rangolis or kolam, intricate coloured patterns made on the floor with flowers, powder, rice or sand.

They often go shopping and make sweet and savoury Indian treats to share. It is considered good luck to buy a metallic kitchen implement, such as a steel ladle, or, if budget allows, a more extravagant kitchen appliance.

Betty Binon/CBC

Kalichaudas, which is the second day, also known as “small Diwali” is often spent preparing for the most significant celebration that takes place on the third day. People also offer prayers for the souls of their departed ancestors and many display clay lamps, called Diya. 

Traditionally, it was a day for getting on with preparations for the big day, but now it’s also an opportunity for last-minute errands and gift exchanges. Diwali is the third and largest day of the five days of Diwali and it involves dressing in new clothes, visiting a temple to perform a puja, or worship service, lighting diyas and other lights around the house, and enjoying fireworks celebrations.

It’s a time for gathering with loved ones, feasting and playing games of chance, especially card games. As the sun sets, prayers are said and then dozens of clay lamps are arranged around the house. Firework displays follow, but in recent years these have been scaled back due to noise and air pollution concerns. This doesn’t dampen the party spirit, though – especially as there’s a lavish dinner to enjoy.

(Fareed Khan/The Associated Press)

Annakut, Padwa, Govardhan Puja is The fourth day of Diwali and it marks the first day of the New Year for many regions of India, a time to feel thankful for the past year, look ahead to the next and exchange small gifts.

Some people perform pujas for a prosperous new year. This day can also be dedicated to the bond between husbands and wives, to recognize the love between Rama and Sita.

On the fifth and final day of Diwali, Hindus celebrate the bond between sisters and brothers, so family members will often visit one another on this day and share a meal. This is called the Bhai Duj or Bhai Bheej.

Diwali celebrations across multiple religions

Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists, three minority religions in India, have their own Diwali stories. For Sikhs, whose religion arose in the late 15th century as a movement within Hinduism that is particularly devoted to Vishnu, Diwali commemorates the release of the 17th-century guru Hargobind after 12 years of imprisonment by Mughal emperor Jahangir. 

Jains, whose ancient religion dates back to the middle of the first century B.C. and also shares many of the beliefs of Hinduism, observe Diwali as the day that Lord Mahavira, the last of the great Jain teachers, reached nirvana. 

(Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

And Buddhists, whose religion emerged in the late 6th century B.C. in what some describe as a reaction to Hinduism, celebrate it as the day the Hindu Emperor Ashoka, who ruled in the third century B.C., converted to Buddhism.

Beyond these stories, Diwali is also a celebration of the Hindu goddess of wealth and good fortune, Lakshmi. In India’s early agrarian society, Diwali coincided with the last harvest before winter—a time to pray for Lakshmi for good luck. Today, Indian businesses still consider Diwali the first day of the financial new year.

(Aastha Shetty/CBC)

Celebrated not only in India but by the entire Indian diaspora over the world, the festival is an extravagant event and one of the most important festivals in the country housing billions of people. It put across a beautiful message and celebrates family. 

However it may be celebrated, the universal belief of Diwali that light triumphs over darkness stands true.