Diwali symbolizes the victory of light over darkness. Celebrated joyously all over the country, it is a festival of wealth and prosperity.
Year after year I have seen the lamps being lit for Diwali. In the dark night the glowing flames herald the advent of longer nights-the early days of an Indian winter.
The essence of this light is Shri Lakshmi-arising, at the beginning of time, out of the waters at the churning of the Milky Ocean by gods and demons for a thousand years. Regarded as the goddess of love, beauty and prosperity, Lakshmi, Kamla or Padma (Sanskrit words for lotus), the beloved consort of Vishnu, along with the dearly loved pot-bellied, elephant headed, auspicious god of the Hindu theogony, Siri Ganesha, is a presiding deity of the festival of lights. They are worshipped in every household so that the year may be full of prosperity. Throughout the night a lamp is kept burning before her image so that she may continue to dwell in the house and bestow upon it the wealth of life.
‘Dipavali’ means a row of lights (‘Diwali’ is simply a corrupt from of it) and the festival is so called because of the illuminations that mark the celebrations.
Every Hindu home, rich or poor, it given a spring cleaning a few days prior to the auspicious day, whitewashed and adorned in a festive way. Rows of little earthen lamps illuminate terraces and gardens, walls and courtyards, outer and inner precincts of a temple or a palace. That it was so from ancient times is borne by kings and travelers who have recorded the celebrations.
King Harsha described it as ‘Dipapratipadotsava’ and King Bhoja calls it ‘Sukharati’ (happy night) and describes how Lakshmi was venerated and worshipped at dusk and lamps lit in her honour on roadsides and river banks, on hill and tree, in home and temple. To Jimutavahana it was the ‘vow of a happy night’ (Sukharatrivarta’)
Another legend speaks of how Bali was deprived of his kingdom by Vishnu on this day. The good Daitya king, through austerities and devotion, had defeated the great Indra himself. The gods thus feeling humbled appeal to Vishnu for protection. Vishnu becoming manifest in his Dwarf incarnation (Vamana) begs Bali for as much land as he (Vishnu) can over in three steps. Having obtained the boon, Vishnu covers heaven and earth in two strides and would have covered the world in the third, but then respecting Bali’s goodness and generosity, he stopped short and left the nether world to the Datiya king. The legend, found in Rig-Veda, tells of Vishnu’s three strides-over earth, heaven and the nether world of Patala, symbolizing apparently the rising, culmination and setting of the sun. A zodiacal allegory couched in mythological terms, it points to the setting of the light of the sun and the emergence of the darkness associated with the lower realm. Changes of season, of course, but it tells of the heart of a people and their unlimited delight in life, in light, burning not outside but in the deeper recesses of the nether regions of cosmos and man. Why else should folk recall Bali and his reign on this day? We learn that in Maharashtra, effigies of Bali in rice-flour and cow-dung are prepared by womenfolk who worship and invoke his blessings. Skanda Purana also refers to Bali being worshipped with fruits and flowers on this auspicious day by drawing this image on the ground in different hues.
It there any season when mirth and festivity does not reign with the people in India? Related to the inheritance of her people, Diwali evokes the age-old unity of life, legend and myth, belief and ritual, signs and symbols. One of the four major festivals of the Hindus, Diwali is celebrated in the month of Kartik (October-November), twenty days after the festival of Dussehra (the tenth day of the waxing moon in Aswina (September-October) and is celebrated all over India completing as it were the cycle of jubilation and ecstasy-of the conquest of good over evil, light over dark and implanting the seed of a fresh season.
The most widely prevalent and sacred belief throughout India remains that Diwali was originally celebrated to mark the auspicious occasion of the coronation of Rama, the seventh Avatar of Vishnu and the great hero of Ramayana when he returned to Ayodhya after an exile of 14 years and his conquest of the demon king Ravana. Hence the association of Diwali also with the coronation of king Vikramaditya. That is why Diwali also marks the beginning of the Hindu calendar of New Year, the Vikram era. This is the day when merchants open the year with fresh accounts. It is also when the farmers sow their winter crops. Another legend associated the day with the killing of ‘Narakasura’ (demon of naraka of hell) of Pragjotishpura (in Assam) by Vishnu himself.
For the Jains, it is the day of ‘Nirvana’ of Lord Mahavira, the twenty-fourth Tirthankara. To them it is the Deva Diwali when Lord Mahavira is worshipped, sacred scriptures recited and homes and temples are illuminated. Thousands of Jain pilgrims from all over India flock to the sacred Mount Girnar in Gujarat where special celebrations are held on this day. To the Sikhs it marks the auspicious day when Guru Hargobind Sahib was freed by the Mughal emperor. Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple (Amritsar) is beautifully illuminated on this day.
In Bengal, in place of Lakshmi, it is the great goddess, the horrific and magnificent Kali who is worshipped on this day. It is also believed that it is the night of the ‘Pitris’ (ancestors) and lamps are lit on long poles to guide their souls on this night.
In Mysore, the Maharaja’s city palace is most beautifully illuminated, a relic of the ancient splendour; in Jaipur the whole city celebrates it most joyously.
Whatever be the place, community, caste or creed, it is essentially spiritually redeeming. ‘Utsava’, the Sanskrit word for festival means ‘to cause to go upwards’, the upsurge into this ‘Ananda’.
Candles and electric lights may take the place of the traditional earthen lamps; yet part of the should and a life little changed over the centuries when men and women decked in all their finery moved to the rhythm proper to the occasion still remains. Throughout India Diwali celebrations bring the luminosity of a joyous spirit-visits to relations and friends, heart touching heart, mind and mind, soul and soul, warm greetings and exchange of sweets, crackers and fireworks-loud and thundering or sparkling Anar or a Phooljhari so appropriate to the sparkle of the heart and festive night.
A thriving place is the halvai shop in any city as people throng these shops on this festive occasion. Elsewhere music and dancing are part of the festivities. But it is gambling that is considered auspicious on this day. Legendary origins of the practice tell us that the god Shiva on this day had gambled with his wife Parvati and lost all to her. Their sons, the six-headed Kartikeya, seening and plight of his father, masters the art of gambling and wins back his father’s wealth from his mother. The other son, Ganesa, seeing the sad condition and fortune of his mother, wins the gambling bout from his brother. A final reconciliation in the Shiva family makes the god declare the day forever auspicious for gabling.
A union amongst all is essentially needed during a festival. A festival never belongs to one alone. It is a universal happening. Light has to be kept burning as darkness descends so that we may not forget the moment of the most brilliant light.