Has Deepavali/Diwali become too ‘globalized’?

Deepavali/Diwali is about joy, light and sweets – and crackers. And no, not the 1000-wala ladis that have become false status symbols, and vulgar displays of wealth giving a reason for clampdowns like #crackerban – but of light and sparkle. When we were children, Deepavali was heralded by a small cracker burst by father in the wee hours of the morning, just as other households woke their members with similar cracker-bursts.

However, this post is not about #crackerban, but about the beautiful traditions of the festival, which has myriad forms of celebration across the country.

While I am talking about Diwali, let me emphasise one important feature of Hindu festivals – they all either celebrate the victory of dharma over adharma, a joyous event or the jayantis of our Gods. They also encourage introspection for inner cleansing, often aided by fasting. It is never to mourn anything. For instance, we don’t mourn the exile of Rama but celebrate His return to Ayodhya. Likewise, we celebrate Krishna’s birth and His various victories, but not His departure from the world. Hindus consider them as events that are part of a human life, which apply to even Avatars when they are in human forms.

Coming back to Diwali, in our efforts to ‘globalize’ and therefore secularize the festival, we have reduced it to a heated discussion of crackers and pollution, and other perceived ills it spawns, taking away from its colourful puranic connections and spiritual connotations . I recently came across a piece that claims that Diwali has no religious roots. Others are now saying that the diyas are more polluting than even crackers!

It is true that a healthy inquiring mind that seeks the Truth is the bedrock of Hinduism. Mere cynicism and rationalism that does not seek to inquire is like a closed mind that superficially looks at them and sneers and mocks – before summarily rejecting the connections as meaningless superstitions.

This is a pity because I strongly believe that one should at least try to understand what one is rejecting, instead of just rejecting for the sake of rejecting or to ‘stand’ with this or that.

This post makes a small attempt to help them understand the festival of Diwali at a very elemental level.

We all know that:

  • It is a festival of lights signifying the dispelling of darkness and ushering of inner light.
  • It is the victory of good over evil, including within ourselves.
  • A celebration of love, friendship and brotherhood.

But are they all? Diwali has so many associations with our puranas and itihasas.  In addition to the worship of Goddess Lakshmi, the day celebrates the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya from his exile after 14 years. It is the celebration of the killing of Naraskasura by Lord Krishna. It celebrates Ma Kali. The legends sometimes overlap, but that is perfectly fine with the observers.

For Sikhs it is the day of liberation – Bandi Chor Divas – when Guru Gobind Singhji and 52 princes along with him were released from prison by Emperor Jahangir. Jains celebrate it as Deva Diwali, the day Lord Mahavira attained nirvana.

And then, Diwali is not just a one-day festival – it goes on for 5 days in most parts of the country. In some places including Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the festivities go on till the full moon following Diwali, with Bhishma Panchak, Chhat Puja and Tulsi Vivah among others, culminating in Dev Diwali, or the day when the Gods wake up (Dev uthni) which is celebrated grandly in Varanasi as Ganga Mahotsav.

In some parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the festival begins from three days before Diwali with Govatwsa Dwadashi, when cows and calves are worshipped. The next day, Dhanteras/Dhantrayodasi/Asweyuja Bahula Thrayodasi, is celebrated all over India under various names listed above. It is believed that if one buys gold or some household item on this day, prosperity will follow all year round. In Tamilian homes, prayers and puja are offered to Lakshmi and Kubera on this day. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and Kubera is her celestial treasurer.

Naraka Chaturdashi is variously known as Kali Chaudas, Choti Diwali, Roop Chaturdashi or Roop Chaudas. It is the main festival of Deepavali in the southern states including Maharashtra. Naraka Chaturdashi is the celebration of the killing of Narakasura by Lord Krishna and his consort Satyabhama. Bengalis believe that it was Goddess Kali who slayed Narakasura and celebrate it.

South Indians have an oil bath on all festivals and celebrations and Diwali is no exception. The custom of applying sesame seed oil to the head and body and then bathing has a certain symbolism too. Goddess Lakshmi is believed to be present in sesame oil and all water on Diwali day is considered to be the waters of the holy Ganga. This signifies spiritual cleansing of the mind as well as physical cleansing of the body. Even today it is customary for Tamilians to greet each other on Diwali day by asking, ‘Ganga snanam aaccha?’ (Have you had Ganga snan (bath)?).

Kareet

Maharashtrians celebrate the killing of Narakasura symbolically by smashing a small bitter vegetable called Kareet under their foot. This act also signifies the expunging of bitterness from inside us to begin life anew.

Didn’t I say that our festivals are replete with symbolism?

In addition to being a festival of lights and pujas, Diwali also brings out the aesthetic sensibilities of people. The grand exhibition of rangolis, the sky-lanterns, the decorations, all testify to this.

The next day, that is the new moon day, is when Lakshmi is worshipped in homes and businesses. For many, this is the biggest festival of them all. Even those who don’t celebrate other festivals go whole hog with Lakshmi Pujan! It is so divine to be part of the puja and arti with family and partake of the offerings.

The day after Diwali – the first day after new moon – is celebrated as Govardhan Puja or Annakoot in the north – the day when Lord Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain to save the people of Dwarka from the deluge that threatened to drown it, and fed everyone (Annakoot, literally means a mountain of food).

The day is also observed as Bali Pratipada or Bali Padyami in the southern state of Karnataka, where it is believed that king Bali comes to earth to visit his subjects.

And the next day is Bhai dooj or Bhaiyya dooj or Bhau Beej – as it is variously called. It is the day that sisters fete their brothers akin to Rakshabandhan.

And then there is the Chhath Puja, which is celebrated on the sixth day from Diwali. It is mainly celebrated in Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Nepal, but in recent years has become a pan-Indian celebration with devotees offering prayers to the Sun God Surya and his celestial wife Usha on river banks.

Thus all the days following Diwali have various religious significance till the full moon day and the Dev Diwali is celebrated as the culmination to the festivities. This day is also celebrated as Tripurari Purnima as Lord Shiva had killed Tripurasura.

My niece Gayathri, who lives in Arizona has added a beautiful note on her FB wall, which I thought should be included in the post, as it adds so much value to it. Quoting her:

Living far away from the homeland, we see our traditions being watered down to simplistic phrases in order to make it easier to understand for our children, neighbors and friends of other faiths and cultures.

 The true way of celebrating many Hindu festivals include the following: spiritual growth, advancement of society and respect for nature. The festivals always include ceremonies that respect and honor a particular profession or trade like the farmers (Pongal/Baisakhi), the craftsmen (Dusshera/Golu), the tradesmen, machines and workers (Ayudha Puja) to name a few.

 These festivals help the people practicing their profession by giving them a boost to their economic situation and they may depend on the income from these festivals for their sustenance throughout the year. By finding a balanced approach to the festivals – giving priority to spiritual growth while understanding that these celebrations have a positive economic impact on the various strata of society and respect nature while adhering to these traditions, we will see the true intent shine through and help our children understand the complete sentiment of these festivals.  

My wishes and prayers for the Deepavali festival to usher in spiritual awareness, wisdom to understand and grow ourselves intellectually and spiritually, prosperity that allows us to share more with those that don’t have it, and the joy of advancing the teachings of Sanatana Dharma.

 It is quite evident that our ancient culture and civilization are inextricably entwined with Diwali/Deepavali which is undoubtedly the biggest festival for most Indians. From Gayatri’s note, it is seen that even trades and artisans’ lives are linked to the seasonal festivals. By taking all this away and reducing it to just a ‘festival of lights’ in the garb of secularizing it would be doing the greatest injustice to all the observers of the festival.  Do read the very articulate and excellent piece on this topic by Beloo here. 

 Let us leave the traditions alone. Change them to suit the times by all means; chuck them if you don’t want to observe them; But hold your peace at least till you understand them. Let us not forget that they are part of the foundation of our culture and very civilization.

On that note, let me wish you all a very Happy Diwali/Deepavali! May our inner darkness be destroyed forever!

Pics courtesy:

Dev Diwali : femina.in

Homepage Rangoli : Chitra Srinivasan  This page: Zephyr

Govatsa Dwadashi : AstroSage Magazine

17 comments

  1. A perfect illuminating post befitting the festival with nuggets of wisdom and knowledge! Thank you, Zephyr and festive greetings to you and family.

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  2. Another great, comprehensive piece by you, Zephyr! I loved this statement – “one should at least try to understand what one is rejecting, instead of just rejecting for the sake of rejecting or to ‘stand’ with this or that.” It sets up the whole purpose of your post right there in a succinct manner. It is sad that rejecting our traditions, our customs, our practices – the act of rejecting itself (or protesting itself) – somehow has come to be seen as progressive, cool, modern etc. In a truly progressive spirit some rejection must be there, but only when one has evaluated and understood what it is that is being rejected and why. Otherwise it has no meaning.
    Thanks for writing this excellent piece and for linking my piece with it 🙂 Your niece’s words summarise well the sentiments of those living abroad and finding deeper solace in preserving their customs and practices, as a way to stay in touch with their Indian-ness. Glad you included these words here.

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  3. I feel that criticizing our culture blindly is like insulting our ancestors. Yes, bursting crackers will pollute…sound and smoke pollution, but we can reduce it to just sparklers. And how come oil diyas pollute? People who are doing it, do it to just write some negative news.

    I didn’t know so many different ways of celebrating Deepawali. Thanks for the detailed write up about this beautiful, happy festival.

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    1. That’s exactly my grouse too, Sandhya! Criticizing something without first understand what they are cricising or [ulling down is really very stupid and smacks of a hearty dislike. Now there is a cry about diyas too! And yes. Negative news sells, so they create such news if there is none to be found :/

      Thank you for the kind words 🙂 I wanted to acquaint myself too with the various celebrations and so this post was born.

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  4. Sridhar Krishnan · · Reply

    Wonderful and well researched! You have captured the cultural and mythological aspects very nicely.

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    1. Thank you Sridhar! So good to see you in my blog 🙂

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  5. Ravi Muthuswamy · · Reply

    Well researched and wonderfully written. I really miss the celebrations from our childhood days when it used to be all fun & laughter, getting together, greeting each other with joy, sitting with mother till late night and helping her make bhakshanams, getting up early morning, having an oil bath and wearing new clothes, eating sweets and of course a bit of crackers! Those days we used to get new clothes knlh for Deepavali so that increased happiness multi-fold! Rathef unfortunate that my children don’t enjoy like that!

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    1. Thank you Ravi. Simple joys and fun, right? And don’t forget the elders reminding us about how Krishna killed Narakasura and why we are celebrating the festival! Our children did enjoy those things at least when they were young, didn’t they now?

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  6. Happy Deepavali to you both.It is very exhaustive and covered the practices around the entire coutry.
    More than a festival of lights, it has transformed over years into a festival of gifts especially in the Northern and Western parts of the country keeping the people happy and boosting the sales of business people.

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    1. Thanks KP! One of the reasons of secularising and globalising a festival is the commercial angle. Even Christmas has suffered that fate. But we here face a peculiar problem of the so called liberals going hammer and tongs at everything traditional or having religious roots as being harmful, regressive and what not. Before the coming generations forget or remain ignorant of all the various celebrations connected to Diwali, I thought I should make a compilation.

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  7. Happy Diwali. This post touches various aspects of the festival and the way it is celebrated by varioys cultures in India filled with knowledge and wisdom. Agree, Diwali has become too global where we tend to lose its essence with Indian across various countries spell the name differently. Sheer beautiful and explored in-depth.

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    1. Thank you Vishal! Hope you had a traditional Diwali!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What a fabulously comprehensive post! Being from UP and having lived in Gujarat, Maharashtra, AP and now Karnataka, I’ve seen Diwali being celebrated with so much joy and in such different ways. Did you know that Gujaratis and in fact many Hindus celebrate next day of Diwali as New Year? I love Diwali and in my home mum would considering bursting a few crackers after evening pooja as shagun. They were a must after Lakshmi Pooja as well. Of course, not the obnoxious ladis and bombs but the beautiful sparklers, anaars and ground chakkars. I love to see the joy on the faces of my kids when they light there, and I would never want this to be done away. Let us not reduce these traditions to debates and taking sides. Let’s honour the sentiments of all and by all means spread awareness to burst fewer crackers every year. A very happy Diwali to all at home!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your warm appreciation, Rachna! Love to see your comments always 🙂 I know that it is new year for some communities but have forgotten to mention it. Will add the line. In such a long post, what is another extra line, eh? 😀 I have included my niece’s FB note in my post too. Do check it out.

      Barring those who want to show off their monetary might by burning those bombs and ladis, many many Indians – more than any media person would care to find out – have either given up crackers altogether or at least reduced them drastically. As my friend Rajendra pointed out, crackers are just a bead in the garland of festivities. Self regulation in such matters is slowly coming about. We must keep our traditions alive!

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  9. Rajendra Ganatra · · Reply

    Crisp yet comprehensive, the article depicts sheer beauty and underlying spiritualism of Diwali vividly.

    It’s clear that playing crackers is a bead in the string of festivities, and application of mind did not precede ban on crackers. At this rate some day even lighting will be banned for its environment impact!

    It’s time Hindus learnt shed their nihilistic view of the most profound Vedantism.

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    1. Your remark about lighting Diyas has already come true. Read on Twitter a thread that talks of it being more polluting than even crackers! Thank you for reading, liking and sharing!

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