How did Deepavali/Diwali become so ‘secularized’?

Deepavali/Diwali is about joy, light and sweets – and crackers. 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 elders in other households woke their families with similar cracker-bursts.

Today, thanks to rampant Hinduphobia in the media and among the intelligentsia, this beautiful festival with its colourful puranic and itihaasic connections and spiritual connotations has been reduced to heated discussions of crackers and pollution, and other perceived ills it supposedly spawns. There are preposterous claims that it is not a religious festival at all. Others are being sillier and saying that the diyas are more polluting than even crackers!

Note: I had written this post a couple of years ago to introduce my readers to the various religious celebrations in the different regions of the country. But since the decibels against Hindu festivals has grown so much in volume, just as festival-shaming of Hindus has almost been normalised, I felt compelled to update it with a new title. I have also added some links for more information about the various festivals connected with Deepavali.

The first thing I want to stress here about Hindu festivals is that they never mourn any event as the Abrahamic religions do. Our festivals celebrate the victory of dharma over adharma or mark a joyous event in our religious calendar or celebrate the jayantis of our Deities and saints with feasting, singing and dancing. They also encourage introspection for inner cleansing, which is aided by fasting and satsang.

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 leelas, but not His departure from the world. Hindus consider these events as part of human life, which apply even to Avatars when they take human forms.

The bedrock of Hinduism is a healthy inquiring mind that seeks the Truth. Mere cynicism and rationalism without this spirit of inquiry speak of a closed mind that looks superficially at traditions and customs and mocks them. This is Hinduphobia, at its most elemental form. These worthies should at least try and understand what they are rejecting, instead of just rejecting for the sake of it or ‘standing’ with a certain viewpoint or person on social media to make their point.

This post is a small attempt at helping these sneering masses to understand the festival of Deepavali in all its cultural and religious glory. It is not exhaustive by any means. I have not covered the ‘secular’ topics of sweets, crackers and lamps, as enough has been written and being written about them!

Deepavali is….

  • the worship of Goddess Lakshmi. Trader communities start their new year by opening new account books on Deepavali.
  • the celebration of the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya from his exile after 14 years.
  • the celebration of the killing of Naraskasura by Sri Krishna/Ma Kali.
  • the day of liberation for Sikhs — Bandi Chor Divas — when Guru Gobind Singhji and the 52 princes with him were released from prison by Jahangir.
  • the day Lord Mahavira attained nirvana. Jains celebrate it as Deva Diwali.

Deepavali is celebrated over five 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 Deepavali, with Bhishma Panchak, Chhat Puja and Tulsi Vivah among other festivals falling in between, culminating in Dev Diwali. It is also known as Dev uthani/PrabodhiniEkadashi/Devothhan Ekadashi or the day when the Gods wake up. Dev Diwali is celebrated grandly in Varanasi as Ganga Mahotsav.

Dev Uthani/Ganga Mahotsav in Varanasi

In some parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the festival begins three days before Diwali, that is on Dwadashi, the 12th day of the waning moon. It is celebrated as Govatwsa Dwadashi, with cows and calves being worshipped.

Dhanteras/Dhantrayodasi/Asweyuja Bahula Thrayodasi comes next and is celebrated all over India under various names given above. It is believed that if one buys gold or some household item on this day, prosperity will follow all year round.  Tamilians offer prayers and puja 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 ChaudasChoti 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 slew Narakasura.

(Hindu legends sometimes have different versions, but observers are  perfectly comfortable with the multiculturalism and plurality of their Dharma).

The slaying of Narakasura by Krishna and Satyabhama

South Indians get up well before dawn on Naraka Chaturdashi and apply sesame oil to their heads and bodies before having a bath. This is symbolic because Goddess Lakshmi is believed to be present in sesame oil. Likewise, all water on the day of Deepavali is considered to be the waters of Ganga. This signifies spiritual cleansing of the mind as well as physical cleansing of the body. Even today it is customary for Tamilians greet each other by asking, ‘Ganga snanam aaccha?’ (Have you had Ganga snan (bath)?) Taking the blessings of elders not just in the family, but also in the neighbourhood, is also part of the celebrations.

Kareet

Maharashtrians celebrate the killing of Narakasura by symbolically crushing 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? How beautiful they are if only we took the time and effort to learn about them!

The new moon day is when Lakshmi is worshipped in homes and businesses. For many, this is the biggest festival of them all, the Badi Diwali. Even those who don’t celebrate other festivals go the whole hog with Lakshmi Pujan, which begins with the cleaning of the entire house.

The day after Deepavali – the first day after a 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 also fed everyone. (Annakoot, literally means a mountain of food). The day is also observed as Bali Pratipada or Bali Padyami in Karnataka, where it is believed that king Bali comes to visit his subjects from Patal Lok, where he has been pushed by Sri Mahavishnu in his Vamana Avatar.

The second day is Bhai dooj or Bhaiyya dooj or Bhau Beej – as it is variously called. It is the day that sisters fete their brothers as they do during Rakshabandhan.

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

Thus, all the days following have various religious significance till the full moon day when Dev Diwali is celebrated as the culmination to the festivities. In addition to being the day when the Devas wake up, it is also celebrated as Tripurari Purnima as Lord Shiva had killed Tripurasura on this day.

My niece Gayathri, who lives in Arizona had added a beautiful note on her FB wall, which I have 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.

Also, as Gayathri points out, trades and artisans’ lives are linked to seasonal festivals. By taking all these away and reducing it to just a ‘festival of lights’ to curtail its significance and secularize it, is the greatest injustice to all the observers of the festival in its various facets. Do read the very articulate and excellent piece on this topic by Beloo here. 

It is quite evident that our ancient culture and civilization are inextricably entwined with Diwali/Deepavali which is the biggest festival for Hindus. Far from not being a religious festival, it is deeply rooted in it.

Change traditions 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 their significance and symbolism. Above all, don’t convert such a culturally rich festival with deep religious significance into a commercial and ‘secular’ festival of lights.

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

19 comments

  1. Unfortunately the large majority of the present generation have no idea what the festival stands for. Most of the time some popular customs are followed blindly without any idea of its signifance. This is really sad because it means the following generation will have literally no clue of any of it. True knnowledge of tradition is dying a slow death.

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    1. That is why I wrote this post sweetie. I think I will have to go on adding more to it as I myself discover new festiviries and vrats connected with it! Bookmark my post won’t you, so that some day you can pass it on to your child/grandchild!!

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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. Sridhar Krishnan · · Reply

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

    Like

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

      Like

  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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

  9. 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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  10. 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!

      Like

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