November 2002 A Conscious Evolution Newsletter
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Volume 1, Number 2

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Diwali - India’s Festival of Lights!

by Sucheta Shetty

Asato Ma sadgamaye,
tamaso Ma jyotir gamaye,
Mrityur Ma amritam gamaye.

From the unreal lead me to the real,
from darkness lead me to light,
and from death lead me to immortality.

-- An ancient Sanskrit prayer

DiyasThe mention of the word Diwali conjures images of the glow of bright lights against the background of a dark, moonless night. “Diwali” is a corruption of the Sanskrit word Deepavali, where deep means lamp or light and avali means a row. So literally, it means a row of lamps. Light is the essence of this popular Indian festival, which for many people is the biggest celebration of the year. It starts on the 13th day of the dark fortnight of the lunar month of Ashwin and lasts until the 2nd day of the month of Kartik. This period corresponds to late October or early November, depending on the year. This year it spans November 2-6. The flames of the traditional earthenware oil-lamps, called diyas, and the glow from paper and plastic lanterns, electric lights and fireworks, all contribute to making these dark nights the brightest nights of the year!

Diwali is unarguably the most important Hindu festival in India. Unlike many other festivals, Diwali is celebrated throughout the country (though it can be a low-key affair in some parts). It is a time for family get-togethers, exchanging gifts and sweets with family and friends, a time of giving thanks for a rich harvest and a time for making fresh starts -- from cleaning the house, applying a fresh coat of paint, shopping for new clothes, gold, silver or household items to starting a new set of books of accounts or a new venture. Indeed, for some Hindus, it is the start of a new year.

You can hear many different stories with regards to the origin of the festival depending on which part of the country you’re in. In the North, the celebrations relive the joy of the people of Ayodhya on the return of their beloved prince Rama, after 14 years of exile, and his victory over the demon king Ravana. Rama is known as the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, and is the Preserver God of the Hindu Trinity. (The others are Brahma, the Creator God, and Shiva, God of Destruction and Regeneration.)

Another story commemorates the slaying of the demon Narakasura by Krishna (the eighth incarnation of Vishnu). Both stories symbolise the triumph of Good over Evil. Diwali is also a harvest festival and involves the worship of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, thanking her for a rich harvest and seeking her blessings for the year to come. As such, it is also an important festival for the mercantile community.

RangoliThe preparations for Diwali start long in advance, with people sprucing up their homes and preparing delicious goodies to exchange with family, neighbours and friends. Electric lights and lanterns go up days before the arrival of Diwali. Women prepare the area near the front door for drawing rangoli -- beautiful patterns made from coloured powder of rice or marble -- to welcome goddess Lakshmi.

The celebrations extend over five days, each with its own significance and associated legends. These days generally fall in this order:

Day 1 - Dhanteras/Dhantrayodashi: Dhan means wealth, and as the name suggests, this day is of special importance to merchants who seek Lakshmi’s blessings for the prosperity of their enterprises. It is also a tradition to buy something made of gold or silver or even a new utensil on this day. Diyas and other forms of illumination are kept burning all through the night. This is in remembrance of the story of a young prince who was destined to die four days after his wedding, but was saved by his bride who kept lamps burning all through the night. This blinded Yama, the God of Death, and thus prevented him from taking her husband’s soul.

Day 2 - Narakachaturdashi/Balipratipada: It is believed that after Krishna had slain the demon Narakasura, he was given a scented bath to wash away the grime. From this originated the tradition, in South India, of applying scented oils and sandalwood paste to one’s body before an early morning bath. This is followed by a special breakfast composed of all the goodies made especially for Diwali. For once, children are not scolded for eating sweets the first thing in the morning.

Another legend associated with this day is that of the powerful and arrogant King Bali, who was becoming a threat to the gods. At their behest, Lord Vishnu incarnated as Vaman -- a dwarf -- and went to Bali’s court dressed as a Brahmin (a member of the priestly caste). Following the tradition of generosity to Brahmins, the king told him to ask for anything he pleased. The tiny Brahmin asked only for enough land to cover three footsteps. The arrogant king laughed at the little request and asked the Brahmin to ask for something more valuable. After all, he was the powerful, wealthy King Bali and could grant a lot more than just a tiny piece of land. The Brahmin stuck to his request. The king finally asked him to take the three steps on the land of his choice. At this, Vaman took his original form, that of the mighty Vishnu. With his first step he covered the entire Earth and with the second the whole of Heaven. After this, he asked, “Now where do I place my third step?” King Bali, now humbled, offered his head. Vishnu placed his foot on Bali’s head, pressing him into the netherworlds. However, in view of the king’s generosity, Vishnu gave him the lamp of knowledge and allowed him to return to Earth once a year to dispel the darkness of ignorance.

Day 3 - Lakshmipujan: This is the actual day of Diwali. It is the darkest night of them all and the illuminations are at their best. One would hardly notice that it is Amavasya (new moon day)! This is the night especially dedicated to the worship of Lakshmi. Special pujas (worship rituals) are performed in every household to seek her blessings. People light lamps, make offering of sweets and salty snacks to the goddess, draw rangoli patterns and burst firecrackers to please Lakshmi, who is believed to alight on the earth this day, blessing every household that she passes by. Interestingly, this is also the time, in Vedic astrology, when the Sun is passing through the sign of Libra -- the scales. Traditionally, this is the time when books of accounts are balanced and a new set of books is started.

Happy New YearDay 4 - Padwa/Varshapratipada: This day marks the beginning of the Vikram-Samvat, one of the Hindu calendars. Hence, some communities observe it as New Year’s Day. People visit relatives and friends and wish them “Saal Mubarak” (Happy New Year). A legend associated with this day is that Krishna sheltered the people of Gokul from a fearsome deluge under the giant “umbrella” of Mount Govardhan, which the mighty god lifted on his little finger. Hence, in some parts of India, people perform a special Govardhan puja. Temples in these parts observe the ritual of Annakoot (Mountain of Food), where huge piles of sweets and other food are offered to the deities and then distributed among the devotees.

Day 5 - Bhaiyya Dooj/Bhau Beej: Legend goes that on this day, Yama, the God of Death, visited his sister Yami. She applied an auspicious tilak (vermillion paste) on his forehead and they exchanged gifts, talked and had a good time. In memory of the wonderful time they had, he declared that he would bless any brother who got a tilak applied by his sister on this day. Hence, this day is observed as a symbol of the love between a brother and his sister, and brothers make it a point to visit their sisters on this day.

The festival of Diwali brings the message of love and wisdom, of the triumph of Good over Evil. It is a time of family togetherness; of forgiving and forgetting old fights and reuniting. It celebrates everything that is desired and noble in life -- be it prosperity or the end of evil and ignorance. Above all, it is an aesthetically pleasing festival that symbolises the joy of a people for all the blessings they received in the year that was -- and expresses their hope for another prosperous and happy year to come.