TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 13: Beacons of light soar across the night sky, announcing the triumph of good over evil, as hundreds of thousands of clay lamps—and neon lights—illuminate Diwali.
For five days, Hindus celebrate the extravagant event popularly known as the “Festival of Lights” with sweets, lanterns and firecrackers. (Learn more at DiwaliFestival.org.) Diwali calls all Hindus, worldwide, to examine the Atman: that is, the part of living beings that is beyond physical body and extends into the vast, the pure, and the infinite. After the firecrackers have been lit and the sweets enjoyed, devotees reflect on what the Festival of Lights is really about: the light of higher knowledge that is only realized when one awakens from ignorance and understands the oneness of all things. The bottom line—only inner light can bring true serenity and joy.
The very name Diwali means light. A contraction of Deepavali, the lengthy name for the festival translates into “row of lamps.” Inner light aside, the brightness of Diwali traces its roots to an agricultural harvest festival, when farmers would welcome the goddess of wealth with clay lanterns. Businesses, homes and public arenas today work hard to continue receiving her, hoping for auspiciousness in the coming year. (Wikipedia has details.) Each day of Diwali signifies a principal story in Hindu legend, with rituals that follow. The breakdown goes something like this:
Day 1: Homes are cleaned; devotees shop for gold
Day 2: Hindus display clay lamps; rangoli created with colored powders and sand
Day 3: The main day of the festival, familes gather to perform Lakshmi Puja, a prayer for the goddess of wealth; the prayer is followed by feasts and fireworks
Day 4: The first day of the New Year
Day 5: Brother-sister relationships are strengthened when married sisters welcome their brothers into their homes, often with a lavish meal.
For most Hindus, each day’s gladness is further enhanced with tasty sweets, gift exchanges and general gaiety. Even young people adore the traditions of old—according to one source in The Hindu, “In our ever-so-busy lives, these occasions serve the purpose of bringing the family together again. Tradition is fun, if I can say so.”
DIWALI: FROM THE WHITE HOUSE TO AUSTRALIA
Upward of 10 countries mark Diwali as an official holiday. Even outside those nations, most major cities around the world host Diwali celebrations, too. Across the UK, Diwali has been an annual festival for years, and in 2003, the White House observed Diwali for the first time; Barack Obama became the first American President to attend Diwali at the White House, in 2009. The Australian Indian Innovations Incorporated (AIII) organized their country’s first major Diwali Festival in 2002; between that year and 2008, more than 140,000 people visited the festival of cultural programs, music, rides, food and fireworks.
JAIN: NIRVANA FOR A NEW YEAR
The second day of Diwali marks a New Year for Jains—two days earlier than Hindus—and Inner Light is embraced by this religion when recalling the attainment of Nirvana, or Moksha, by Lord Mahavira in 527 BCE. Of the 24 Tirthankars central to Jainism, Mahavira was the last. Mahavira rejuvenated the Jainism Dharma—the Dharma that devotees follow to this day. Legend has it that many gods were present during Mahavira’s attainment, thereby lighting the dark night.
SIKH: A TRIUMPH IN HISTORY
Sikh history tells of the sixth guru, Hargobind Singh, and his release from prison during this time many years ago. It’s believed that 52 Hindu kings were also released by Guru Hargobind at that time, and today, Sikhs rejoice by sharing a vegetarian meal and reading Sikh holy scripture.
‘ALARMINGLY HIGH’ POLLUTION LEVELS
One of the primary elements of Diwali will threaten lives in India this year, and both young people and the Indian government are speaking out en masse: the fireworks that light up the night are threatening to bring pollution to extreme levels. (Read more in the Hindustan Times.) Children across India are crowding the streets, shouting slogans and waving banners that include “Say No to Crackers”, according to the Times of India, while thousands of students have vowed an eco-friendly Diwali. Still more students have informed local residents about focusing on traditional clay lamps. A Guinness World Record of “green” is being attempted by children at Prince Ashokraje Gaekwad School, by displaying more than 800 drawings for a “green” Diwali, according to the Times of India. For those fond of fireworks, eco-friendly varieties are available in markets, and many have reported opting for a virtual show, courtesy of software called “e-cracker.”
Planning a party for Diwali? The Hindu offers up ideas for a fabulous fete. Cook up some tasty sweets—and other traditional dishes—with help from the BBC. Kids can get a pint-sized explanation of the festival from National Geographic; craft descriptions and printables are at Activity Village.