About This Festival
An ancient celebration with deeply spiritual roots, this Festival of Lights (Diwali) is technically a tradition with a religious foundation, but all that are willing to share in the season of abundance are welcome. Thousands of oil lamps, fireworks, lavish feasts, fragrant flowers and colored sand in the form of lotus blossoms adorn India in this annual homecoming that is Diwali.
Lighting the Path Home at Diwali
Rama needs to return home, and Hindus everywhere pitch in to help, lighting his path with thousands of oil lamps during the five-day Festival of Lights, or Diwali, to honor the Hindu god. To Westerners this feels like India’s version of Christmas, a time of celebration and unbridled joy. Like Christmas, it’s technically a religious festival, but it’s open to anyone willing to share in the season of abundance. Beyond the visual feast of colors and lights, Diwali has a deeper spiritual meaning, the awakening of one’s inner light.
The roots of Diwali date back thousands of years to the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu text whose title means, “Story of Rama.” During his exile, Rama battled all manner of demons in dark forests and resisted the temptations of Ravana’s sister (Ravana being the ten-headed demon king enemy of Rama.) With the assistance of the powerful monkey god, Hanuman, Rama led an army of monkeys to defeat Ravana and rescue his princess Sita. Hindus celebrate his journey home by lighting his path; the non-observant choose to celebrate this as an annual time of abundance.
Fortune, Food & Fireworks
Diwali takes place in the fall and marks the end of the harvest season in India and also the beginning of a new financial year. Life in India revolves around the agrarian calendar, and at this time of year people pay debts and make prayers for good crops as seeds are soon to be sown in the coming new year. Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty, wealth and prosperity, plays a central role in the celebration because her worship might bring good fortune to the pious. While Diwali is mostly a Hindu festival, Sikhs and Jains also observe this holiday, making the celebrations truly for almost everyone in India.
The first two days of Diwali are mostly focused on preparation, the first devoted to clearing out the home, the second spent decorating it. The third day is the epic centerpiece with lavish feasts and fireworks displays to rival any American 4th of July celebration. On the fourth day, friends and relatives visit their families and come bearing gifts. On the fifth and last day, a very specific ritual takes place in which brothers pay a visit to their married sisters who prepare a sumptuous meal in return.
The fall is a particularly good time to visit India, after the oppressive heat of the summer and before the torrential monsoons. Garlands of fragrant jasmine flowers, lamps and candles fill homes, and colored sands in the form of lotus flowers adorn entrances as spiritual welcome mats. Strands of colored lights cover business districts and women wear the brightest and best saris in a personal tribute to colors.
Festival of Lights – Illuminating the Good
Befitting a festival of lights, all manner of torches, oil lamps and fireworks light up the night sky. For Hindus, light represents the triumph of good over evil; although the legends people observe vary by region (Rama’s story is the preferred one in Northern India), Diwali is a time of unity, when that basic underlying message of good besting evil holds for all cultures.
As much as the visual interpretation of Diwali is beautiful to see, the spiritual meaning can be quite profound. Diwali also means the awareness of the inner light. Through higher knowledge we can dispel ignorance and awaken our Atman, or pure and infinite spirit. This victory of knowledge (light) over ignorance (darkness) is seen as a path to spiritual enlightenment. Use Diwali as a personal opportunity to make peace over conflict. Welcome the good spirits into your life—Lakshmi’s good fortune, maybe with the help of Hanuman (remember Rama’s dilemma) or Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. Clean out the old and light up your life in this time of renewal.
The people of India are extraordinarily warm and welcoming during Diwali—it’s considered bad luck and poor form not to be gracious at this time of year. The doors of most homes are open and illuminated by lamps, creating a pervasive atmosphere of hospitality. This is India’s biggest festival, full of reverence and good cheer. Again, remember: it’s all about the triumph of good over evil. Let your best tendencies guide you.