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Hinduism Festival - Diwali or Dipavali

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By Jayaram V

Diwali the Festival of lights Deepavali or Diwali, is one of the most popular festivals of India and of Hindus. It is also one of the most eagerly awaited festivals in the Indian subcontinent. Business men and commercial establishments, consider it as an opportunity to boost their sales and increase profits, while individuals use the occasion to celebrate life and strengthen relationships. For children it is a great opportunity to experience the joys of growing up and get acquainted with all types of fire crackers. It comes in the Hindu month of Ashwayuja, (also known as Ashwin or Aippasi), as per the lunar calendar and corresponds roughly with either October or November depending upon the movement of the sun and the moon and their relative positions in space and time.

Meaning and Significance

In Sanskrit, "Deepavali" means, a row of lights. Its origins are a mystery, steeped in the myths and legends of ancient India. Whatever be the source, in a world ridden with the forces of ignorance, sorrow and conflict, we can feel its strong connection with man's highest aspirations and deepest yearnings. In many ways, it is a prayer set in motion characterizing our natural inclination for things that are bright and beautiful and expressed so beautifully in the vedic hymn, "tamasoma jyotirgamaya" (From darkness unto Light). Symbolically, it represents our divine nature and reminds us of our primary responsibility to pursue the path of light and find the divine.

The great Goddess Maha Lakshmi, who symbolizes all the positive forces of life and the divine nature of wealth, is the principal deity of this remarkably unique festival which is associated with a number of legends and divine personalities. Just as she represents health, wealth, happiness, victory, courage, facility, fertility, harmony, beauty, joy and enlightenment, Diwali represents the brilliance of life in its full glory.

Many Hindus consider Diwali as the beginning of a new year. In the traditional Hindu business world, it marks the beginning of a new accounting year. As the name suggests, Diwali is celebrated with lights and lamps, noise and joyous activity. People consider the festival as an opportunity to explore new relationships and strengthen existing ones.The festival provides an opportunity to all the senses to receive their due share of enjoyment and also to the mind and the heart to think and feel their way through a sunlit path of amazing experiences.

As the festival approaches, memories of previous Diwalis fill the minds of the people with the eager expectation of yet another exciting and joyous occasion to celebrate life and human kinship. Finally, when the day dawns and the night comes, the earth wears a glittering robe. The streets and the sky become filled with brilliant lights and reverberating sounds. People gather in the streets, public places and in their front yards or in front of their own houses to witness the dance of divinity amidst the lights of Diwali. It is as if the mortal beings upon earth have discovered a way of confirming their allegiance to God and turned heavenwards to express their deep devotion.

However, Diwali is not a mere festival of lights where wealth is worshipped and people congregate. Traditionally, it prescribes the performance of a series of complex rituals for five continuous days that require a great degree of discipline and religious fervor for their completion.

For a devout Hindu, it generously offers innumerable opportunities to think of the Divine and practice the yoga of action with a sense of detachment, amidst distracting festivities and heightened sensual activity.

In the following paragraphs we describe the manner in which Hindus celebrate Diwali during the five days, in addition to presenting some miscellaneous facts about the festival, and a brief discussion on the argument against using fire crackers during Diwali.

First Day

Diwali the Celebration The first day of the festival is known as Dhanteras or Dhantrayodashi. Dhan means wealth and Trayodashi means 13th day. Thus, as the name implies, this day falls on the 13th day of the first half of the lunar month. On this day, it is believed that, Lord Dhanwantari emerged from the waters of the ocean holding the knowledge of the spiritual medicines of Ayurveda, to help the mankind fight against sickness, disease and death.

On this day people purchase valuables, light lamps using oil filled clay cups and worship the Goddess of Wealth. They also worship Yama, the Lord of Death, seeking protection against untimely death. Parents and elders accompany children to the market looking for fire crackers and sweets, if they have not purchased already. Those who have brought them home spread the crackers in the sunlight and allow them to dry, so that when the time comes they don't fail to perform.

Second Day

The second day of the festival is known as Naraka Chaturdasi. Narak means purgatory or hell and chaturdasi means the fourteenth day). Thus this day falls on the 14th day of the first half of the lunar month. Religiously, the day marks the end of an evil empire in some prehistoric past and the beginning of a new era of Light and Knowledge.

According to the legends, on this day Lord Sri Krishna, supported by his consort Satyabhama and his huge army, killed the demon Narkasura, in a legendary battle between the gods and demons, and released the world from the darkness of fear and oppression. In the process, He also set free the 16000 divine energies of the Mother Goddess, held hitherto in possession forcibly by the evil demon.

On this auspicious day, people usually take a ritual bath before sunrise, using traditional herbs and materials, just as Lord Krishna was believed to have done after He returned from the battle field victoriously. They spend the remaining day restfully in the company of friends and family. Some play cards and test their luck. It is also believed that on this day, Lord Vishnu incarnated upon earth as Vamana and set his third step on the head of the demon king Bali to send him down into the nether worlds to free the worlds from his rule and release the goddess Lakshmi from his control.

Third Day

The actual Diwali is celebrated on the third day of the festival, when the moon completely wanes and total darkness sets in the night sky. It is in this darkness, that Diwali finds its true expression. On this day people worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and express their gratitude for previous favors.

Usually the pooja is performed both in the morning and again in the evening when the sun is ready to set or has already set. It is believed that the Goddess would not visit a devotee's house, if it is not kept clean and properly lighted. So every one strives to keep their houses clean, the doors and windows open and all the lights and lamps glowing brightly.

During the worship, devotes make offerings to Lord Vinayaka and Mother Goddess also, in addition to the principal deity, with traditional chants, rituals, purified water, new clothes, fruit and flowers, sweets, light, sandal paste, incense, rice, turmeric and vermillion. Money and valuables are placed before the principal deity during the invocation.

At the end of the worship, prasadam is offered to the family members and visitors. In wealthy households, the assistance of a temple priest is sought to conduct the worship according to the scriptural injunctions. After worshipping the goddess in ones own house, people start making rounds to the nearby temples, and the houses of friends and relations to see how the celebration has been going on and distribute sweets and gifts. Elsewhere, the goddess is worshipped ceremonially in temples, public places, business houses and offices.

As the evening comes, houses and streets are decorated with innumerable lights, lamps and candles. People keep the doors and windows open and all the lights on, expecting the goddess to come inside and take a survey of the things that have been done for her sake. Outside, people gather in the streets and front yards to burn fire crackers, or watch others burning them or keep an eye on the oil lamps. Some habitual card players, use the occasion as an opportunity to play cards and gamble their money.

According to a legend, on this day Lord Krishna completed His incarnation upon earth and left this world, leaving the pandavas and his kinsmen in utter confusion. According to Jain tradition, Lord Mahavira, the last of the Thirthakaras attained Nirvana on this day only. According to another prevailing legend, it was on this day, young Nachiketa of the Kathopanishad, received divine and secret knowledge of immortality from Lord Yama, the Lord of Death.

Fourth Day

The fourth day is variously known as Padwa, Varshapratipada and Kartika Shudda Padyami. According to a legend, at the behest of Lord Krishna the people of Braj worshipped the hillock Govardhan on this day to save themselves from an impending storm unleashed by the fury of Indra, the Lord of Heaven.

Even now, in northern India, in the region of Braj, people continue the tradition of worshipping Govardhan on this auspicious day.In a sense, this is an act of invocation to appease the forces of Nature to prevent the occurrence of floods and cyclonic storms, a tradition that is probably rooted in the vedic times.

In the temples of Mathura and Nathdwara priests give a special bath to the principal deities on this occasion and decorate them with glittering robes and eye catching jewelry. They heap a mountain load of food infront of the deities in a symbolic way and later distribute it to the devotees as prasadam.

In traditional households, women worship their husbands and receive gifts and blessings in return. Business people open new account books for the new financial year and offer prayers for luck and prosperity.

Fifth Day

On the fifth and final day of the festival, which is known as Bhayiduj, Bhayyaduj, Bhavbij or Bhayitika, brothers and sisters meet to express their love and affection for each other. Sisters put a ceremonial mark, usually with vermillion, on their brothers' foreheads and wish them long lives. According to a legend, the tradition began when Yamuna, the sister of Lord Yama honored her brother with a tilak on his forehead and wished him long life.

Miscellaneous facts about Diwali

1. It is believed that the festival of Diwali commemorates the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya. After spending 14 years in the forest of Dandaka and slaying the demon king Ravana, when Rama returned to Ayodhya, his capital city, people were over joyed by the news of his arrival and started the tradition of Diwali by celebrating the day with lights and lamps. It must however be noted that although tradition links Rama to this festival there is no mention of Diwali either in the original epic or in the translation rendered by Tulsidas during the medieval period.

2. It is suggested by some historians that the tradition of Diwali can be traced to the Harvest festivals of ancient times when people observed the end of a harvest season with some kind of festivity to celebrate the occasion. The fact that Diwali usually comes at the end of the harvest season provides credence to this opinion, although we do not have any historical or scriptural evidence to prove this hypothesis.

3.Two eminent Hindus, Swami Dayananda Saraswati and Swami Ramathirtha, left their mortal bodies on this auspicious day.

4. In West Bengal, people worship Goddess Durga during the Diwali festival. According to a legend, Durga killed Mahishasura in a fierce battle and continued her victory dance even after the demon was slain.

Diwali and Sikhism

1. Not only Hindus, but Sikhs also celebrate Diwali as an important festival. It is said that the foundation stone for the Golden Temple was laid during the time of Diwali in 1577.

2. Diwali played an important role in the life of Sri Guru Hargobind Ji, the sixth Guru of the Sikhs. When Jehangir, the Mughal emperor, arrested Guru Hargobind and put him in a prison in Gwalior, gloom descended upon Sikhs. But later Jehangir relented and let the Guru go. Accompanied by his followers and to the joy of many Sikhs, the Guru returned to Amritsar and made an appearance before his followers. The occasion was Diwali and it prompted the followers to celebrate the day with joy and happiness.

Diwali and Jainism

1. It is said that the first scriptural reference to Diwali is found in the Jain scripture Harivamsha Purana, by Acharya Jinasena. None of the principal Hindu scriptures mention the festival in particular. This has made some believe that , Diwali was originally a Jain festival and later adopted by Hindus as a festival of their own.

2. Lord Mahavira, the last of the Jain Thirthankaras, said to have attained Nirvana on this day at Pavapuri. Accoriding Jain legends the first disciple of Mahavira, Ganadhar Gautam Swami also attained complete knowledge on this very day, thus making Diwali a really special occasion for the Jains to celebrate.

3. The way Jains celebrate Diwali is different in many respect. There is a note of asceticism in what ever the Jains do and the celebration of Diwali is not an exception. The Jains celebrate Diwali during the month of Kartik for three days. During this period, devoted Jains observe fasting and chant the Uttaradhyayan Sutra which contain the final pravachans of Lord Mahavira and meditate upon him.

Diwali in other parts of the World

1. Diwali is celebrated in various parts of the world, in countries such as Britain, Guyana, Fiji, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, , Nepal, Singapore, Srilanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, Africa, and Australia. With more and more Indians now migrating to various parts of the world, the number of countries where Diwali is celebrated has been gradually increasing. In most of these countries Diwali is celebrated on the same lines as described in this article with some minor variations. Some important variations are worth mentioning.

2. In Malaysia, people call Diwali as Hari Diwali and celebrate it during the seventh month of the Hindu solar calendar.In many respects it resembles the traditions followed in the Indian subcontinent.

3. In Nepal Diwali is known as Tihar and celebrated during the October/November period. Here though the festival is celebrated for five days, the traditions vary from those followed in India. In Nepal, animals are worshipped during the first two days. On the first day, cows are worshipped and given offerings. On the second day, dogs are revered and offered special food. On the third, celebrations follow the same pattern as in India, with lights and lamps and lot of social activity. On the fourth day Yama, the Lord of Death is worshipped and appeased. On the fifth and final day, brothers sisters meet and exchange pleasantries.

4. Diwali is celebrated in the Caribbean Islands also. Especially in Trinidad and Tobago Diwali it is marked as a special occasion and celebrated with a lot of fanfare. It is observed as a national holiday in this part of the world and some Ministers of the Government also take part in the celebrations publicly.

Diwali in the Modern World

A growing number of scholars and people debate the need and justification of using fire crackers to celebrate Diwali for a number of reasons. One is the amount of money that goes into flames every year in the name of celebrations towards the purchase of firecrackers. Secondly, many companies that are engaged in the manufacturing of these fire crackers said to employ child labor and hardly follow the safety rules or welfare measures. Thirdly, there is hardly any control on the quality of the fire crackers manufactured by these companies, which often results in injuries and deaths due to accidents or poor performance. Fourthly, it is not uncommon to see irresponsible youth in various parts of India using firecrackers to tease women and trouble helpless people in streets and public places. Fifthly, excessive use of fire crackers often lead to communal clashes and social tensions. It also exposes the children of poor families to a lot of despair and loss of self esteem when they see other children playing with them.Lastly the firecrackers are a source of pollution, although on the positive side people claim that the smoke and smell drive away the insects and clear the air.

Some of the points mentioned above are worth examining because they are valid points and genuine concerns. For a moment If we can separate emotion and prejudice and take a closer look at this issue objectively, it makes sense to argue that by minimizing the money on firecrackers, or at least by avoiding the use of more dangerous, noisy and polluting ones, it is worth spending the amount so saved for some good cause that leads to some long term positive social or religious benefit to the community as a whole.

For example, it may be a good idea to donate some money by every family during Diwali to some social or religious institution, which is engaged in some philanthropic activity or helping the poor Hindu brethren.Readers are requested to note that these observations are in reference to the use of all or certain fire crackers and not to the observation of Diwali as a festival. By all means Diwali is a festival of lights and deserves full scale ceremonial observation and celebration. The question is whether we should use fire crackers on this occasion on such massive scale and invite trouble to ourselves and our environment.

The true celebration of Diwali is when we light a lamp in the life of some poor brethren or bring some cheer into the heart of an innocent child through our kindness and generosity. Goddess Lakshmi would be truly pleased if we share our wealth and happiness in some meaningful and selfless way, something that sets us apart from the nature of demons who try to use wealth like Bali for their own selfish and evil ends. Wealth is truly divine and remains in its purest divine aspect only when it is spent for a good cause that promotes the spiritual well beings oneself and others.

Those who know the goddess well know that she is mighty pleased when her energies are in circulation for a right and just cause. In this modern world, let us therefore celebrate Diwali as an auspicious and God sent opportunity to bring cheer and happiness in a world oppressed by the darkness of egoism, greed, vanity and selfishness.

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