Diwali, also known as Deepavali, is one of the most significant festivals in Hinduism, celebrated with great enthusiasm across India and by Indian communities worldwide. The festival symbolizes the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. Its celebration involves millions of lights shining on housetops, outside doors and windows, around temples and other buildings.
History and Significance:
Diwali’s origin is rooted in ancient India with various legends tied to it, differing regionally:
- Northern India: Celebrates the return of Lord Rama, his wife Sita, and brother Lakshmana to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana, as depicted in the epic Ramayana.
- Southern India: Marks it as the day Lord Krishna defeated the demon Narakasura.
- Western India: Associated with the legend of King Bali who was sent to the nether world by Lord Vishnu in his dwarf incarnation, Vamana.
- Eastern India: Linked with Goddess Kali.
Celebration of Each Day:
- Dhanteras: The first day marks the beginning of Diwali. People clean their homes and make decorations on the floor, such as rangoli. It’s considered auspicious to buy gold or silver items and new utensils.
- Naraka Chaturdashi (Chhoti Diwali): The second day is known as Chhoti Diwali. People decorate their homes with diyas (lamps) and rangoli.
- Lakshmi Puja (Diwali): The main day of the festival involves worshiping Goddess Lakshmi for wealth and prosperity. Homes are illuminated with lights and lamps. Families gather for a Lakshmi Puja, exchange gifts, and share festive meals.
- Govardhan Puja (Padva): The fourth day is celebrated as Govardhan Puja in honor of Lord Krishna’s defeat of Indra. In North India, it’s also observed as a day celebrating the bond between husband and wife.
- Bhai Dooj: The festival concludes with Bhai Dooj, celebrating the brother-sister bond. Sisters perform aarti for their brothers and pray for their long life, while brothers offer gifts in return.
Outside India, Diwali is a reflection of the Indian diaspora’s cultural heritage. Countries with significant Indian populations, like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, also celebrate Diwali. These celebrations may vary but generally include fireworks, traditional foods, cultural performances, and the lighting of lamps. In many of these countries, Diwali is an opportunity to showcase Indian culture and traditions.
Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya
Diwali, the “Festival of Lights,” is deeply associated with the legend of Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya, as narrated in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. This event is a central aspect of the festival’s significance, especially in Northern India.
According to the Ramayana, Lord Rama, the prince of Ayodhya and an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, was exiled from his kingdom for 14 years. Accompanied by his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana, Rama went to live in the forests. During this period, Sita was abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. Rama, assisted by his devotee Hanuman and an army of monkeys, waged a great battle against Ravana to rescue Sita.
The return of Rama to Ayodhya marks the conclusion of this exile and his victory over Ravana. The people of Ayodhya, overjoyed by the return of their beloved prince, lit the entire city with rows of clay lamps (diyas), celebrating his victorious homecoming. This illumination symbolized the victory of light over darkness and good over evil.
Diwali, celebrated on the darkest night of the Hindu lunar month of Kartika, commemorates this joyous occasion. People light diyas and burst crackers to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. Homes are decorated, sweets are distributed, and prayers are offered to deities, especially Goddess Lakshmi, to seek blessings of prosperity and well-being.
This story of Lord Rama not only adds religious significance to Diwali but also imparts moral and ethical lessons, emphasizing virtues such as loyalty, courage, and the triumph of righteousness.
The defeat of Narkasura
The defeat of the demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna is another significant legend associated with Diwali, particularly in South India. This story is a key reason why Diwali is celebrated as a festival of lights and symbolizes the victory of good over evil.
Narakasura, the demon king, had become a tyrant. According to the legend, he had a boon that he could only be killed by his mother, Bhudevi (Earth Goddess). Narakasura misused his powers to terrorize both heavenly and earthly worlds. He even stole the magnificent earrings of Aditi, the mother of gods, and kidnapped 16,000 daughters of the gods and saints.
Distressed by his actions, the gods approached Lord Krishna for help. Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, agreed to vanquish the demon. In the battle, Lord Krishna was accompanied by his wife Satyabhama, who is believed to be an incarnation of Bhudevi. In some versions of the story, it was Satyabhama who actually killed Narakasura, fulfilling the prophecy that he would be killed by his mother.
Celebration and Significance:
This victory is celebrated as Naraka Chaturdashi, just before the main day of Diwali. In honor of Krishna’s victory, people light diyas and burst crackers. In many regions, effigies of Narakasura are burned, symbolizing the destruction of evil. The day is also marked by taking ritual baths before sunrise, signifying the cleansing of all sins and impurities.
This legend, like that of Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya, reinforces the Diwali theme of the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness, encouraging people to embrace righteousness and compassion in their lives.
The story of King Bali is another significant legend associated with Diwali, particularly in the Western states of India like Gujarat and Rajasthan. This legend is rooted in the Vamana avatar of Lord Vishnu and is celebrated as Bali Pratipada or Padva during Diwali.
King Mahabali (often simply called Bali) was a generous and just Asura (demon) king famous for his benevolence and his rule over the three worlds. Despite being a demon king, Bali was a devout worshipper of Vishnu and was well-loved by his subjects.
However, the gods felt threatened by his expanding power and dominion. To curb his rule, Lord Vishnu incarnated as a Brahmin dwarf, Vamana. During a grand yajna (sacrificial ritual) organized by Bali, Vamana asked for a piece of land that he could cover in three steps as a donation. Underestimating Vamana’s power, Bali agreed.
Vamana then grew in size and in his first two steps, covered the earth and the heavens, leaving no space for the third step. Realizing Vamana’s true identity, Bali offered his head for the third step, demonstrating immense humility and devotion. Pleased with Bali’s sacrifice, Lord Vishnu granted him a boon. Bali chose to visit his subjects and kingdom once every year.
Celebration and Significance:
Bali Pratipada or Padva is celebrated on the third day of Diwali to commemorate King Bali’s annual return to earth. It is a day to remember the virtues of generosity, righteousness, and the importance of keeping one’s word. People celebrate by making colorful rangolis, preparing festive foods, and offering prayers.
The story of King Bali is a reminder of the eternal virtues of kindness, devotion, and humility, and it emphasizes the idea that the divine rewards righteousness regardless of one’s background or origins. It’s a celebration of the victory of the divine and moral order over arrogance and power.
The association of Goddess Kali with Diwali is particularly prominent in Eastern India, especially in Bengal, Odisha, Assam, and Bangladesh. This aspect of Diwali, known as Kali Puja, is celebrated with great fervor and devotion.
Goddess Kali is one of the most powerful forms of the divine energy or Shakti in Hindu mythology. She is often depicted as fierce and formidable, embodying the power of destruction. Kali Puja during Diwali is linked to the legend where Kali battled and defeated a horde of demons. In some versions of the story, she becomes so engrossed in the destruction that she begins a dance of annihilation, which is only stopped by Lord Shiva (her consort) lying down in her path. When she steps on him, she realizes her frenzy and stops, symbolizing the cessation of chaos.
Celebration and Significance:
Kali Puja is celebrated on the new moon day of the Hindu month Kartik, which coincides with Diwali. Devotees worship Goddess Kali as the divine protector, seeking her blessings for general happiness, health, wealth, and peace. The rituals include elaborate offerings, including sweets, rice, lentils, and sometimes even animal sacrifices, though this is less common now.
The night is marked by prayers, chanting, and lighting of earthen lamps. Temples dedicated to Kali are decorated, and large idols of the goddess are worshipped. The event is also celebrated with fireworks, much like in other parts of India for Diwali.
The Kali Puja aspect of Diwali underscores the theme of the triumph of good over evil and the destruction of darkness and ignorance. It is a powerful reminder of the cycle of creation and destruction in the universe and the need to eliminate negative forces to restore balance and harmony.
As we bring our vibrant journey through the Diwali festival to a close, let’s remember that while the diyas extinguish and the last of the sweets are savored, the spirit of Diwali continues to illuminate our hearts. From the legend of Lord Rama’s triumphant return to Ayodhya, to the valiant defeat of Narakasura by Lord Krishna, and the humbling tale of King Bali, each story woven into Diwali’s tapestry teaches us the timeless lessons of virtue, courage, and humility.
Whether you’re celebrating in the bustling streets of Mumbai, under the starlit skies of a small village, or in a cozy apartment in a distant land, Diwali unites us in a beautiful symphony of lights, colors, and joy. As we bid adieu to this festival of lights, let’s carry forward its true essence: spreading light in times of darkness, sharing joy where there is sorrow, and nurturing hope where there’s despair.
So, stash away those sparklers for next year, give your taste buds a well-earned rest (we all know they’ve worked overtime!), and keep the Diwali spirit alive in your everyday acts of kindness. Here’s to Diwali, a festival that’s much more than just a celebration – it’s a reminder that no matter how dark the night, light will always prevail. Until next year, keep glowing and growing, just like those Diwali lamps! 🪔✨