Diwali: From Then To Now
Much like Christmas in the West, Diwali in India is celebrated across all religions and faith today.
Not all might follow the rituals in the same way but almost everyone lights up their homes with earthen lamps, candles, or fairy lights, and bursts crackers.
It is a joyous festival enjoyed by people of all ages and cultural backgrounds. Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism have their own significance and ways of celebrating this festival.
The Hindus of North India believe that Deepavali (row of lights) is celebrated to welcome Lord Rama, Sita, and Laksmana from their fourteen years of exile. According to mythology, Lord Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu who returns to his kingdom, Ayodhya after defeating and killing the ruler of Lanka (present-day Sri Lanka) who had abducted his wife Sita while in exile.
The people welcomed him by lighting rows of diyas ( earthen lamp). Interestingly, there are no references to Deepavali in the Ramayana or even Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas. However, there are several Puranic references to explain the different connections between Shiva, Parvati, Lakshmi, and the festival.
Padma Purana, Vishnu Purana, Kalika Purana, and King Harsha’s 7th-century play, Nagananda, as well as stone and copper inscriptions have references to the festival as Deepotsava, Deepotsavam, Deepavali, Divali, and Divalige. Apart from these, Bhavishyottara Purana and Bramhavaivarta Purana also carry references to the festival.
Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra has references to the festival of Yaksha Ratri, which according to some scholars is where Diwali has its origin. This was a festival of the Yakshas (attendants of the god of wealth, Kubera) who spent the night playing dice.
The Hindus of South India have a different legend. It marks the day when Krishna (another incarnation of Vishnu) and his wife Satyabhama killed the demon, Narakasura, references of which can be found in the Vishnu Purana and Harivamsha. Hence, it is also called Naraka Chaturdashi and is celebrated the day before Diwali.
The fourth day is called Bali Pratipada, commemorating the act of Vishnu’s Vamana avatar burying King Bali underground. In Kerala, it is also celebrated as Balirajya, because on this day Lakshmi liberated Bali for a day, prompting celebrations by his subjects. Another story says that Bali ascended the throne on this day.
Playing cards for money on Diwali is an auspicious ritual and is considered to bring wealth and prosperity to the players. The legend says that once Goddess Parvati won a game of dice against God Shiva on this day and she announced that whoever gambled on the night of Diwali would accumulate wealth throughout the year.
People of the Newar region of Nepal, who follow the Vajrayana school of Buddhism celebrate Tihar and Swanti, which are festivals similar to the five days of Diwali. They worship various living beings, such as the crow, dog, and cow and the last two days are for Govardhan Puja and Bhai Tika. Some say it was the day when King Ashoka adopted Buddhism.
According to Jains, it was during Diwali that Mahavira, their founder attained moksha (spiritual liberation) and ‘nirvana’ (the final release of the soul from the cycle of birth and death). The lighting of diyas is believed to be in honor of Mahavira and to symbolize the triumph of knowledge over ignorance. Belonging to a community of traders, Jains celebrate Diwali as the beginning of a new financial year and open new account books for the coming year and play cards.
In Bombay They worship the Goddess of Wealth Lakshmi. This is mostly seen in the Western parts of India like Gujarat. According to Padma Purana, the first day of Diwali, Dhanteras, marks the birth of Goddess Lakshmi from the churning of the primordial ocean, i.e., samudramanthan, and on the third day, the day of Diwali, Lakshmi chose to marry Vishnu.
Sikhs celebrate Diwali as the festival of Bandi Chhor Divas (day of liberation) because it is believed that the sixth of the ten Sikh Gurus, Guru Hargobind, was released from the captivity of the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir during the feast of Diwali in 1619. It also marks the foundation of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
Apart from the said variations, Deepawali also differs slightly according to regions. In Assam, Odisha, and West Bengal; Goddess Kali is worshipped at midnight while Tamil Nadu celebrates Thalai Diwali, in which newly-weds get gifts.
The rituals may differ in some way or other but Diwali largely symbolizes the ‘victory of light over darkness’, ‘knowledge over ignorance’, and ‘good over evil’. Cleaning one’s homes and workspaces, decorating with lamps, flowers, and rangolis are common across communities and regions. It is generally celebrated over five days; from two days before the new moon day until two days after.
Day 1, Dhanteras: Derived from the word, dhana (wealth) and trayodashi (13th day), is when the homes are cleaned and decorated. It is considered to be an auspicious day for buying gold, silver, or utensils.
Day 2, Naraka Chaturdashi or Choti Diwali: The victory over Narakasur and an auspicious day for buying sweets and food for the next day’s celebrations. It is a day for visiting family and friends to exchange gifts.
Day 3, Diwali: The main day is celebrated by worshipping the Goddess Lakshmi, lighting lamps, bursting crackers, and gambling.
Day 4, Annakoot/Vishwakarma Puja/Padwa/Govardhan Puja/Bali Pratipada: This day celebrates the bond between husband and wife, as well as the prosperity of a family by offering a ‘mountain of food’ (annakoot) to the Gods. Govardhan Puja refers to the legend of Krishna saving the cowherds and farmers from the wrath of Indra and the incessant rain by lifting the Govardhan mountain for them to take shelter under. Vishwakarma, the Hindu god of engineering and architecture, is worshipped by the Sikh community as well since it is the first day of the new work year.
Day 5, Bhai Dooj: The final day celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters based on the story about Yama, God of death, and his sister Yamuna.
Diwali is celebrated in different parts of the world as well. In countries where there is a significant number of Indian immigrants like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Guyana, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, and Nepal; Diwali is celebrated in all its glory. In Singapore, the metro trains are decorated with flowers and rangolis with diya motifs on this day.
This year in many parts of India firecrackers have been banned and this is a good step considering the amount of pollution and the poor state of the climate in the country and the world. However, this tradition had a scientific origin. Diwali falls in the transition from the rainy to the winter season when water tends to accumulate in trenches & pits.
This stagnated water cannot evaporate in the winters so, they end up becoming breeding grounds for insects that later lead to the spreading of contaminable diseases. Scholars that time knew about saltpetre so used it in tiny explosives, which released Potassium-Nitrate that killed the insects. Even today, saltpeter is a basic ingredient of mosquito repellents.
Knowing the reason makes it clear that now the times have changed as people do not live in such unhygienic conditions normally and have found other ways to curb insects and diseases caused by them, so it is wiser to do away with them and adopt ways to better combat the problems of today.
Wishing a happy and safe Diwali to all!
Writer Chinmoyee Deka did her master in Journalism and persuing PhD at TISS
Images collected from different sources
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