Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, is one of the largest and most widely celebrated festivals across India and with South Asians all over the world. The festival gets its name from the Sanskrit words deepa (lamp), and avali (row). On this day, Indians light lamps outside their homes to symbolize the light of good that protects us from evil.
Diwali is celebrated in the month of October or November, right after the monsoons and before the onset of winter. For centuries now, India has been an agrarian community, and still remains one. Because of this, Hindus prayed for the blessings of goddess Lakshmi. As the goddess of wealth, prayers were offered to her for a great harvest of crops and for the prosperity to continue in the winter months when crops would be scarce. Candles and lamps are lit and windows are left open to help goddess Lakshmi find her way into homes.
A History of Diwali
For a majority of Hindus, especially from the north and west, the Diwali is the concept of “Victory of Good over Evil.” This began with one of the largest epics written in Indian mythological history – The Ramayana. It surrounds the story of Lord Rama, who ventured out on a 14 year exiled journey from his own kingdom Ayodhya into the forests with his wife Sita, and newlywed brother, Lakshmana. Over the course of these years, they encountered immense odds, but the one that left the mark on the world was when Ravana, a ten-headed demon-lord, kidnapped Sita. Lord Rama enlisted the help of the vanar-sena (monkey army) and built a bridge from India to Lanka (Ravana’s abode).
Hanuman, Lord Rama’s most loyal follower, leapt over to Lanka in a single bound, while Lord Rama battled Ravana and defeated him. Hanuman located Sita and then proceeded to set fire to Lanka by lighting his own tail on fire and swinging it all over the demon kingdom.
By the time Rama defeated Ravana, rescued Sita, and returned back to India, their time of exile was over, so they returned to their kingdom. News of their trial in the forests and of their impending return spread, and so much was he revered by his people that all the citizen of Ayodhya, right from the poor potter who lived on the outskirts to the king’s courtiers at the palace, lit candles and lamps to light up the city and light up Lord Rama’s way back home.
Among other interpretations of this auspicious day, some believe it to be a celebration of the marriage of Lakshmi and with Lord Vishnu. In many Hindu homes, this is also the day they worship Ganesha, the elephant-headed God, who is a symbol of wisdom and prosperity.
Diwali is celebrated over a total of five days. Each day during the festival holds special significance and has a legend attached to it. One day before Diwali, people clean their houses and consider it auspicious to shop for household goods. On the first day, called Narak Chaturdasi, it is said that Lord Krishna vanquished the demon Naraka. The second day, Amavasya, tells the legend of Lord Vishnu in his earthly avatar of a dwarf, vanquishing the tyrant King Bali and banishing him to the netherworld, under one condition. He was allowed to return to earth on one day each year to light up the night and dispel all ignorance and darkness in this world. It is on the third day of Diwali that Bali returns and rules the earth for one day as he had during his reign. The fourth and final day is Bhai Dooj, a day when sisters invite their brothers to visit their homes and rekindle their bonds.
With so many ways in which it is celebrated and the different ways it holds significance in the hearts and minds of the people, the one underlying theme is the victory of good over evil and of knowledge over ignorance. A festival that unites every region of India with one force, one thought and one feeling of happiness, joy and celebration, Diwali remains the largest celebrated festival amongst the innumerable ones celebrated in India and by Indians all over the world.
Light up the lamps, open up your hearts,
Set aglow this wonderful night,
Light up the sky with a burst of color,
Take us from this darkness into the light.