Diwali (Deepavali): Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and more celebrate festival of lights

Diwali lights diya

Girls light diya lamps for Diwali. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 4: Today begins Diwali, the ancient Hindu festival of lights. In recognition of the triumph of light over darkness, Diwali bears great significance for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike; as awareness of Indian culture spreads, major celebrations now are hosted around the world.

In recent (non-pandemic) years, more than 1 billion people across the globe celebrate Diwali. This year, in addition to restrictions being in place, many festivals will be seeing some changes. (For example, Leicester’s massive Diwali festival will, this year, host three screens of pre-recorded programming in place of a stage, and a “Fire Garden” will be set up in place of fireworks. Read more from the BBC.)

(Please note: Dates and spellings of Diwali may vary by country and region. This festival is also called Deepavali, or Dipavali.)

A Diwali diya lamp. Photo by Abhinaba Basu, courtesy of Flickr

DIWALI PREPARATIONS: A MULTI-DAY CELEBRATION

Preparations for Diwali begin weeks in advance. In a shopping extravaganza, gold jewelry, fine clothing, sweet treats and household goods fly off racks in marketplaces across India. At home, surfaces are scrubbed clean, women and children decorate entrances with Rangoli and men string strands of lights. Official celebrations begin two days before Diwali, and end two days after Diwali—spanning a total of five days. During this five-day period, the old year closes and a new year is rung in.

In the two days prior to Diwali, celebrants wrap up their shopping, bake sweets and bathe with fragrant oils. On Diwali, excitement builds as evening approaches. While donning new clothing, diyas (earthen lamps, filled with oil) are lit, prayers are offered to deities and many households welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity who is believed to roam the earth on Diwali night. To receive the blessings of Lakshmi tonight means a good year ahead. And, families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts.

The day following Diwali is Padwa, honoring the mutual love between husbands and wives. The next day, Bhai Duj, celebrates the sister-brother bond. On Bhai Duj, women and girls gather to perform puja and prayers for the well-being of their brothers, and siblings engage in gift-giving and the sharing of a meal.

ATMAN: PURE AND INFINITE

Several Hindu schools of philosophy teach the existence of something beyond the physical body and mind: something pure and infinite, known as atman. Diwali revels in the victory of good over evil, in the deeper meaning of higher knowledge dissipating ignorance and hope prevailing over despair. When truth is realized, one can see past ignorance and into the oneness of all things.

DIWALI AMONG JAINS AND SIKHS

On the night of Diwali, Jains celebrate light for yet another reason: to mark the attainment of moksha, or nirvana, by Mahavira. As the final Jain Tirthankar of this era, Mahavira’s attainment is celebrated with much fervor. It’s believed that many gods were present on the night when Mahavira reached moksha, and that their presence illuminated the darkness.

Sikhs mark the Bandi Chhor Divas on Diwali, when Guru Har Gobind Ji freed himself and the Hindu kings from Fort Gwalior and arrived at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Today, Bandi Chhor Divas is commemorated with the lighting of the Golden Temple and more.

Interested in coloring pages, crafts, printables and a how-to video of the Jai Ho dance? Find it all and more at Activity Village.

Navaratri, Dussehra: Hindus hold nine-night festival of feminism, good over evil

temple Navaratri

The Kodungallur Sree Kurumba Bhagavathy Temple, in India, during Navaratri. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 7 and FRIDAY, OCTOBER 15: Hindus launch the nine-night festival known as Sharad Navaratri (English spellings vary; the name often appears without the middle “a”) on October 7, this year—an ancient festival that emphasizes the motherhood of the divine and femininity. Each night during Navaratri, Hindus worship a different form or characteristic of Mother Goddess Durga, who is regarded as being manifested in cosmic energy and power. In general, Sharad Navaratri is the celebration of good over evil, though many aspects of this tradition vary by region in India and around the world.

Did you know? Navaratri in its basic form takes place a number of times during the seasons of each year, but it’s Sharad Navaratri—this festival, at the beginning of autumn—that takes precedence over any other. Sharad Navaratri culminates on a final day known as Dussehra.

Legends related to this observance differ: Some indicate that Shiva gave permission to Durga to visit her mother for nine days, while others describe Durga’s victory following a nine-day battle with the demon Mahishasura. Life-size clay figures depicting this battle are commonly seen in temples during Navaratri. But there is a universal theme to this tradition, too: All Hindus aim for purity, avoiding meat, grains and alcohol—and usually installing a household pot that is kept lit for nine days. Some devotees fast, and others consume only milk and fruit for nine days.

SINGING, DANCING IN THE STREETS

A celebration for Dussehra. Photo courtesy of PxHere

Navaratri brings out community-wide singing and music in India: nighttime dances in the streets combine with bountiful feasts and shrines are elaborately decorated. In Saraswat Brahmin temples, statue figures are adorned with flowers, sandalwood paste and turmeric.

In some regions of India, it’s believed that one should try to envision the divinity in the tools used for daily life—whether books, computers or larger instruments—and decorate them with flowers and other adornments, in hopes of both humbling themselves and bringing auspiciousness upon the items that aid them in livelihood.

FROM NAVARATRI TO DUSSEHRA

The festival of Navaratri culminates in the most celebrated holiday of all nine nights: Dasara (spellings vary). From the Sanskrit words for “remover of bad fate,” today’s Dussehra brings towering effigies to the streets of India, along with a host of ancient rituals and marked traditions. Many Hindus recognize the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana, a demon, during an epic battle over Rama’s wife, Sita. It’s believed that Ravana had 10 heads, and thus, 10 unfavorable qualities are rid from households with elaborate Yanga performances today; the unfavorable qualities include lust, anger, delusion, greed and jealousy.

In many parts of India, towering effigies of Ravana and his brothers are filled with firecrackers and exploded. Commonly met with cheers, the burning effigies are also seen as a cleansing ritual: onlookers are encouraged to burn inner evil and follow the path of righteousness. In northern India, a chariot holding devotees costumed as Lord Rama and Sita rolls down the streets; in southern India, homes are decorated with lamps and flowers.

Did you know? Dussehra is also known as Vijayadashami, the celebration of yet another victory involving goodness over evil: Goddess Durga’s defeat of the demon Mahisasura. According to this legend, Mother Goddess Shakti incarnated in the form of Goddess Durga.

Given the day’s auspiciousness, many Hindu (and non-Hindu) children begin their formal education today. Some devotees purchase new work tools—whether books, computers or farming equipment—and still others pay respect to elders and request their blessings. Families and friends gather for parties and feasting.

During Sukkot, Jews around the world recall the fragility of life in leafy huts

As the sign near the doorway says, this is “A Pleasant Sukkah” in a family’s New England back yard.

sukkah for Sukkot

Eating brunch in a sukkah. Photo by sikeri, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 20: There’s hardly a more pandemic-appropriate religious festival than the ancient Jewish celebration of Sukkot, when families build fragile structures with leafy thatching overhead to remind themselves of the ancient Israelites’ living quarters during their 40 years in the desert. For a week, they try to eat meals and some even sleep in their sukkahs.

For example, David Suissa writes in The Jewish Journal“The coronavirus, which has turned so many buildings into danger zones, has only reinforced the Sukkot message of the vulnerability and impermanence of physical structures.”

That theme is echoed in The Jerusalem Post: “Celebrating Sukkot during a global pandemic for the second year running already heightens our sense of impermanence and vulnerability.”

Jews enter this season each year following the Jewish High Holidays. Tradition calls on Jews to construct and then dwell in temporary structures, called sukkahs, during Sukkot. As Sukkot is, agriculturally, a harvest festival, many sukkahs are decorated with autumn crops. In the U.S., it is not uncommon to see sukkahs decorated with gourds, pumpkins, squash and other foods associated with fall. Traditionally work is halted on the first and second days of Sukkot, with the days in between reserved for relaxation (though work is permitted on these days).

DIY 101: HOW TO BUILD A SUKKAH

Though sukkahs may look vastly different, the builders try to abide by specific rules. A sukkah must have at least 2.5 walls covered with a material that cannot be blown away by wind; the roof must be made of something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks or wooden boards. The roof materials of a sukkah must be left loose, so that rain can get in and, preferably, the stars can be seen at nighttime. (Learn more from Judaism 101.)

Looking for autumn recipes, tips on building a sukkah and more? Check out the resources at My Jewish Learning, Chabad.org and Aish.com.

An etrog fruit, one of the Four Species. Photo by Marina, courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

A sukkah may be any size so long as a family can dwell in it, and many Jews spend as much time as possible in the sukkah. It is common to eat meals in the sukkah, and some Jews even choose to sleep in it.

Another custom associated with Sukkot involves the Four Species. The Four Species—the etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel), the lulav (palm branch), aravot (two willow branches) and hadassim (three myrtle branches) are used to “rejoice before the L_rd.” With the etrog in one hand and the branches bound together in the other hand, blessings are recited. The branches are waved in all directions, to symbolize that G_d is everywhere.

Note: The two days following Sukkot are Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, which celebrate the spiritual aspects of Sukkot and the cyclical public reading of the Torah, respectively.

National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates contributions of Latino culture

This photo is just one of the many media resources you’ll find by visiting this Smithsonian hub for National Hispanic Heritage Month. Click on this photo to visit that web hub co-sponsored by many agencies, including the Library of Congress and the National Park Service.

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SEPTEMBER 15-OCTOBER 15—More than half a century ago, Americans began celebrating our nation’s rich Hispanic heritage. President Johnson began with a week-long festival in 1968, which was extended to a whole month by President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

Why does this “month” start in the middle of a month? Because independence movements across Latin America began in mid-September 1810 with an event known as the Cry of Dolores. This touched off the Mexican War of Independence and, within a decade, the former colony of New Spain broke up into independent nations of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Care to learn more?

Our publishing house has a number of books that are helping readers to learn about our Hispanic and Latino heritage. First, here is a quick video overview:

Where can I find these Hispanic-themed books?

100-QA-Hispanics-Large-BookOur books are sold via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and through other online retailers including Walmart.

We recommend that you start with 100 Questions & Answers about Hispanics and Latinos, a terrific resource book produced by the Michigan State University School of Journalism along with a blue-ribbon panel of Hispanic leaders nationwide.

Two other books in this MSU “Bias Busters” series explore related subjects:

Care to see the entire list of 18 volumes in the MSU Bias Busters’ series? Here is the Bias Busters series page at Amazon.

Solutions for Success is a book about an innovative program in Detroit that teaches Hispanic-immigrant parents English while these parents also are ensuring their children’s success at school. From cleaning up schoolyards to hosting a neighborhood celebration of literacy, these newcomers are transforming their city.

Yom Kippur: Jews repent, end High Holidays on holiest day of the year

Jewish Yom Kippur

Jews break the Yom Kippur fast. Photo by Sam Litvin, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15: From the sweet wishes of Rosh Hashanah and through the High Holidays, Jews arrive tonight at what is often referred to as the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur.

 

A solemn observance, Yom Kippur (also called the Day of Atonement) is believed to be the final opportunity to make amends before one’s fate is sealed for the coming year.

Did you know? Throughout history, when Jews were forced to publicly convert to another religion, the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service would annul those vows.

For 25 hours–this year, from sunset on September 15, the official start of Yom Kippur–Jews uphold a strict fast. Intense prayer accompanies the fasting, and many Jews spend hours repenting. Having asked forgiveness from others and made amends in the days preceding Yom Kippur, Jews ask forgiveness from God on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre, or “All Vows,” gathers the larger Jewish community and begins Yom Kippur evening services; Ne’ilah, a service during which the Torah ark remains open and the congregation stands, is the final plea to God for forgiveness. A blast from the shofar follows the final prayers.

Why is Kol Nidre so significant? Kol Nidre is a deeply emotional experience for many Jews. At the start of Yom Kippur, amends are made and the community symbolically opens itself to regular members as well as others who rarely attend services. There is a long and complex history to the traditions of Kol Nidre—and there are many examples in Jewish fiction of moving scenes set at Kol Nidre. Overall, Kol Nidre represents a fresh resetting of commitments and promises within the community.

YOM KIPPUR: SOLEMNITY AND CELEBRATION

Most years, Jewish house of worship to capacity on Yom Kippur: Main seating areas can often be expanded on special occasions, and Yom Kippur is the main holiday when all the partitions separating rooms are removed. Overflow seating sometimes is added in other parts of the building and the majority of the Jewish community shows up for at least part of the long series of services.

UPDATE 2021: While many synagogues are reporting that in-person Yom Kippur services will take place this year, pandemic regulations will be followed and most temples won’t be filled to capacity. Alternatively, some synagogues will be offering virtual services. (The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports on available online services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.)

Although Yom Kippur is a solemn day, it is also one of celebration: Celebration of the anniversary of God forgiving the Jewish people for worshipping the golden calf. According to Jewish scholar and ReadTheSpirit contributing writer, Joe Lewis:

By traditional calculation, Moses brought the second tablets to the people on Yom Kippur. God’s nature is revealed to Moses as a God of mercy and compassion, patience and kindness (Ex. 34:6), and this idea is central to the liturgy of the day. We end the day with a blast on the shofar, eat our fill, and make plans for the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), which is only five days away.

Rosh Hashanah: Happy (Jewish) New Year 5782!

shofar boy rosh hashanah

A boy blows the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Photo by Len Radin, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 6: Sound the shofar and wish your neighbor L’shanah tovah: “For a good year!” It’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year—and it’s also the start of the High Holidays.

For two days, Jews around the world attend services, seek forgiveness and joyfully enter the annual High Holy Days. Sometimes called the Days of Awe, this period culminates in Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement, which starts at sunset on Wednesday, September 15 this year.

What are the High Holidays? Sometimes referred to as “High Holidays,” or “High Holy Days,” this is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and, often, the days in between the two holidays. One description of this period says, in essence, that G_d opens the books of judgment as the new year begins and finally, on Yom Kippur, the judgment for the year is “sealed.”

NEWS 2021: In light of the continued pandemic, many ask: Is it safe to attend Rosh Hashanah services this year? In this article, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency explores that question.

apple juice, apples, rosh hashanah

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

APPLES AND HONEY FOR A ‘SWEET’ NEW YEAR

For Rosh Hashanah, honey and apples are the most famous holiday foods in the United States; other foods, including dates and pomegranates, have ancient associations with the New Year and still are enjoyed in Jewish communities around the world. The honey-and-apples symbol, often seen on holiday cards and other Rosh Hashanah media, is a reminder of the joy in welcoming a “sweet” new year.

Literally “head of the year,” Rosh Hashanah was never referred to by name in the Bible. Instead, references in Leviticus were made to Yom Teruah, “the day of the sounding of the shofar.” In the synagogue, 100 notes are blown each day of the New Year festivities; some refer to this noise as a “call to repentance.” Traditionally, Jewish teaching associates Rosh Hashanah with the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve.

A lesser-known Jewish tradition related to Rosh Hashanah is tashlikh, or “casting off.” After filling their pockets—most often with small bits of bread—devotees walk to flowing water and empty their pockets, thereby symbolically “casting off” the sins of the old year.

Sweet recipes: Looking to bake up something sweet and scrumptious this Rosh Hashanah? Check out Chabad.org, AllRecipes, Epicurious, Food Network and Martha Stewart.

‘Trying Extra, Extra Hard to Get Along’

Every year, since its founding, ReadTheSpirit magazine has covered the Jewish High Holy Days. Central themes are taking stock of the previous year, reconciling broken relationships, asking forgiveness and preparing for a better new year. We asked Jewish scholar and contributing writer Joe Lewis to write about his reflections. Joe writes …

I’ve been reading one of the complicated medieval acrostic poems added to the “additional” liturgy for Yom Kippur. Many people know that Jewish tradition involves three daily liturgical units, with an extra one on special days such as holy days. The extra liturgical unit recalls the special sacrifices of a holy day in the time of the Temple.

On Yom Kippur, the extra liturgy includes several extra poems—extra extras.

One of the longest and most complicated of these recalls the special sacrifices of Yom Kippur as outlined in the Mishnah, the early compilation of Jewish law and tradition. Even if he knew his duties well, the High Priest had to take a week-long refresher course and practice, practice, practice for the rituals of this day, with its immersions and changes of clothing and the tricky balancing of a pan of glowing coals in one hand and a ladle of incense in the other. Don’t try this at home!

What you can do at home is, like me, refresh your understanding of the ingeniously elliptical Hebrew poetry.

You might think I’m one of those people who’d like to see the Temple rebuilt. In its time, it was a world-wide tourist destination and well worth a visit; and none of us knows how its rituals might stir modern skeptical religious natures. Some think its time will come again, soon. Others, though, consider all references to the sacrificial system—even the “additional” liturgy through which it is recalled—outdated, even distasteful or downright primitive. I’m neither of those.

For me, the Temple ritual symbolizes a way of connecting with the divine. I can mourn its loss, and like any mourner can dwell on every memory I can recover, without wishing for its return. What’s more, the loss of the Temple ritual is a valuable symbol in itself. Unlike the many tragic sufferings forced on the Jewish people throughout our long history, it’s one tragedy that (our sages taught) we brought upon ourselves through causeless hatred.

The weeks leading up to Yom Kippur are a time to make peace for offenses between people; then we can seek God’s forgiveness for our sins with hearts free of bitterness. Dwelling on the loss of our ancient form of prayer should remind us that unless we make peace—with our neighbor whose lawn sign offends us, with our more distant neighbors whose neighborhood we find unfamiliar and consider enviable or unsafe, with neighboring peoples whose intentions we fear and mistrust—we can lose all that we cherish.

There’s no better time to try extra, extra hard to get along with others!

Paryushan Parva: Jains practice festival of forgiveness, fasting and renewal

Bhandasar Jain Temple

The Bhandasar Jain Temple, in India. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 4: Observed by Shvetambar Jains for eight days (beginning September 4, this year) and by Digambar Jains for 10 (beginning September 11, this year), Paryushan Parva means daily fasting, inner reflection and confession. (For Digambar Jains, the festival is also sometimes known as Das Lakshana.) In India, monks and nuns take up residence in Jain centers during this period, providing guidance to the laity; the custom is now practiced in the United States, too.

Each evening of Paryushan, the laity gather for prayer, meditation and readings from holy texts. Many Jains fast during Paryushan Parva, with some drinking only between sunrise and sunset and others consuming only water. At the end of the festival period, any who have fasted are fed by friends and loved ones. The end of Paryushan also brings the grand day when forgiveness is requested from all living beings, and Jains forgive one another in full. It’s believed that all negative karmic matter attached to the soul is overpowered when total forgiveness is asked, resulting in renewal and self-purification.

Did you know?  The word “Paryushan” has several meanings. One aspect is explained this way: Pari means “all kinds,” or “fully,” and Ushan means “to burn,” so during this time, a devotee “burns” “all kinds” of karma.

Though known by several different names, Paryushan Parva unites Jains through 10 key virtues: kshama (forgiveness); mardav (humility); arjav (straightforwardness); sauch (contentedness); satya (truth); samyam (control over senses); tappa (austerity); tyaga (renunciation); akinchan (lack of attachment); brahmacharya (celibacy). Together, the 10 virtues represent the ideal characteristics of the soul; by achieving the supreme virtues, the soul has a chance at salvation. Only through these virtues may people realize the sublime trio: “the True, the Good and the Beautiful.” Evil is eradicated, and eternal bliss is realized.

IN THE NEWS: Current diet fads may be promoting the practice of fasting for health reasons, but most world religions have been utilizing this tool for thousands of years—and not just for physical health, but for spiritual health. As is pointed out in an article from Florida International University:

Jain fasting includes complete avoidance of food or eating only a partial meal, eliminating rare or expensive foods and avoiding sexual temptations. The holiday of Paryushan, observed annually around August to September, is the time when Jains connect communally on the core tenets of the faith through fasting and studying.

For eight to 10 days, Jains focus on the values of forgiveness, humility, straightforwardness, truth, contentment, self-restraint, penance, renunciation, nonattachment and celibacy. Fasting is also possible throughout the year by individuals, but this celebration is the common communal embracing of fasting across sects.