Diwali, The Festival of Lights

Diwali is a distortion of the Sanskrit word ‘Deepavali’ meaning row or cluster of lights. This most celebrated festival of Hindus is called so because of the lights that form its main characteristic. Diwali is celebrated on the new moon day of the month of Kartik (October/November).

Significance of Diwali: On Diwali night, little clay lamps are lit in Hindu homes, but now a days coloured electric lamps are also used. What is the significance of lighting a lamp? There is a logical answer to this question. It is through the light that the beauty of this world is revealed or experienced. Most civilizations of the world recognize the importance of light as a gift of God. It has always been a symbol of whatever is positive in our world of experience. To Hindus, darkness represents ignorance, and light is a metaphor for knowledge. Therefore, lighting a lamp symbolizes the destruction, through knowledge, of all negative forces- wickedness, violence, lust, anger, envy, greed, bigotry, fear, injustice, oppression and suffering, etc.

Regional interpretations and legends: The origin of this interesting festival is not known, but it has gathered a number of legends around it over the centuries. In the northern and the western regions of India, its origin is attributed to the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom after defeating the demon king Ravana. The joyous people of Ayodhya, his capital, celebrated his arrival. As already explained, Rama was the greatest of the hero-kings of India, and is also considered the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

In the eastern states, Diwali is associated with the story of Narakasura who had menaced his people with tyranny. On this day, as the legend goes, Lord Krishna killed him to free the people from oppression.

In the regions of Maharashtra and Mysore, Diwali is linked with the legendary king Bali who was immensely popular with his subjects for his generosity. However, King Bali had become arrogant and conceited, and provoked the wrath of godly people. His generosity was put to test by Lord Vishnu who appeared in the disguise of a dwarf. Lord Vishnu asked Bali for a piece of land equal to three steps. When Bali granted his wish, Lord Vishnu took the form of a super giant person, and with his two steps covered Bali’s entire kingdom. With his third step he pushed Bali to the netherland. However, Lord Vishnu allowed him to visit his kingdom once a year. Since then, his people celebrated his arrival on this day, locally called Bali Padyami.

Historical perspective: Apart from folklores, Diwali is also associated with some important historical events. It is believed that Diwali marks the coronation of King Vikramaditya. This famous Indian king inspired many ancient tales. The era that goes by his name forty-eight year older than the Christian era.

In the modern context, Diwali also reminds Hindus of Swami Dayananda, the great reformer and the torch bearer of the Hindu renaissance during the last century, who died on this day. It is also a remembrance day for Swami Ramatirtha, the great spiritual leader who carried the message of Hindu Dharma to the western world.

A harvest festival: India enjoys two harvests a year; in the month of Kartik (October/November), the farmers harvest the second crop. Therefore, Diwali is also considered many rural Hindus to be the harvest festival when farmers offer prayers, and express their gratitude to the Almighty for the bounty they received from Him.

Festivities and fun for all: Regardless of its origin and local interpretations, Diwali is a day of fun, festivities and joy for people of all ages, throughout India. Weeks before Diwali, every Hindu family is busy painting and decorating their homes, and shopping for gifts. On the Diwali day, shops are packed with people buying freshly made sweets and fire crackers; mothers are busy preparing special dishes for the family feasts. Late evening is the time for a special Pooja (worship) at home, and illuminating the exterior of their houses with the rows of oil lamps, candles and colourful lanterns. Streets, stores and buildings are lit with electric lights and neon signs in such a way that the dark new-moon night appears to be a full-moon night. The sky is lit with fire crackers, and every street echoes with the laughter of children. People, dressed in new clothes, visit relatives and friends to exchange greetings and gifts.

The Canadian Diwali: On this joyous day, every Hindu Canadian feels homesick, and yearns for celebrating Diwali with friends and relatives left behind in the old country. They have to be satisfied with less colourful, and subdued celebrations. Since Diwali is not a public a public holiday in Canada, Many Hindus take a day off work to celebrate Diwali. Many visit the local temples and attend the special services, while some worship at home, and feast with their families. Many even dare to illuminate the front window of the house with electric lights, at the risk of inviting the comments from their non-Hindu neighbours, “ Isn’t it a bit early for Christmas? “ To keep the Diwali spirit alive many cultural organizations and temples organize special shows and fairs. In Toronto, the Vishnu Temple, located at Highway 7 and the Yonge Street, holds the largest Diwali fair attended by thousands of Hindus from all over Ontario. Some Hindu Canadians from Guyana and Trinidad try to give a North American touch to Diwali by organizing a beauty pageant, followed by a dinner and dance. All Hindus dream for the day when Diwali will be declared a public holiday in Canada.

Book: Hindus of Canada

Author: Ajit Adhopia