The Festival Of Lights

It is the darkest night of the year—made the brightest. The dark of the night is subdued by thousands of oil lamps and electric lights. Continuous sounds of fireworks give a sense of exuberance. Happy faces, exuding joy, greet each other. Tinsel decorations on houses add a twinkle to the dark night. Temples and houses all over Fiji are decked up like a bride…. Ah, it is Deepawali, the festival of lights.

Deepawali, commonly known as Diwali, is a contraction of two words, Deep (meaning "oil lamp") and Awali (meaning "row"). Hindu cosmology provides for a festival to be indulged in every two weeks, but nothing evokes the upsurge of festivity like Diwali. A series of festivals, that continue for weeks, lead up to the final joyous celebrations of Diwali. What Christmas is to Christians, Id is to Muslims, Diwali is to Hindus.

An aspect of Hinduism that is intriguing for westerners is the concept of myriads of Gods and deities. Hinduism is a pantheistic religion, which means that although there is only one God, He is not separate from the material world. Rooted in the Indus valley civilization, Hinduism at its simplest can be considered a religion that worships the divine in various forms. Diwali, like every Indian festival, has a long history with deep spiritual meaning intertwined with its celebrations. Although there are several stories associated with Diwali, the chief story of Diwali emerges from Ramayana.

Ramayana, along with the Mahabharata is the one of the two great Indian epics. Both the epics have had a great impact in cultural, social and spiritual life of Indians. In the late 1980s, both the epics were transformed into long running television dramas, that changed the face of Indian television and have since been broadcasted around the world.

Every day Hindus cite hundreds of examples from the two epics to prove their righteousness. Ramayana, meaning "the adventure of Rama" is the story of Lord Rama's life who is said to be the seventh avtar (incarnation) of Vishnu the preserver, who is one of the three Gods that make the Trinity (other two being: Brahma the creator and Shiva the destroyer). Chief avtars of Vishnu are Rama and Krishna. Vishnu, like Christ, takes a human form to exemplify a model life and fight the ignorant. All incarnations of Vishnu are considered, the protagonists of their times. Hindus believe that salvation, among other things, can be earned by bhakti (loving devotion to god), which is illustrated in myriad of festivals that allow for fasting, feasting and celebration.

In Ramayana, Lord Rama who is heir to the throne of Ayodhya, a kingdom in northern India, is unjustly banished to the forest by his father and stepmother. He wants to go alone but his loyal wife, Sita and half brother Lakshman, insist on following him. In Hindu mythology, often times Gods and deities take human form to participate in the activities of the world and set guidelines for a model life. For example, Vishnu incarnates as Lord Rama, Lakshmi, Vishnu’s consort came to earth as Sita, Rama’s wife. Shesha Naga, the multi-headed King of serpents, and Vishnu’s companion incarnated as Lakshman. The multi-headed serpent is said to hold four quarters of the earth on his head. Since he shares the burdens of Vishnu, he often continues his role as Vishnu’s companion on earth.

Continuing the story of Ramayana, while in exile, Sita is kidnapped and subsequently taken to Sri Lanka by the demon Ravana. Ravana, who is a metaphor for lust and greed, is a man of education and power who has allowed arrogance to rule his life. Casting him as the villain is a reminder to us that power must be used with humility. Rama raises a large army with the help of the monkey god Hanuman, who is also known as PavanPutra, the son of Vayu (the God of Air/Wind). Hanuman's army builds a causeway from the southern tip of India to Sri Lanka, over which the army marches to battle Ravana, and rescue Sita. Due to his devotion to Lord Rama, Hanuman symbolizes loyalty and dedication. In gratitude to Hanuman, monkeys in India are considered sacred, and even today are allowed to live lives of ease, devouring fruits in the temples.

Rama and Sita are considered the ideal couple. Saying "Rama-Rama" or "Sita Rama" has become a common way of greeting, especially used for the elderly and the revered saints. When Mahatma Gandhi fell mortally wounded by his assassins he murmured, "Hai Ram, Hai Ram" (O Rama, O Rama).

Many contend that while Mahabharata instructs readers on what human nature is like, Ramayana was written to direct people on how they ‘ought’ to behave. Ramayana is the story of “Purushottam” the ideal man, Lord Rama, who always acts with righteousness and nobility, was the ideal son, the ideal husband, the ideal King and a model brother.

The day Rama killed Ravana is celebrated as Dusshera or Vijay Dashmi (victorious tenth, since it falls on the tenth day of Ashwin {September-October}). Ten days before Dusshera Rama Lila—an enactment of Ramayana is staged in many towns and cities around India. Usually, a temporary stage is raised for this specific purpose in various neighborhoods. I am told that Ram Lilas are also staged in Fiji right before Dusshera. In India, as in Fiji, many professional theater groups make their living by performing Rama Lila all through the year. Dusshera is celebrated by burning huge effigies, stuffed with fire-crackers. As fire-crackers explode, the three effigies of Ravana and his two brothers Meghnath and KumbhKaran come crashing down, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. Diwali falls twenty days after Dusshera, which is the time it took Rama to return to India. The intriguing part about Rama’s return to his Kingdom, Ayodhya (now in the north Indian State of Uttar Pradesh) is the belief that He along with Sita, Lakshman, and Hanuman is said to have flown from Sri Lanka in a flying machine, called Pushpak Viman. The Viman (flying machine) has an infinite capacity to seat people (always an extra seat is available no matter how many people join the passenger list). It is in the honor of Rama’s homecoming that the residents of Ayodhya lit the roads, houses and temples with oil lamps, to light the path of the Light himself.

The date for Diwali, like most Hindu festivals, is determined by using the traditional Hindu calendar called, panchanga (the five limbs of time). Panchanga, a lunar calendar, estimates dates and times by the phase of the moon. Of five limbs of time treated by panchanga two most important are the lunar day (tithi) and the solar day (varna). Like the solar calendar used in the west, Panchanga has twelve months. However, the length of a month in Panchanga is slightly shorter than that in its solar counterpart, because it follows the monthly cycle of the moon (28 days).

Panchanga is filled with astrological charts, auspicious dates, instruction for religious performances, and other details of the month. Panchanga is often consulted when choosing the date for weddings and starting new ventures. Time comes to Hindus not as a series of bland unwritten days, but fully endowed with differentiating qualities and attributes. So there are days for fasting, and days for feasting, days for celebrations and days to commemorate those who have passed on, days to work and (believe it or not) days to abstain from work, if only for a few hours.
Each lunar month consists of the two fifteen day fortnights called pakshas (wings). Beginning with the new moon, the first fortnight is the waxing or bright fortnight which moves from darkness to light, new moon (amavasya), to full moon (Purnima). The second, the waning fortnight or the dark fortnight, and moves from full moon to new moon. Each day of the month is associated with either the bright fortnight or the dark fortnight. Diwali is celebrated in the month of Kartik (October/ November) at the dawn of amavasya, signifying a movement from darkness to light. According to Panchanga the events in Ramayana are said to have taken place about one million and three hundred years ago.

Over the centuries, despite the rise and fall of various Indian empires, and hundreds of years of colonization, Diwali has maintained its charm. As Indians have migrated outside of India, they have carried the traditions and rituals associated with Diwali to all corners of the world. Fiji is an excellent example of retaining the old world charm of Diwali. Diwali is also a national holiday in many countries where Indians form a sizable portion of the population, e.g. Guyana, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Nepal and South Africa to name a few.

Today the old Diwali rituals are combined with the new, without changing its original meaning. More electric lights adorn the streets and houses than oil lamps; store owners play devotional songs pouring out of big speakers, flowers and garlands offered to the Gods may be made out of silk rather than picked from our backyards, sweets offered to friends may be bought rather than home cooked. In our electronic age people even send e-cards to send happy wishes to their friends.

The first half of the month of Kartik [October-November] moves with anticipation towards Diwali. The final Diwali celebrations, last for five days, starting with the thirteenth day of the fortnight called, Dhanteras, meaning the ‘wealthy thirteenth’. Dedicated to the God of wealth Kubera and Goddess Lakshmi, this day is a reminder of how prosperity in our lives is associated less with material wealth and more with loving relationships. Women, in previous days hurried to the brass market to obey one of the injunctions of the day- purchase a new brass pot. Appropriate pots and pans are required for cooking and therefore associated with continuing the tradition of family dinners. Now-a-days since brass is not that prevalent, women prefer to buy steel or some electrical gadgets. Last year, I noticed that Rup’s Big Bear announced special discounts for Dhanteras.

The day after Dhanteras, the fourteenth day of the fortnight, is celebrated as Narakachaturthi. Once again restoring the balance of the world, on this day, Lord Vishnu, in his eighth incarnation as Krishna, destroyed the demon Narakasura, who brought much distress to the people of the world. After the festival shopping is done, sweets are cooked, and lights and decorations are put up, the fourteenth day of the month calls for cleaning of the entire house with a broom. Narakachaturthi which celebrates the inevitable end of evil, is commonly known as Little Diwali (Chhoti Diwali). Generally people give Diwali celebrations a trial run on this day by dressing up, lighting a few oil lamps and testing their fire-crackers.

By the fifteenth day of the fortnight, everything has been readied for the actual Diwali celebrations. Although the darkest Amavasya of year, Diwali night becomes a symbol of ringing in the new with pomp and glory. This day people get to use all the paraphernalia of festivity that they purchased in the markets, weeks before Diwali. Each artifact usually symbolizes some aspect of Hinduism. Diyas, the shallow clay dishes for oil lamps, made of five elements, - air, fire, earth, space and water, represent our perishable bodies that are lent to us by divine grace until ash turns to ash and dust to dust. The special sweets of the season that are shared with a hope, that we may utter only kind and loving words. The home decorations are a reminder of need for incorporating the bright and the beautiful in our otherwise mundane lives. And the loud fire works, that banish the darkness and the quiet of the new moon night, urge us to be bold in our actions. Adeptly crafted and hand painted clay images of Lakshmi and Ganesha, grace shrines in every household along with Rama, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman. Lakshmi who appeared in human form as Sita, is the Goddess of fortune; and Ganesha, the keeper of thresholds of space and time. Both Lakshmi and Ganesha are honored at the outset of any venture to attract good luck and ward off evil. It is believed that the Goddess descends on the night of Diwali to earth, and might be lured to dwell for longer in the house that is clean and well groomed.

Diwali night, truly embodies the spirit of the oft-used prayer in schools and universities, dedicated to Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge:

Om asto ma sad gamaya,
Tamso ma joytirgamaya,
Mrityorma amritam gamaya
(Rig Veda).

O God! Lead us from untruth to truth.
From darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge
and from the cycle of birth and death to immortality.

The entire fortnight has an air of New Year's preparation about it. In fact in some communities of India the day after Diwali, the first day of waxing fortnight of Kartikka is celebrated as the New Year's Day. Every thing, during the Diwali season, seems to have a vivacious aura about it. Even the poorest of householder goes out and buys a pack of Indian sweets to offer friends and family. Shopkeepers declare sales, and give discounts to attract customers. Many NGOs raise funds, by holding a Diwali mela (fair).

The day after Diwali, the first day of waxing fortnight of Kartik is called Annakuta, the mountain of food. All over north India, Annakuta is dedicated to the worship of Krishna. According to legend, the people of Mathura, the town where Krishna grew up, gathered every year at the Goverdhan Mountain to worship the God of rains, Indra. Mathura residents, who were farmers, held that they must appease Indra to avoid his wrath, which usually resulted in torrential rains and ruined the crops. One year Krishna suggested that the farmers would be better served by worshipping the fields that give the grains and the cattle that help in planting the crop. Feeling humiliated, Indra created a storm that threatened the destruction of all of Mathura. Krishna came to the rescue of the farmers, by lifting mount Goverdhana on his little finger, and providing a shelter for the people and the cattle. Defeated, humbled and ashamed Lord Indra asked for Krishna’s forgiveness and vowed to take care of Mathura. Since then a prayer to the mountain is offered as a tribute to Krishna’s feat. Replicas of the mountain are made and decorated with flowers. It serves as a thanksgiving day for farmers, as they remind themselves of their symbiotic relationship with mother earth.

The second day of the fortnight called ‘Yama's Dvitiya’ (Yama's Second), or Bhaiya Duj is yet another festival on which the brother and sister affirm their bonds. Among all the stories associated with this day, Yama’s story is the most popular. Lord Yama, the God of death, had a twin sister Yamuna. As these magical stories go, Yamuna descended on earth as the holy river Yamuna to sustain life. The twin siblings were separated for a higher cause. Yama spent time with the departed souls and Yamuna nourished the mortals. On the second day of Kartik, Yamuna invited her brother for a special meal. Upon arrival, Yama received a tilak and a prayer from his sister. A paste made of sandalwood and tumeric, tilak which is applied on the forehead, is a mark of auspiciousness. Because it is made of sandalwood, it has a calming effect on the receiver. Yama was so pleased to see his sister that he said that any brother who received a tilak from his sisters on this day shall live a long life. Since then, Bhai Duj has become an occasion for sisters and brothers to spend time together. Especially for the married ones who are too busy in their family life to spend time with their siblings. For Bhai Duj, brothers buy gifts for their sisters and sisters offer traditional sweets and seasonal fruits to their brothers, as they pray for each other’s long lives.

The festival of lights is not just a religious holiday, it is a celebration of life. For that reason Kartika is an auspicious month for weddings. Many young couples tie the knot in the month of Kartik and aspire to live the example of Rama, and Sita. People, hoping to remove some hardships of the unfortunate, and gain good karma are unusually generous during the Diwali season. And why not, according to Hindu tradition it is doubly meritorious to give alms during the Diwali season.

Diwali is the harbinger of many auspicious occasions. Its magic is not limited to Hindus. People of all religions wish each other a "Happy Diwali" and rejoice the victory of good over evil. It is important here to mention that Diwali’s significance is not hinged upon whether or not mythological stories associated with it can be proven. Did Vishnu really descend on this earth? Is the River Yamuna really a woman who has come to us as free flowing waters to help flourish a civilization? It matters not!! These stories must be considered for the moral and values they impart, as they are handed down from one generation to another. Brightening our houses and towns on the amavasya of Kartik, is a reminder to all of us, to light up the darkest corners of our being, with love.

The festivals of lights urges us to keep a "Deep" of hope alight in our hearts and reminds us that dark nights can be brightened, and evil be overcome....with faith, hope and good friends around, every amavasya can be turned into a "Diwali"!


More by :  Charu Uppal

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