Diwali is India’s most major festival of the year, a chance to celebrate the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and good over bad. Popularly celebrated among more than a billion people from different faiths across India and its diaspora, the five days of Diwali are observed by prayer, feasts, fireworks, family gatherings, and philanthropy. Diwali is also considered the beginning of a new year for some.
However, Diwali is possibly famously known as the festival of lights. Originated from the Sanskrit word Deepavali, which indicates “row of lights,” Diwali is recognized for the vividly glowing clay lamps that celebrants line up outside their homes.
The dates for this festival depend on the Hindu lunar calendar, which marks each month by the time it takes the moon to orbit Earth. Diwali starts right before the appearance of a new moon between the Hindu months of Asvina and Kartika, which usually falls in October or November according to the Gregorian calendar.
The significance of Diwali—and its many stories
Diwali is widely celebrated, it’s an important religious celebration for Hindus, but it is also recognized amongst Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists, which means that there’s no single story of its origin. While each religion claims its own historical tale behind the festival, they all ultimately share the same victory of good over evil.
In Hinduism alone, which is regarded the world’s oldest existing religion, dating back to the second millennium B.C., diverse accounts of the Diwali story differ among geographic communities. These, however, are all historical stories of the triumph won by men who were considered embodiments of the Hindu god Vishnu, perceived as the sustainer of the universe, and whose role it is to restore the equilibrium of good and evil in times of crisis.
In north India, Diwali commemorates Prince Rama’s triumphant return to the city of Ayodhya after 14 years of expulsion due to the plotting of his wicked stepmother, and after a courageous rescue of his wife Sita, an embodiment of the goddess Lakshmi, who had been kidnapped by the rival king Ravana.
In South India, Diwali honours Lord Krishna’s triumph over the demon king Narakasura, who had held 16,000 women in his palace and gave harsh penalties to any of his subjects who tried to stand up against him. And in western India, the festival celebrates Vishnu’s expulsion of King Bali, whose tremendous power had become a menace to the gods, to the underworld.
Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists, three minority religions in India, have their own Diwali tales. For Sikhs, whose religion originated in the late 15th century as a movement within Hinduism that is mainly dedicated to Vishnu, Diwali honours the liberation of the 17th-century guru Hargobind after 12 years of captivity by Mughal emperor Jahangir.
Jains, whose ancient religion dates back to the middle of the first century B.C. and shares many of Hinduism’s ideas, celebrate Diwali as the day that Lord Mahavira, the last of the prominent Jain teachers, entered nirvana. And Buddhists, whose religion rose during the late 6th century B.C. in what some term as a reaction to Hinduism, celebrate it as the day the Hindu Emperor Ashoka, who ruled during the third century B.C., converted to Buddhism.
Surpassing these tales, Diwali is also a commemoration of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and good fortune. In India’s early agrarian society, Diwali corresponded with the last harvest before the onset of winter, an opportunity to pray to Lakshmi for good fortune. Even today, Indian businesses still view Diwali as the first day of the fiscal new year.
How is Diwali celebrated?
Just as the stories of Diwali vary from region to region, so, too, do the holiday’s ceremonies. Though, what is most in common is the profusion of sweets, family reunions, and the burning of clay lamps that signify the inner light that guards each home against spiritual darkness.
But commonly, each of the five days of Diwali has its own importance. On the first day of Diwali, people pray to goddess Lakshmi, make sweets, and clean up their homes, which the next day they decorate with rangolis and lamps, patterns created on the floor out of coloured sand, powder, rice or flowers.
The third day of Diwali is the most important. On this day, people may visit the temple to honour Lakshmi or meet with friends and family for meals and watch fireworks. Followers also set aflame the lamps they had arranged the day before.
For those celebrating, the fourth day of Diwali signifies the new year and is the time to exchange gifts and good wishes. Finally, the fifth day is usually a day to honour one’s siblings.
While the darkness cast by COVID-19 will make this a bittersweet Diwali for many of those celebrating the holiday, they may be able to receive solace from the essence of the holiday, the hope that, ultimately, the light will triumph over the darkness.