Diwali: the Festival of Festivals

By: Prof. Pankaj Jain on Nov 02, 2013
Diwali the festival of lights – apart from being the most widely celebrated is perhaps one of the prettiest Indian festivals. It is a festival of joy, splendor, and brightness. Diwali is celebrated in various parts of the world, including South Asia, South-East Asia, North America, Europe, Australia, Caribbean countries, Middle-East, and Africa. With more Indians now migrating to various parts of the world, the number of countries where Diwali is celebrated is also increasing. While in most countries it is celebrated mainly by Indian diaspora, in others it has become part of the general local culture, especially in the South-East Asia. In addition to South Asian countries, Singapore and New York City has included Diwali in the list of public holidays.
The uniqueness of this festival is its harmony of five varied philosophies, each day for a special thought or ideal. Diwali is a time when every Indian house and shop is illuminated with oil lamps and every heart is filled with joy. Delighted children set off fireworks in the spirit of festival. The word Diwali comes from the word Deepaawali, i.e., series of lamps. It falls on the last day of the last month of the lunar Indian calendar.
The five-day celebration of Diwali begins with Dhanteras, the day to worship Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. Indian culture has not considered wealth to be corruptive; on the contrary Vedic sages have sung praises of various types of wealth in the Shrisuktam hymn of Rig Veda. According to Indian culture a wealthy person is considered to be God’s beloved child, he is rewarded for the good karmas done in past life. This is indicated in the verses of Bhagavad Gita “Shuchinaam Shrimataam Gehe” (6:41). In Shrisuktam, Vedic people asked for wealth that would never turn away from their houses: “Tam maa aavah jatvedo…purushanaham”. In another verse of Shrisuktam, it is asked: “God grant me wealth, which is beyond destruction and with which I can acquire gold, cattle, horses and sincere friends.” According to Indian perspective, wealth in itself may not be corruptive, but a wealthy person’s attitude leads to corruption. The financial power can lead a person higher towards divinity or lower towards evil. When somebody uses wealth as a means for material gains alone, one may be paving the path to self-destruction. On the other hand, wealth is to be revered as the divine mother and to be regarded as a blessing from God.
Money used destructively is called Alaxmi or impure wealth that which is used for selfish reasons is money or Vitta. Money that is used for the benefit of others is referred to as Laxmi or wealth and ultimately wealth used in cultural work attains the status of Mahalaxmi or divine wealth. Those who invest wealth for divine work enjoy the wealth for several generations. Since wealth has such tremendous strength it should remain in the hands of good people who would use it appropriately. Indian culture has sung praises of the Rajashri. This can be compared with the Greek thinker Plato’s term “philosopher king”.
The second day is celebrated as Kali Chaturdashi, the day to worship Kali, the goddess of power. Physical strength used to harm others is called Ashakti or impious strength that which is used for selfish reasons is strength, Shakti. The strength to protect others is referred as Kali, and if it’s used for spiritual purposes, it is called Mahakali. In the Mahabharata, Vyasa has given examples of human life by skillfully portraying three diverse characters of Duryodhana, Karna and Arjun. Duryodhana the eldest of Kauravas, who used his strength only for selfish motives, Karna who had vowed to use his skills in the service of the Kauravas and Arjun who dedicated himself to Lord Krishna. These three can be considered as the examples of ashakti, kali and mahakali respectively.
Another name by which this day is remembered is “Narak Chaturdashi”. The story goes that Narakasur the ill-famed king of Pragjyotishpur was creating havoc in the society by the excessive use of his powers. He was responsible for the imprisonment of 16000 young women. Lord Krishna had decided to destroy this evil dictator. Satyabhama, wife of lord Krishna, took up the challenge of rescuing the innocent women and Lord Krishna fully supported Satyabhama in her mission. This day is celebrated as freedom from the tyranny of the evil king. People free from atrocities of the evil ruler joyously celebrated the event by lighting lamps to illuminate the night sky. Adorned in new clothes they set out on the streets to express their happiness.
The third day is the main day of Diwali festival. It is the festival of light. Thousands of lamps are lit in every home to mark the return of Rama, Laxmana and Sita to Ayodhya from their exile. Lamp is also the symbol of knowledge. Lighting the lamp of knowledge means to understand and reflect upon the significant purpose of each of the five days of festivities and to bring those thoughts into daily lives. The day of Diwali is to remember the mantra – Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya, lead us from darkness to light. It is very important day for business community as it is the end of the fiscal year. Old accounts are settled, new books are opened. Account books are worshiped in an elaborate ceremony. It is time to take account of one’s life also, to reflect upon life and remove anger, hatred, jealousy and callousness from life and have renewed hope from the New Year.
The day following New Year is celebrated as Balipratipada. People who are blinded by kanak – wealth and kaanta – lust become demons. Lord Vishnu had destroyed Bali and this day is a reminder to have proper outlook towards wealth and beauty. The final day of Diwali festival is Bhai Dooj. This day symbolizes the respect for all women. The day gives every man the noble outlook to consider every woman as his mother or sister.
Although Diwali is considered as a Hindu festival, the origin of this word actually comes from the Jain tradition. Although in the two major versions of the Hindu Ramayana, the return of its heroes Rama, Laxmana and Sita is celebrated with grant festivities, there is no mention of the word related to lighting the lamps. The word was first mentioned to celebrate the nirvana of the 24th Jain Tirthankara Mahavira Swami which had occurred on this day. And the day following Diwali marks the beginning of the Jain calendar Vira Nirvana Samvat, in the year 527 BCE. In the Sikh tradition, it is celebrated to mark the return of the Sikh Guru Hargobind Sahib to the city of Amritsar who is believed to be freed by the Mughal emperor Jahangir on this day in 1619. With different kinds of communities of different religions and different regions celebrating Diwali in different ways, it can rightly be called as the “national” festival of India and Indian diaspora around the world.Indian New Year

According to Vikram Samvat, Indian New Year starts from the Shukla Pratipadaa of Kaartik month. This day is also called as Bali Pratipadaa. Bali was the son of Virochan. Ironically, Virochan was atheist son of the legendary devotee Prahlaad whose devotion was instrumental in killing his father Hiranyakashyapu by the Narasingha incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Bali was influenced by his father and systematically removed the importance ofspirituality and scriptures from the society. He also disturbed the Varna system in the society by making people change their traditional jobs. He reduced the importance of Brahmins in the society. Kshatriyas slowly turned into autocratic officers and leaders. Business leaders became greedy capitalists. Overall, all the sections of the society turned towards evil and ignored social welfare. To reform the society, Aditi and Kashyap asked for a boon about a son. Aditi and Kashyap become parents of Vaaman, the dwarf incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Eventually, Vaaman asks for three steps from Bali and sends Bali away down south. Thus, society is rescued from the malevolence of Bali and importance of spirituality and scriptures is restored in the society.
Another legend associated with this day is about the celebration of Govardhan. It is believed that Lord Krishna had asked people of Vrindavan not to worship Lord Indra. Indra responds by heavy rains for several days. Krishna protects the people by lifting Mount Govardhan and giving shelter under it. This tale has now been connected with ecological importance of mountains.

Bhaiya Dooj

The Shukla Dwitiya of Kaartik month is called Yama Dwitiya and is celebrated as Bhaiya Dooj as a mark for love of brothers and sisters. It is believed that Yamuna had invited her brother Yama for dinner and Yama in turn responds by granting her two boons. Yamuna asks that Yama should visit her every year on this day for dinner and secondly, to grant happiness to brothers who would visit their sisters on this day. Sisters traditionally worship Yama on this day for the longevity of their brothers. There are several examples of brother and sisters in Indian culture. For example, in the Mahabharata, Draupadi is also known as Krishnaa due to her great love for her brother Krishna.
Significance of moon on this day is also important. The phase of the moon on Dwitiya or dooj, the second day of Shukla fortnight marks the increment in the moon which denotes development and growth. In Ramayana, Ravana once asks Sita to compare himself with Rama. Sita calls him the moon of full-moon night whereas Rama is compared with the moon of Dwitiya. Moon of the full-moon night quickly starts decreasing and loses itself completely while the moon of Dwitiya is set to increase itself culminating on the full-moon night. Lord Shiva also is usually depicted with the moon of Dwitiya on his head. Perhaps this is why moon of this day is considered benevolent in Indian culture and even in Islam. Moon has special relationship with the sisters and this is reflected in Indian children calling Moon lovingly as chandaa maamaa (moon as maternal uncle).
Overall, this day associates brother with the moon of Dooj symbolizing the importance of efforts and sacrifice.