A Celebration of Light
As the seasons begin to change, festivals of light, like Diwali, will be celebrated around the world. What is Diwali? Diwali is a festival celebrated by millions of Hindu, Sikh, and Jain people across the world. Diwali is India’s biggest and most vital holiday of the year. The word Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word deepavali, meaning ‘rows of lighted lamps.’ Because ‘deepa’ means clay lamps and ‘avali’ means row, the festival is sometimes called Dipawali or Deepavali.
Much like the jack-o-lanterns of Samhain and menorahs of Chanukah, the lamps lit at home for Diwali symbolize the inner light that protects from spiritual darkness. In India, houses, shops, and public places are decorated with small oil lamps called diyas. According to the Skanda Purana (the largest religious Hindu text), the Diyas symbolize the sun as the cosmic giver of light and energy. The harvest time celebration of light in darkness, new beginnings, and the triumph of good over evil is something that all people around the world can connect to.
What Does Diwali Celebrate?
Many Diwali celebrations focus on the liberation of prominent figures. Hindu people celebrate the return of deities Rama and Sita to Ayodhya after their exile. They also celebrate the day Mother Goddess Durga destroyed a demon called Mahisha. While originally a Hindu celebration, Diwali has been adopted by multiple communities. In Jainism, Diwali marks the spiritual awakening of Lord Mahavira on October 15, 527 B.C. Mahavira taught that human life and positive attitudes took precedence over worshipping gods. In Sikhism, it honors the day that Guru Hargobind Ji was freed from imprisonment for building a Sikh army. Buddhists in India take the opportunity to celebrate light and spiritual peace during Diwali as well.
When Does the Festival Take Place?
Taking place over five days in October and November, the dates of Diwali change each year. According to the Hindu calendar, the five day festival of Diwali is centered on the New Moon day that ends the month of Ashwin and begins in the month of Kartika, beginning on the thirteenth day of the dark half of Ashwin and ending on the second day of the bright half of Kartika. The main day of the Diwali celebration varies regionally.
On the day of the New Moon, which is ‘Amavasyaa’ of the Hindi month of Kartik, many Hindus believe that Goddess Lakshmi was born during the churning of cosmic ocean (Samudra Manthan). This is why worship of her is central to many celebrations. While many songs and prayers are performed in her honor, it is thought that she recoils with loud noise, so many choose to sing softly and do not clap during Diwali.
How People Celebrate Diwali
Lakshmi is worshipped as the bringer of blessings for the new year. In addition to lighting lamps in celebration, people enjoy firework displays and feasts with their loved ones. Many people choose to abstain from consuming meat and alcohol during this celebration. Gifts are given between family, friends, and employers. One of the main gifts given is new clothes- yes, even employers will purchase new clothes for their employees!
Gifts to Give During Diwali
In addition to clothes, items used to celebrate Diwali (like candles, candle holders/diyas, and sweets) are often given as gifts. Many Indian gift guides encourage givers to DIY items and avoid mass-produced gift baskets sold for Diwali. While money is a wonderful gift, it is said to never borrow or lend money during Diwali. It is also important to give all gifts before sundown. Like gift giving, sweeping and cleansing of the home must be done early in the day, to avoid ‘sweeping out’ the blessings received.
Some Things to Remember
Dhanteras is the first day of the Diwali festival and falls on the thirteenth day of the second half of the lunar month. Dhanteras is considered a lucky day for Hindu people to buy utensils, silver coins, gold, and vehicles. If one is giving utensils as a gift, it is best to avoid gifting something sharp, like knives. If you do wish to gift something sharp, giving it along with sweets balances the intention. The word ‘Dhan’ signifies money or wealth and is very important in marketplaces.
As part of the celebration on the day of Diwali, people draw small footprints with rice flour and vermilion powder throughout the house right from the entrance, indicating the arrival of Goddess Lakshmi. The Lakshmi-Puja prayer and offering is customarily performed at midnight on Dhanteras. After the home is purified, the Lakshmi-Puja is an offering of grains, sweets, and other items on a red altar to Lakshmi.
How the Celebrations End
In Southern India, Bhai Dooja is celebrated two days after Diwali and culminates the five days of Diwali celebrations. The legend of Bhai Dooj narrates the story of sibling love between Yamraja and Yamuna and says that whosoever visits her on this day, shall be liberated from all sins. Bhai Dooja rituals involve sisters putting ‘Tilak’ on brothers’ foreheads and performing of ‘Aarti’ while praying for the happiness and fortunes for their brothers.
Shared Warmth Around the World
Diwali is a beautifully lit festival focusing on renewed prosperity, celebrated in India and around the world. Like many winter holidays, the colors often used in celebrations are ivory, shades of red, and dark green. Lighting candles of these colors can bring you the warmth of prosperity as we enter the new year, with your own small festival of light.
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