Diwali, also called Deepavali, is the Festival of Lights. Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists observe this festival. Diwali is celebrated in many countries not only in India. Some of the countries where the Diwali Festival is given importance are Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, Trinidad & Tobago and Myanmar.
The date when Diwali is observed is based on the luni-solar Hindu calendar. It falls between the middle of October and the middle of November, which is usually the end of the monsoon season. Last 2010, Diwali was celebrated on November 5. For 2011, the date of the Diwali Festival fell on October 26. In 2012, Diwali will be on November 13.
Traditional Diwali involves lighting of diyas or small clay lamps. These clay lamps are filled with oil then kept lit during the course of the night. The ritual signifies the conquest of good against evil, light versus darkness. The house is cleansed as a result of lighting diyas. To drive evil spirits away, firecrackers are lit during the festival.
During the celebration, homes are cleaned inside and out and decorated with oil lamps. Some even use artificial lights. New clothes are worn, sweets and gifts are distributed and fireworks light up the nighttime sky. Prayers and other religious rituals are performed during the festival.
Diwali is also the Harvest Festival since it coincides with the end of the cropping season. Harvest time signifies prosperity. It is a time when farmers celebrate their hard work. Praises and thanksgiving are offered to the gods for giving them a good yield for the season.
The Hindus’ Five Days of Diwali
For the Hindus, the Festival of Lights is of great importance. It is celebrated by families doing traditional rituals and activities together. In Hindu tradition, a number of stories are associated with Diwali. Each day marks a celebration of one of these stories.
Day One: The first day of the festival begins with Dhanteras or Dhanatrayodashi. This is when most of the Indian business communities start their fiscal year. “Dhan” means wealth while “trayodashi” means the 13th day. Dhanteras falls on day 13 of the second part of the lunar month. It is a most promising day for buying gold and utensils. God Dhanvantari’s Jayanti or Birth Anniversary is likewise commemorated on this day. He is considered the Physician of Gods.
Day Two: Naraka Chaturdasi is on the 14th day. This day commemorates Lord Krishna’s vanquishing of Narakasura, a demon. Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, was aided by his wife Satyabhama. Triumph of light (good) over darkness (evil) is celebrated on this day.
In the southern regions of India, during Naraka Chaturdashi, Hindus arise before sunrise and bathe in fragrant oil before wearing their new clothes. Taking a bath at dawn, when stars can still be seen in the sky, is regarded as the same as bathing in the holy river of Ganges. Small lamps are lit all around the homes. Hindus paint elaborate drawings (kolams or rangolis) with rice powder outside their houses; this is believed to bring prosperity to their homes. They make special offerings to Vishnu or Lord Krishna and children light firecrackers announcing the defeat of Narakasura. Elaborate meals are enjoyed between family and friends.
Day Three: The third day is called Lakshmi Puja. This is the most important of all the days of the Diwali Festival in northern India. Worship to the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, marks this day. In the goddess’s most benevolent mood, she is said to fulfill the wishes of her faithful devotees. The god of auspicious beginnings, Ganesh, is also given importance on this day. Lamps are lit in homes and in the streets to usher in prosperity and good health/wellbeing.
Day Four: Bali Pratipada (also called Govardhan Puja or Kartika Shudda Padyami) is day four of Diwali. Krishna, Vishnu’s incarnation, is celebrated on this day for defeating Indra, another Hindu god. Krishna lifted Govardhan hill in order to save the people and their cattle from rain as well as floods. Large amounts of food are decorated on this day to symbolize Krishna’s lifting of Govardhan hill.
In other parts of India, this day commemorates Lord Vishnu’s vanquishing of Bali, the demon-king. Lord Vishnu, taking the form of a dwarf (Vamana), banishes Bali to Patala. Husbands present their wives with gifts on this day.
Day Five: Yama Dwitiya, also called Bhaiduj, is the 5th Day of Diwali. Meetings between brothers and sisters happen on this day. It is a time for showing affection and love for each other. Brothers go to their sisters’ homes to share a meal. They give their sisters gifts as well. The day is based on the story of Yama, the lord of Death, who visited Yami, his sister. His sister Yami welcomed Yama and they shared a meal together. Before Yama left, he gave his sister a token of his appreciation.
Diwali in Other Religions
In Jainism, Diwali is a significant occasion. The Jains believe that Lord Mahavira, the last Thirtankar (last human being who achieved Moksha or Nirvana), attained Moksha on October 15, 527 BC, during the dawn of the new moon. When one attains Moksha, he is freed from the recurring cycle or reincarnation. Lord Mahavir’s contributions to Jainism and to humanity are celebrated and remembered during Diwali. Lamps are lit by Jains during the Festival of Lights. This is a way for Lord Mahavir’s followers to keep his light of knowledge alive. The distribution of sweets celebrates his enormous contributions. Fasting, chanting of mantras, singing of hymns, and charitable works are some of the ways Jains celebrate Diwali. The Jain New Year begins the day after Diwali.
The Sikhs celebrate Diwali after Bandi Chhorh Divas or the Day of Freedom. This Day of Freedom commemorates the release of Guru Hargobind Ji, the Sixth Guru, from prison on October 1619. The 52 other princes who were with him were also released then. Guru Hargobind and his companions returned to Amritsar on Diwali Day after they were released. Lamps were lit to celebrate the return of Guru Hargobind.
Buddhists decorate temples and monasteries during Diwali. It may not be a big event for them but it is still considered an occasion of some importance. Buddhist chant mantras and remember Emperor Ashoka, who was believed to have embraced the Buddhism religion on this day. Buddhists refer to Diwali Festival as Ashok Vijayadashami. Furthermore, according to the lunar calendar, the birthday of Bhaisajyaguru Buddha falls on Diwali. His healing aspect is manifested as burning lights. Thus, his birthday is commemorated during the Festival of Lights.
Diwali Celebrations Across the Globe
Expect Diwali to be celebrated in places where large groups of Hindus or Sikhs reside. As more Indians migrate to places in Europe, the Americas and other parts of Asia and the Pacific, more and more Diwali Festivals are celebrated worldwide. Celebrations may differ from one country to another or from one Hindu community to another. However, the spirit of Diwali remains intact.
In Malaysia, Deepavali is a federal public holiday that falls on the solar calendar’s seventh month. Some traditions of the Hindus are followed. But one unique custom in Malaysia is for Hindu Malaysians to welcome Malaysians of different ethnicities and religions into their homes for a meal. This is to foster goodwill among all Malaysians.
Diwali is called Swanti or Tihar in Nepal. As in India, it is celebrated for five days. On the first day, offerings are made to the crows since they are considered divine messengers. On day two, dogs are provided with food to pay tribute to their honesty. Day three is Lakshmi Puja (offerings). Businessmen clear their accounts as a form of worship to the goddess of wealth. New Year is celebrated on day four with cultural processions and other events. Bhai Tika is the last day of Diwali in Nepal and is celebrated the same way as the Hindus do.
During Diwali in Nepal, family gatherings are of great importance. Group singing and dancing is common during Diwali. People move from one house to another playing songs, dancing and bestowing blessings to the homes they visit. Homeowners in turn give food and money. Part of the food and money collected are given to charitable institutions. The rest are used for a picnic.
In the Indian community (mostly Tamils) of Singapore, Deepavali is a public holiday. The district referred to as Little India is lit-up at night during the Deepavali festivities. Deepavali celebrations are marked by exhibitions, parades, bazaars and concerts in this area of Singapore.
The Tamil community of Sri Lanka celebrates Deepavali. Oil baths are taken in the morning followed by wearing of new clothes, performing offerings (puja or poosai) exchanging of gifts, and visiting of temples. At night, firecrackers are burned and oil lamps lit to banish evil and invite Lakshmi’s blessings.
Both Indians and local Australians have been celebrating Diwali publicly in Melbourne since 2002. Through the efforts of The Australian Indian Innovations Incorporated (AIII), Indian festivals are in Melbourne. Indian culture, traditions, food, art, and styles are showcased via various events and activities including fairs, festivals and seminars.
Hindus in Britain are highly enthusiastic about the Festival of Lights. Homes are cleaned and decorated with candles, lamps and lights in preparation for the Diwali festival. Sweets are exchanged including laddoo and barfi (two popular Indian sweets). Different Hindu communities gather together for religious ceremonies and to celebrate the event. Gifts are commonly exchanged. Non-Indians have also been joining Diwali festivals. Since the Festival of Lights coincides with the British Bonfire Night, which is celebrated on the 5th of November, joint celebrations have evolved.
Each year, Diwali is becoming more and more popular. The White House first celebrated Diwali in 2003. The US Congress gave the festival official status in 2007. In 2009, President Barack Obama became the first ever sitting president to attend the Diwali Festival at the White House. Across the country, Diwali is celebrated in different states. In 2009, Texas’ San Antonio city was the first US city that sponsored an official Diwali Festival. It was attended by 5000 people and featured a fireworks display. New York, California, Georgia, and Florida are just a few of the states that celebrate Diwali each year.
Going Beyond Diwali
In Western countries, Diwali celebrations are not exactly traditional in nature. Often, elements of Indian culture not related to Diwali are mixed into the celebration in order to showcase India’s customs and traditions. Dances and songs endemic to India or to the Hindus for that matter make their way into celebrations.
For instance, it is not surprising to see the Dandiya Rasa, a dance featuring wooden sticks, are performed by men or women during Diwali Festivals abroad. Bhangra songs and Bhangra dances from the Punjab region are popular during celebrations of the Festival of Lights. In the 11th century, the Punjabi farmers celebrated the arrival of the harvest season through the Bhangra folk dance. Punjabi musicians in the west popularized the folk dance making it popular to certain sectors of Western society. Bhangra is well known in Britain and Canada.
Food, clothing, household items, and other products from Indian are sold in fairs and festivals celebrating Diwali. The Festival of Lights celebrations in different parts of the world are a great way to get to know what the Indian culture is all about.
Diwali is an important festival for those who follow Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and even Buddhism. This Festival of Lights is also becoming more popular with people from different countries and of different races and ethnicities. When joining a Diwali festival, it is important to see beyond the gifts, the elaborate meals, the songs, the dances and the fun activities associated with the festival. Diwali presents to everyone an important lesson, that good will always triumph over evil. It also reminds people how important it is to give thanks, to value family and friends, and to be charitable to the less fortunate.