Hindu, Jain, Sikh: Light up the night during Diwali

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 26: The countdown is finally over and India’s largest festival of the year has arrived—today begins Diwali! The “festival of lights” holds special significance for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike and the symbolism is the same: light over darkness. For thousands of years, celebrants have lit small (usually clay) oil lamps outside of their homes during Diwali, forming a row of lights on the darkest night of the month. (Learn more at DiwaliFestival.org.)

Traditionally, the date of Diwali depends on the position of the moon, since Diwali must always begin on Amavasya—“no moon day”—and it’s on this night that the lights can shine at their brightest. While rejoicing in light, families and friends gather for elaborate meals, watch bright fireworks shows and wear new clothing. Long hours spent in the kitchen result in a multitude of sweet treats that can be shared around the community. For the business community, Diwali means the start of a new financial year. For each of the five days of Diwali, a different deity is worshipped and ancient stories are remembered. (Wikipedia has details.)

Diwali may be India’s biggest festival, but that doesn’t mean it’s limited to Indian borders—Diwali, or Deepavali, is also an official holiday in countries including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Fiji, Malaysia and Singapore, just to name a few. Hindus honor Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and pray for a successful coming financial year; Jains know Diwali as the time Lord Mahavira achieved moksha, or nirvana, in 527 BCE; and Sikhs remember the release of Guru Hargobind Ji and 52 princes from prison in 1619. Even Buddhists chant mantras during Diwali! Just before winter begins, India marks the end of the harvest season with one last, massive party—Diwali. (Get the lowdown in simple terms from Kids.NationalGeographic.com.)

Many Indians may be reverting back to homemade decorations this Diwali, as inflation rockets and gold, in particular, is bought in smaller quantities. India is currently the world’s largest importer of precious metal, but with prices having risen 40 percent since last Diwali, imports are expected to drop dramatically. It may be the perfect time to rekindle old traditions, too, since more Indians are moving away from home to pursue a career and losing touch with cultural rituals. (Times of India has an article.) In fact, Halloween is the most recent holiday to have been adopted by many Indians, and although Halloween is much more budget-friendly than Diwali, many have voiced the need for India to remain faithful to its roots.


The Obama family was the first to add Diwali to the list of many holidays and festivals observed by the White House family and staff. The president’s Diwali greeting for 2011 is as follows:

“Today, here in America and around the world, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists will celebrate the holiday of Diwali—the festival of lights. Many who observe this holiday do so by lighting the Diya, or lamp, which symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. I was proud to be the first President to mark Diwali and light the Diya at the White House, and last year Michelle and I were honored to join in Diwali celebrations during our visit to India. Diwali is a time for gathering with family and friends and—as we experienced in India—celebrating with good food and dancing.  It is also a time for contemplation and prayer that serves as a reminder of our obligations to our fellow human beings, especially the less fortunate. To all who are observing this sacred holiday here and around the world, Happy Diwali and Saal Mubarak.

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