Diwali is a festival that celebrates the beginning of the Hindu New Year. Also called the Festival of Lights or Deepavali, it takes place on the 15th day of the Hindu month of Kartika. This falls sometime during October or November. The festival lasts five days and is most commonly celebrated in India and other locations with Hindu communities. The time of year is around the time when India and the surrounding area’s monsoon season is over and the weather brings more people outside. It is also celebrated by Sikhs and Jains.
This festival commemorates Ramachandra, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, called the seventh avatar, along with other gods associated with the celebration. Diwali is marked with giving gifts, feasting, and other common New Year traditions like setting off fireworks. Many will take this time to pay off all debts or follow the theme of rebirth or renewal by cleaning the house and making new purchases, such as new clothing or household decorations. Some will clean their homes very thoroughly inside and out, whitewashing the outside to make way for the festival’s decorations.
There are several reasons why this holiday is celebrated, both for spiritual and religious reasons. There are also differences between the religions besides Hinduism that celebrate the holiday.
In the spiritual sense, Diwali is a celebration of the inner light, which is why it is also called the Festival of Lights. Within Hinduism, Atman is a phrase used to refer to a person’s inner light that goes beyond the physical and the mental and is seen as immortal and pure. Diwali celebrates this inner light and this light’s ability to win the battle of good over evil. It is through this light that one achieves higher knowledge and awareness of one’s self.
But there are also specific legends and gods associated with the holiday. As Diwali is a celebration of the end of the harvest, it is a time reserved to give thanks for a successful harvest and past harvests. These thanks are often directed towards the god Lakshmi, associated with success, in order to receive her blessings for the next farming seasons. It is believed that on the day of the Hindu New Year, Lakshmi came from the Ocean of Milk during Samudra manthan, or the churning of this ocean.
The seventh avatar, Ramachandra, was in exile for fourteen years when he fought against the demon king of Ravana. The day of the festival is believed to celebrate his glorious return to his people. The theme of the victory or good over evil aligns with Ramachandra’s victory.
The more popular legend associated with Diwali in western India is of the Vamana avatar, who returned home on this day to benefit the worshipers of Lakshmi, augmented their blessings. In southern India, the legend of Krishna’s conquering of Asura Naraka, the king of Assam and imprisoner of many of its citizens, is celebrated.
The Sikh celebration honors the Bandi Chhor Divas, the release of 52 Hindi kings from prison by Guru Hargobind Ji. The Jain festival, Deva Divali, is a celebration of Lord Mahavira’s achieving enlightenment. Jainists celebrate by walking around Palitana and Girnar, mountains in Gujarat that the religion considers sacred.
Although the festival has evolved into a broader celebration of Hindu culture, several traditions stem from these legends. Observers honor Ramachandra’s victory by decorating their houses with lights. Lakshmi is believed to roam the earth on Diwali, entering houses that are clean and bright, which is why many will clean their houses thoroughly and decorate with candles and other lights.
How it’s celebrated
There are many traditions associated with the holiday and most regional celebrations will vary. Some will decorate the outside of their house with white rice flour drawings filled with coloring. While many contemporary or casual observers decorate their houses with artificial lights, many still illuminate houses and other structures with dipa lights, which burn oil.
The most common tradition is to celebrate with a gathering of loved ones, whether it is a smaller celebratory meal or a large festive gathering of several families. Larger celebrations include melas, or community-wide fairs that are characteristic of smaller villages.
The first day of the festival is usually marked with prayer, a traditional festival breakfast, and a procession of observers carrying the statue of Lakshmi. Some communities will set up series of booths that give out candy and prizes to children. In certain regions, little boys will build mud castles and other structures to show off to festival guests. Children in Southern India wear flower wreaths or bells. Once the sun goes down, fireworks typically begin and observers close to a river send little rafts of lit lamps downstream.
Diwali festivals are common in the United States, especially in cities with large Hindu-American populations. Many communities hold larger gatherings by renting out large reception halls or gymnasiums for a festival of traditional music, dancing, and food. Some public leaders will issue proclamations or good wishes for the celebration of Diwali.
Rituals are usually celebrated differently each of the five days of Diwali, but most days include religious services. The first day, Dhanteras or Dhanvantari Triodasi, is the first day of the financial year. Many farmers will worship cows on this day. While lighting clay oil lamps, which dispels harmful spirits, observers may sing praises to Lakshmi, such as “Lakshmi Puja.” It is also considered good luck to buy something made of gold or silver, especially utensils. The legend of Lord Dhanwantari is celebrated on this day—this God of healthcare emerged from the ocean with Ayurveda, a medicinal system that is still an alternative medicine practiced today.
The second day, Naraka Chaturdashi, honors the defeat of the evil spirit of filth by Krishna. This is marked with dishes prepared with rice and washing of the head in order to dispel evil. For many, this is a day of rest, bathing, and oil massages.
The third day, Lakshmi Puja, celebrates Lakshmi. After cleansing themselves, observers will attend worship services dedicated to Lakshmi, sing prayers to Lakshmi, and will be sure to light all lamps and other lights in their house.
Observers perform Govardhan Pooja on the fourth day, also called Padwa. This religious ritual presents offerings to the gods. The fifth day, Yama Dvitiya, is marked by brothers paying visits to sisters’ houses where the sisters will pay their respects and mark a talik on their forehead to keep them safe.