As this year, which has been a dark and difficult one for so many people all over the world, draws to a close, I believe Diwali, the five day Festival of Lights, is a welcome time to reflect on the truth that no matter how dark the night, light always follows. The celebration of Diwali reminds us, that no matter what struggles the world or the human heart faces, the flames of faith and hope never die. Diwali represents the light of higher knowledge, the dispeller of ignorance, of maya. It is the light of compassion and transcendence.
This festival is celebrated not only by millions of Hindus, but by Sikhs, Jains and Muslims also. I would like to give you some background on these celebrations.
The dates on which Diwali falls varies each year, falling on the New Moon day that ends the month of Ashwin and begins in the month of Kartika. It begins on the 13th day of the dark half of Ashwin and ends on the 2nd day of the bright half of Kartika. Over these five days, there are many customs and rituals observed. Oil lamps, lanterns and lights are lit in their thousands all over India. It is considered an auspicious time to buy gold or jewellery. It marks the start of a new accounting year for many businesses. Sisters honour their brothers by praying for their happiness and good fortune on the final day of Diwali. Most importantly, Lord Rama and Sita’s return to Ayodhya is celebrated, and the Goddess Lakshmi is honoured and worshipped.
I wrote about the slaying by Lord Rama of the Demon King Ravana, and the rescue of Mother Sita in my article on Dussehra a few weeks back. The slaying of Ravana mirrors our internal battles to slay the tamasic elements of our personality, including the ego, attachment, greed, envy and lust, all the elements that separate us from our true nature. Following the slaying of Ravana, his brother, Vibhishana, was crowned the new king of Lanka, marking a new era of hope for that kingdom that had long suffered under Ravana’s rule. It was time for Lord Rama and his wife Sita to finally return home to their own kingdom of Ayodhya after their 14-year exile. Lord Rama exemplifies love and duty, and he did not hesitate to go into exile to fulfil his father’s duty to grant the boon he had promised to his youngest wife, Kaikeyi. Together with his brother Lakshmana who had stayed by his side during the exile, and Lord Hanuman, who had proven his undying devotion, they returned by the Pushpak Vimaan, (the same air carrier Ravana had used to bring Sita to Lanka), to Ayodhya. It was a moonless light as they approached the kingdom, but the people had come out to light thousands of oil lamps to light their way.
This is why lights are such a central part of Diwali. Their return was an occasion of celebration not only for Rama and Sita, but for every citizen of Ayodhya. They were both so loved by all that their absence had placed a shadow over everything, and their return marked the return of peace and joy. Our own journey of life is the same. We all go through difficult times, where we are worried, or in pain, but change happens and the light in our life returns. Facing our inner demons can be a lonely exile, but in overcoming them we find our way home to the light of our soul.
Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu, is the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity and is central to Diwali. The New Moon day in the month of Kartika is the third day of Diwali and celebrates the birth of Lakshmi out of Samudra Manthan, the Great Churning of the Ocean. This ancient story tells of the great efforts it took to churn the ocean to produce the Pot of Amrita, or the Nectar of Immortality, needed by the gods to restore their strength to overcome the demons. As a churning rod they uprooted Mount Mandaranchal and placed it in the ocean. Vasuki, the king of serpents, was wound around the mountain and used as the churning rope. A lethal poison, Kalkuta, that could destroy all of creation, came out, and all prayed to Lord Shiva for help. He came to their aid and drank the poison, keeping it in his throat.
Following this the ocean released 12 gems, one of which was Lakshmi. Lord Vishnu was so taken by her beauty that they married immediately. Lakshmi Puja is performed on this day, which falls on Saturday 14th November this year. Lord Ganesha, the lord of intellect and wisdom and the remover of obstacles, is always worshipped with Mother Lakshmi. To gain wealth, we first need intellect, which comes from the blessings of Lord Ganesha. Without intellect, wealth can be misused. It is believed Mother Lakshmi visits the homes of those devoted to her on this night, bearing blessings of abundance.
Muslims are very much a part of Diwali celebrations in India, and places like the Hazrat Nizramuddin Dargah in Delhi are usually full of oil lamps and decorations for the occasion. The first recorded celebration of Diwali by Muslims dates back to the time of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, who ruled Delhi from 1324 to 1351. His Hindu wives organised the celebration inside his court. Later, when Akbar took the Mughal throne, the Rang Mahal in Red Fort became the centre for the celebrations. On Diwali, the Ramayana was read and followed by a play depicting Rama’s return to Ayodhya.
For the Sikh community, Diwali has a special significance, as it occurs at the same time as their spiritual festival of Bandi Chhorh Divas, or Prisoner Release Day. This day is a celebration of release of the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind Sahib, from Gwalior prison in 1619. He had been held there as an innocent political prisoner, together with 52 Hindu Rajas (princes). The life of the Mughal emperor Jahangir had been saved by the Guru, so he wanted to release him. The Guru refused to leave unless the 52 Rajas were released with him. An agreement was reached that as many Rajas as could hold onto his cloak could go. The Guru created a cloak with 52 tails, outsmarting the emperor and walked to freedom with the 52 Rajas. On Diwali the Golden Temple in Amritsar is illuminated by thousands of lights.
The significance of Diwali to the Jain community, is a celebration of the day in 527 B.C.E. when Lord Mahavira, the 24th and last of the Jain Tirthankaras, attained moksha, freedom from the cycle of reincarnation. It is said the earth and heavens were illuminated by lights in his honour. The Jain scriptures refer to the day as dipalikaya, which means light leaving the body. Diwali is a celebration of Lord Mahavira’s contribution to humanity through his teachings which promoted ahimsa — non-violence, aparigraha -non-possessiveness, and anekantvada — pluralism.
For all who celebrate Diwali, be they Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Jain, the essence is the same. It is a celebration of the arrival of light out of darkness, the triumph of right over wrong. It brings a message of hope. In dark times, trust the way ahead, have faith that the light will illuminate your path. In the words of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, “If you believe in light, you’ll be in light, you don’t have to face the darkness.”