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)?).
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!
Dev Diwali : femina.in
Govatsa Dwadashi : AstroSage Magazine