FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 5: The religious traditions of India kindle a joyous festival of lights! Millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains celebrate Diwali. For five days, devotees recognize the glorious simplicity of light. The observance connects followers of multiple religions—because, during Diwali, all rejoice in light and the triumph of good over evil. Since Diwali originally was associated with the harvest season, farmers often give thanks for their bounty. (Access recipes, poems, wallpapers and more at DiwaliFestival.org.)
Families traditionally light small clay lamps, but celebrations also include a wide array of gorgeous candles, lanterns and strings of electric lights as well. Even fireworks are popular. People share sweet foods, exchange gifts, play cards and visit friends and family members during Diwali.
Outside of the home, colorful fireworks light up night skies and casinos see big crowds, as this festival of lights is grounded in hopes that good luck and wealth may be on the horizon. Businesses will often begin their financial year on the first day of this festival in hopes of good fortune to come. (One company was featured in The Hindu for planning to launch 3G services this Diwali.) In fact, Diwali is a big season in the Bollywood calendar, each year. Celebrating families love to see new movies—like the American flood of movies in late December to catch people who are enjoying themselves.
Julia Roberts on Diwali
And, speaking of movies! Actress Julia Roberts recently told Elle magazine that she now is exploring Hinduism. She has described Diwali as similar to Christmas in that both are festivals of “lights, good spirits and death of evil.” Roberts also points out that Diwali is universal in nature. You might suspect that Indians are skeptical of such Hollywood celebrities, but the Hindustan Times published a Diwali story featuring Roberts. According to American newspaper reports, Roberts began a serious and regular Hindu practice while filming, “Eat, Pray, Love,” which opened in the U.S. in August. (Her parents were Baptist and Catholic as she grew up, according to press reports, but she finds Hinduism a meaningful spiritual pathway to “chant, pray and celebrate.”)
President Obama and Diwali in India
This year, U.S. President Barack Obama will also be hoping for good luck in India as he travels to the country during Diwali. According to White House reports, the President will visit Indian schools and a town hall in Mumbai during Diwali, all the while giving speeches and hoping to reach young people to garner interest in building U.S.-Indian relations. (Read an article in the Times of India.)
On Thursday, President Obama released his annual Diwali greetings—much as other recent presidents have issued best wishes to diverse religious groups throughout the year. This year, Obama said (in part) “Diwali is a time for celebration, but it is also a time for reflection—a time when we must remember that there are always others less fortunate then ourselves. This holiday reminds us all that we should commit ourselves to helping those in need.” The president’s theme echoes similar themes expressed about the Christmas holidays over the years—a time of merriment, but also a time to recall the many who live in dire need of life’s necessities. And, holiday themes expressed over many years by writers like Charles Dickens.
Religious Diversity in Diwali
Diwali is observed in several religions, and each religious group tends to have distinctive ways of celebrating. (Wikipedia has details.)
For Hindus, Diwali is colorful, noisy, exciting and merry. Hindus clean their homes and welcome a New Year during this festival, all the while opening windows and lighting lamps so the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, can enter homes. The fifth day of Diwali is Bhai Dooj, a day to credit the brother-sister relationship. (Get kid-friendly Diwali craft ideas, coloring pages and puzzles at ActivityVillage.)
In Jainism, the three days of Diwali commemorate the time Mahavira attained Moksha, or Nirvana, in 527 BCE. Jains recognize 24 Tirthankaras (human beings who have achieved Enlightenment and then returned to Earth to guide others), and Mahavira was the last of the 24 Tirthankaras. When Lord Mahavira returned to Earth, he established the Dharma that Jains continue to follow today. According to Jain tradition, many gods were present when Mahavira attained Nirvana—and the sky was illuminated. Thus, Jains celebrate the wonderful light that was present that night and the goodness that was Mahavira’s attainment. Today, many Jains fast, meditate on Mahavira and chant this Tirthanka’s words during Diwali.
Sikhs refer to Diwali as “the day of release of detainees,” because for them, it commemorates the day Guru Har Gobind Ji returned to Amritsar with 52 Hindu kings, following imprisonment by Emperor Jahangir. When Guru Har Gobind’s influence began to grow, the emperor had him imprisoned, along with the 52 Hindus. When Guru Har Gobind returned, it’s believed that people lit candles and, together, lit the Golden Temple. These traditions continue today. For some Sikhs, Diwali also is a time to remember the martyrdom of Sikh scholar Bhai Mani Singh in 1737, and the eventual establishment of the Khalsa rule.