Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrates the abundance of autumn harvest. Dedicated to various Gods and goddesses, the festival also marks an important date in the Indian calendar, as this is the point from which we measure the "Vikram Savant", date line established by King Vikram who defeated the Huns and saved India from their potentially disastrous foreign rule.
Since time immemorial, north Indian kingdom of Avadha marks this as the last day of Lord Rama's long exile of fourteen years. As the citizens of Ayodhya eagerly awaited their beloved prince's return, they lit thousands of lamps to guide his flying "vimana" to their city. The darkest night of the year gave way to a glorious morning, as the Lord Rama returned with his wife and brothers to his ancestral kingdom of Avadha. Having rid the world of evil rulers, such as Ravana, the Lord established the most benevolent rule ever known to man. New Year marks the first day of this "Rama Rajya", the ultimate utopian kingdom of Hindus all over the world.
Diwali also celebrates the gracious nature of the three goddesses, Lakshmi, Kali and Saraswati. Dhan Teras (two days before Diwali) is dedicated to Lakshmi, whose blessings are essential in making our lives prosperous, fruitful as well as peaceful. Lakshmi represents the boundless wealth of nature, health, intelligence, friends, family, long life, fame, fortune etc. we all enjoy. Kali-Chudash (day before Diwali) is dedicated to Maha Kali whose strength we seek to maintain the wealth we have. Strength, physical, mental and spiritual, is essential for an individual as well as the nation in order to flourish. Strength is essential for survival of any civilization. Used positively, it is benevolent, misused, the same energy can be malevolent. Diwali itself is dedicated to goddess Saraswati. Knowledge is the ultimate wealth, for it can not be stolen from you, it is also the ultimate strength, for it often defeats brute force. Knowledge is the ultimate in spirituality, for it is "Janna" that eventually leads to Enlightenment and Moksha.
Festival season proper starts on the eleventh day of Ashwin. Lamps are lit and sweets are made to welcome guests and Gods that may visit the house during the festival season. Vagha Baras is dedicated to the valour of our men and women who fought for the good against evil. Like tigers, they are the brave who have allowed us to preserve our heritage through the ages. Generally, people start to cook festival foods from now on. On Dhan teras, people usually buy gold / silver as a sign of good luck. Tinkling lights from thousands of earthen-ware lamps surround doors and windows to help Lakshmiji find our house. Goddess Lakshmi is formally worshipped in the evening and requested to provide the house with good fortune for the coming year. After the puja, fireworks are lit. On Kali Chaudas, goddess Kali is worshipped. Warriors castes - such as the Rajputs, worship their weapons and offer special puja to goddess Kali in her various forms (Bhavani, Durga etc). Lights are lit to dispel darkness and any evil spirits that may be lingering in the neighbourhood. Interestingly, All Hallows Eve (Halloween) and Mexican festival for the souls of the dead also fall on or near this time. On the Diwali day, goddess Saraswati is worshipped. Merchants and businessmen close their books / accounts and the books are "worshipped", thanking the Gods for a bountiful / successful end of year. Fireworks are lit in the evening and all the houses are wonderfully lit with lamps and lanterns. Festival spirit is in full swing as sweets and sumptuous food is served at dinner.
New Year (day after Diwali) celebrates the beginning of Rama Rajya and also the worship of Mount Govardhan by Lord Shri Krishna. As a child, he decided to humble the pride of the demi-gods and their proud ruler, Indra. He urged his Vrajvasi friends to worship the Lord Govardhan and share their autumn harvest with each other, rather than pour it on the sacrificial fires for Lord Indra. The Lord took a magnificent form as the many armed Lord Govardhan to eat the various prashads (consecrated food) cooked for Him and later protected the Vrajvasies from the torrential floods sent by Indra. Pushti Marg devotees celebrate this their most important festival. At Nathadwara, Rajasthan, the festival is celebrated with great zest and delight. (Diwali at Nathadwara).
Having waited for 14 years, the citizens of Ayodhaya celebrate the crowning of their beloved Rama as the latest in a long line of Ishvaku kings. Merchants usually open their books on this day and everyone wakes up early to worship at the home shrine and the temple. The day is traditionally spent giving and receiving gifts, receiving blessings from elders, distributing sweets, visiting friends and family, and of course, fireworks.
The second day of the year is dedicated to the purity of love between a brother and a sister. On this day, Lord Yama, the God of Death, visited his sister Yamunaji to see how she was doing. Delighted by this surprise visit, she treated him to a feast and made him feel very welcome. Seeing his sister so happy, Lord Yama granted a boon to her. Full of sisterly love, she requested that he comes every year to visit her. Though touched by her affections, Lord Yama decided that this boon benefited him more than it did her. So, he requested her to ask for yet another boon. This time she requested that "If any brother and sister bath in my waters on this day, on this spot (a bathing ghat in Mathura, India), than be kind to them (in death) and please make sure they are reunited in their next life as brother and sister. Overcome with emotion, and seeing the generous nature of his sister, Lord Yama granted these boons and stated that those who drink the waters of this holy river, will be spared the tortures of hell !
The fifth day after the New Year is very special to Hindus and Jains alike. This day is considered to be so auspicious that almost any work can be undertaken without fear of bad omens or unhappy results. This is also the day the Lord Krishna lifted Mount Govardhan on his left hand to protect the people of Vraj from the wrath of Indra. For seven ceaseless days, rain, thunder and gales battered Vraj, but, protected by the Lord of the Universe, in his form as "Govardhandharan", the people of Vraj escaped unharmed. Realizing his great folly, Indra came to worship the Lord as "Govinda" and begged His forgiveness. (11th day after New Year).
Vaishnavas celebrate the eighth day of the New year as "Gopastami". On this day, the darling child of Yashoda left her tender care to become a "Gopal", herding the cattle of Nada-baba. As protector and Lord of cattle, Lord Krishna's affection for this sacred animal is world famous. Indeed, Lord Krishna regarded cows as more precious than all his heavenly jewels and indeed a species worthy of greater respect than a mere "animal". In fact, the Lord would not wear any shoes whilst herding his beloved cows, as He was their servant, and how could He were shoes when they (cows) did not ! So legendary was Krishna's love for cows, that even emperor Akbar issued special imperial proclamations to protect cows in his beloved Vraj.
The eleventh day of the New Year is one of the most important days in the Hindu calendar. Apart from Lord Krishna's exploits as Govardhandharan, this is the day Lord Vishnu ascends to heaven, having spent the last four months in the nether regions to protect King Bali from all woes. Lord is reckoned to "fall in to deep (meditative) sleep" at the beginning of the monsoon and "awakens from his "Yoga Nindra" (deep meditative sleep)" at the end of the season. This day is variously celebrated as Deva-uthi-ekadashi or Prabodhini Ekadashi. The Lord, having re-entered the heavenly realms, promptly marries his beloved goddess Tulsi (goddess of the sacred Basil plant). Every year, this marriage anniversary is celebrated by ritually marrying Lord Vishnu (usually represented by a "shaligram") to the sacred Tulsi (basil) plant.
A great feast follows on the twelfth day and soon enough, the mid autumn full moon graces the sky again. This is celebrated as Deva Diwali. The Diwali of the humans falls on the darkest day of the fortnight, whilst the God's Diwali falls on the day of the full moon. All heavens rejoice as their New Year begins and the eternal cycle of Time is renewed.