The reason and mores for celebrating Diwali in different parts of India and abroad may vary, but the spirit of light and goodness remain the same everywhere. Diwali is here as the much-awaited festival of light. On this auspicious occasion, dive into the inner world of self-enlightenment and reawakening while celebrating the harmony of virtues over vice.
By Sudeepa Roy
“Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya’: “Lead me from darkness to light.”
Self-awareness and enlightenment are sine qua non to a humane existence. Retrospection of our inner self not only strengthens our confidence but also leads us to righteousness. The festival of light Diwali conforms to it all. Universally, people desire to live an enlightened life full of wisdom, prosperity and success. The celebration of Diwali throughout the length and breadth of India and worldwide is an attestation to this human need.
Diwali stems from the Sanskrit word ‘Deepavali’, meaning ‘a row of lights’. During the festival, a myriad of lamps shines up to glow all four corners of most houses. Every home gets a brightened and shiny contour. In every case, the symbolism is one of happiness and love that promotes social harmony and brotherhood. Despite being on the darkest night of an annual calendar that corresponds to the Kartika masa (October/November), the festival represents the brightest night of the year. However, it is the darkness of Amavasya that makes the light prominent and noticeable. The blackness of falsehood, greed and envy is ousted with the wick of truth and knowledge, oil of love and hope. Irrespective of many man-made prejudices the light promises optimism and success for people who unite to rejoice in the warmth of its radiance of oneness: enlightenment and reawakening
The whys and wherefores of celebrating Diwali in Hindu mythology are many. Essentially in northern India, it marks the return of Lord Rama to his native in Ayodhya after long fourteen years in exile, where he slays the evil miscreant Ravana. Worshipping Goddess Laxmi primely takes centre stage in many parts of India. People observe it as her birthday, and some consider it the day of the wedding between Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Vishnu. Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of beginnings and wealth, is conventionally worshipped in Diwali as always done before any major enterprise.
In Bengal and East India, Goddess Kali is worshipped in the hush of night. The ebony goddess is immensely capable of eradicating evils that hinder success and prosperity. Her rage and valour make her more fearsome but no less revered. In the Bengal belt of Orissa, the day of Diwali is also devoted to the ancestors. The coastal town of Puri witnesses a grand gathering outside the 12th century Jagannath temple on the day of Diwali to pay obeisance to their ancestors by burning jute sticks. The light illuminates the gloomy route purportedly taken by the manes of ancestors while returning to heaven.
In Southern India, it commemorates the demolition of evil Narakasura by Lord Krishna. The eldest family member smears kumkum and three drops of sesame oil before sunrise on the forehead of other family members after an oil bath. According to mythology, the goddess Mahalaxmi is supposed to have hidden behind a sesame tree. Hence, sesame oil is used for this ritual. A unique Diwali custom in Tamil Nadu is the once-in-a-lifetime event, “Thalai Deepavali”’, when newlyweds spend their first Diwali after marriage in the bride’s parental home.
Western India is a hub of trade and commerce. It welcomes goddess Laxmi with great resplendency during Diwali. An associated legend is that Lord Vishnu, in his fifth incarnation as Vamana, rescued Laxmi from the prison of King Bali.
Diwali is a festival for all. It remains significant for the Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and more. On this day, Lord Mahaveera attained nirvana or eternal bliss. The Sikhs celebrate Diwali, as on this auspicious day, Guru Hargobind, the 6th Sikh Guru, was freed from the captivity of Jahangir, the Mughal Emperor. The day also marks the laying of the foundation stone for the golden temple in Amritsar in 1577. Buddhists celebrate Diwali by lighting lamps in remembrance of the great Gautam Buddha. Diwali is the same auspicious day on which Emperor Ashoka, unable to bear the blood-covered site of the battlefield in the battle of Kalinga, realised the importance of nonviolence over war and renounced his kingship in penance, and adopted a Buddhist life. Buddhists celebrate both Buddha as well as Emperor Ashoka on Diwali.
Diwali also heralds the harvest festival. As the cropping season ends, farmers in India reap their harvest and offer prayers to God for granting a good crop. The farmers celebrate Diwali by lighting lamps and sharing sweets and gifts with relatives and neighbours — to reinforce prosperity and happiness.
Invariably, differences in the reason and mode of Diwali celebration all across India are noticeably no less. The overlapping features of spring cleaning, lighting lamps & lights, drawing rangolis or Kolams, bursting crackers, sharing gifts and sweets showcase a uniformity in diversity. The celebration mostly continues for five days – Dhanteras, Narka Chaturdashi, Lakshmi Puja, Govardhan Puja and Bhaiya-dooj. Day one starts with Dhanteras (Dhan meaning “wealth” and teras meaning “13th”) when gold or any other metal purchase spearhead the shopping trends, along with the crackers and lamps. The last day of Bhai dooj significantly celebrates the brother-sister bond; when the sister applies a tika of vermillion and Chandan on her brother’s forehead as she prays for her brother’s long life and well-being. However, in Bengal and many parts of East India, pandal decorations and extensive displays of lighting for Kali puja attract pandal hoppers in swarms for days exceeding the actual celebration.
The cultural diversity and presence of Indian Hindus worldwide diffuse the celebration of Diwali in most of the regions of America, Europe, Africa and Asia. In Malaysia, where we currently reside, Diwali is one of the most awaited annual festivals of the year and is called “Hari Deepavali”. Hari is commonly used in almost all the festival names in Malaysia, which means “today”. The majority of the Hindus settled in Malaysia initially originated from Tamil Nadu; hence they follow the South Indian mores of the Diwali celebration. Elaborate Kolams and decorative lamps adorn the floors of malls and homes. Hung strings of marigold and jasmine flowers, paper lanterns swing in the corridors, doors and windows everywhere, spreading the message of festive merrymaking around. Similar to India, a significant part of the country lits up in the spirit of light and love- resembling a little India in itself. Amongst all the places outside India, Times Square in New York brightens up astoundingly with the most elaborate lightings, colours, Indian food, and cultural performances — appending Indian culture & customs to the most compelling metropolitan square that represents a hub of cosmopolitan amalgam.
Whatever the celebration mode worldwide, the spirit of self-realisation, purity, and inner joy remains fundamental. Regardless of the grandeur of the celebration, the brightening light that illuminates our thoughts and choices build up our gratitude, assisting us to waive off greed and unending desires. In every case, let the inner light ignite lamps of knowledge and truth in our hearts and mind, allowing our innate brilliance and goodness to shine forth –with or without the lamps of Diwali.
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Sudeepa hails from North-east India and settled in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has a masters in Life Science from Assam University and holds an HR-management diploma from IMT, Ghaziabad. She has worked in management and business development sectors.