Diwali 101 – From Darkness to Light

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diwali diyas or lights

Diwali in India
Photo Credit: San Sharma via Compfight cc

Diwali 101 – Everything You Wanted to know about the Festival of Lights

The triumph  of good over evil, light over darkness.  This simple sentiment  is at the heart of the great festival of Diwali which is celebrated in the Hindu Diaspora all across the world. This year it falls on October 19. This ancient Hindu festival is observed with different nuances in different regions of India.

The great Hindu epic of Ramayana tells the tale of Prince Rama (the 7th avatar of the God Vishnu)  of the kingdom of Ayodhya who was banished to the forests by his jealous stepmother Kaikeyi who wanted the throne  for her own son Bharat. Although Rama was the heir to the throne, he being the ideal son wanted to help keep a vow his father King Dusshratha had made to Queen Kaikeyi that any wish she made would be granted. Prince Rama went into the forests for 14 years, accompanied by his loving wife Sita (an avatar of the Goddess Lakshmi) and devoted brother Lakshmana who insisted on following him into exile.

 The Story of Ramayana

 

There, living simply and safeguarding the holy ascetics from demons, they encountered  Ravana, the ten-headed demon king  who became enamored by the beauty of Sita. By deceit, he managed to carry her off to his kingdom. He is followed by the two brothers and the monkey god Hanuman who is a devotee of Lord Rama.

After many trials and tribulations, Rama manages to rescue Sita and vanquish Ravana, whose ten heads symbolize mankind’s ills such as anger, lust, avarice and greed. Diwali marks the triumphant return of Rama to the kingdom of Ayodhya where he ascended the throne and personified the Ideal Man and King.

Diwali celebrates this triumphant return and new beginnings, for we  all fight a battle against our lower nature, and aspire to live the ideal life of righteousness and harmony.

Diwali, also known as Deepawali (festival of lights)  is celebrated in so many ways – it’s the Hindu New Year marked by prayers and puja, both in the home and the office, as it also begins the new year for business, getting the books blessed in prayer. It is the most auspicious time of the year when  Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity,  is believed to visit all homes. Houses are cleaned and painted, new furnishings are installed and the homes are lit with earthen lamps to welcome the Goddess.

 

Children taking part in a Diwali celebration (photo-Baps)

Children taking part in a Diwali celebration (photo-Baps)

Diwali –  A Time for Celebration

Hindu families visit the temple and also conduct prayers in their home shrines. It is a time for celebration, for new clothes, new toys and finery. After the prayers families partake of rich ritualistic food with fluffy puris (bread), vegetarian dishes, fried snacks and many sweets.  It is a time to visit friends and families, always exchanging home-made or store-bought  Indian sweets made of milk, nuts and sugar.

Diwali is a national holiday in India and almost all buildings are illuminated with electric lights or with the more ritualistic earthen lamps.  To drive by Indian villages on Diwali is to see entire landscapes of flickering lamps. The festivities begin almost ten days ahead with Dusshera  which is followed by Choti Diwali and Badi Diwali – Small and Big Diwali.

According to Pew research, 79.5 percent of the population of India is Hindu while about 51 percent of all Indian-Americans are Hindu, reflecting the migration patterns. Yet Diwali is now observed by many people as a cultural holiday in India and the Diaspora, irrespective of religion. Friends get together to burn fireworks and celebrate.

Diwali 101 –  A Great Watch for Families at Diwali

 

‘Ramleela’ is a popular tradition at Diwali – a play or dance drama retelling the entire story of the Ramayana for children and adults. Whether it is a small village show seen by lantern light or a Broadway style show with all the bells and whistles in big cities, the story  of Ramayana continues to  fascinate people.

The holiday is the biggest commercial event for retailers as families buy Diwali gifts, clothing, electronics and jewelry. In fact a day before Diwali, on Dhanteras,  families buy gold jewelry and new utensils for the kitchen, as this is considered auspicious. Diwali gifts are  given to the young as well as packages of money, after the family Lakshmi Puja (ritual prayers).   Sweetmakers do a booming business and there can be no Diwali without sweets!

In fact, the sweets are first offered in temples as offerings to the Gods and the BAPS temples offer hundreds of different sweets to the Lord.

 

Diwali - offering prasadam before God

Diwali – offering prasadam before God (Photo – BAPS)

 

Diwali travels to America

Along with the many immigrants, the festival of Diwali has also traveled to America and it is celebrated with great energy in big cities and small towns, wherever there are Indian or Nepalese people (Nepal is the only Hindu nation in the world). During ancient times, Hinduism had traveled from India to many Asian countries and it is has many followers even today in countries from Indonesia to Malaysia to Bali in Thailand.

At the same time, Indian immigrants have taken their faith all over the world so there are Hindu temples in all parts of the world, and Diwali is celebrated from Australia to Zaire.  Trinidad, where many people trace their lineage back to India,  has a large Hindu population, and during Diwali, an entire Diwali Nagar or Diwali City is set up.

Besides temple visits and family get-togethers, Diwali in the modern age also has social connotations with dinners and parties in restaurants and clubs, as well as gambling parties held by friends. Playing cards is a tradition at Diwali as are social parties to celebrate the holiday season.

As the Indian-American community expands, Diwali is finding its way into popular American culture, and ‘The Office’ starring Mindy Kaling became the first American comedy series to introduce this holiday to the mainstream.

During his tenure,  President Obama sent Diwali greetings to Indian-Americans on the big day.  Here is a previous year’s message from President Obama.

Diwalis Past – President Obama’s Diwali message

 

President Barack Obama receives a red shawl from Sri Narayanachar Digalakote, a Hindu priest from Sri Siva Vishnu Temple, located in Lanham, Md., in the Blue Room of the White House, prior to the Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative Executive Order signing, and Diwali festival of lights ceremony, Oct. 14, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

A file photo: President Barack Obama receives a shawl from the priest from Sri Siva Vishnu Temple, Lanham, MD, in the Blue Room of the White House (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Some years, American businesses have also got into the Diwali spirit, in 2015, Macy’s had Diwali decorations on the floor in its store in New Jersey – and that may be a taste of things to come. When Nidhi Katuria, a NJ based filmmaker walked in, she stopped, stunned. This all red and blue quintessential American department store was actually showcasing Diwali festive decor and a big poster ‘Happy Diwali’. “I felt an overwhelming feeling in my heart, like it smiled,” says Kathuria.

While children still don’t get a public school holiday in America as they do in India, small steps have been taken and some school districts in New Jersey have observed Diwali as a holiday.

Drivers do get some relief from parking rules in Manhattan, with the suspension of alternate side parking in honor of Diwali.

 

Diwali was acknowledged at Macy's last year

Diwali was acknowledged at Macy’s two years back. Will there be an encore this year?

Diwali Melas or fairs are a big part of  the festival and are held for several days in Indian cities and towns, with food, dance, crafts and music. Now several of these open air,  free-for-all celebrations are held in the US, especially in cities in New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Atlanta and California.

One of the oldest and biggest is the Deepawali Mela in South Street Seaport in Manhattan, where over 40,000 people turn up to celebrate the festival with fireworks, food and festivities.  As more and more Americans learn about Diwali from their Indian friends, they realize they can share the joy  as well as the ideals behind Diwali – striving for a better life and vanquishing the forces of evil and darkness.

(C) Lavina Melwani

This article was first published in Beliefnet.com  (2015)

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About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

11 Comments

  1. Thanks Indu – I had first published this in Beliefnet.com, the American faith site, so all the basic details of Diwali which may not be known to everyone are in there. Happy Diwali!

  2. Hey Lavina,

    Not sure if they let you know before publishing, but this article was posted in HPI (Hindu Press International) daily email newsletter yesterday. At least, that’s how I found your awesome blog.

    Hope you had a great Diwali.

  3. Hi Ashwin, so glad you found Lassi with Lavina through HPI! I’m a long time writer for Hinduism Today which publishes HPI and they often give links to relevant articles such as my piece which ran in Scroll and the Diwali piece from Lassi with Lavina. Now that you have found LWL, please do subscribe to my newsletter so you can get all the latest stories in your inbox! Appreciate your help in spreading the word.

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