The meaning and significance of the festival of lights
Diwali is one of the festivals of Bharat that is celebrated all over the sub-continent by all the states. The word itself is a condensed form of the word Deepaavali which means a row of lights. This festival is very old and has even been mentioned in the Padma Purana which is a very ancient scripture.
All Hindu festivals have only one theme and that is to lift the human being from his present state of ignorance into the state of enlightenment which is his birth right. Most people including Hindus don’t realise this truth because very often this truth is buried under a heap of rituals and superstitions and just fun things that have been collected through time which have smothered the central idea over a period of thousands of years. Diwali is one of those festivals which openly blares out this truth since light is always a synonym for enlightenment. However, due to the love of the Hindus for encasing truth with allegorical stories, this fact has again been hidden in a wealth of Puranic stories which in themselves are no doubt most interesting but which tend to deteriorate from the main purpose of the festival which is to point out to the human being that his sole purpose in having taken on a human body is to make sure that he exposes that divine light which is always shining within himself and returns to the source from which he has come.
Like the source of a river which is very often hidden in bushes and brambles, making it almost impossible for the seeker to find it, so also the source of our Being is hidden beneath the wealth of external trivialities that cover it. Moreover, our senses are outer- oriented so we find it well-nigh impossible to direct our attention inwards and discover the interesting fact that the source of our life lies within ourselves. The brambles and bushes we have to remove are the various ideas and theories about our origin and about our creator as well as all the useless information which has been poured into us from birth. Once this is removed the effulgence of that creator will burst out in all glory from inside us. In Hinduism, the one, immutable source of all creation is the Brahman and That is also the light of all lights, beyond the darkness of ignorance. Its light illumines the entire universe and enables us to behold the glory of Its own creation. It is nothing but our own inner self.
The Bhagavad Gita says:
“The sun does not shine there, nor the moon, nor stars or fire.”
What does this mean? Just as the light of a small candle pales into insignificance before the light of the sun, so also all the lights of this universe cannot be compared to even a spark of the effulgence of the Brahman. That effulgence is ever burning within us and all around us. All we have to do is to remove the darkness of many births and allow that light to burst out in all its glory. IT is ever enshrined in our hearts but the brambles and bushes of our abysmal ignorance cover IT. If that light was not within us, no amount of external lights would allow us to see this world of multiple phenomena which is actually a shroud which covers the face of the creator. Diwali is the festival of lights in which we are told to remove this ignorance by lighting the lamp of wisdom within us.
The Hindu calendar follows the lunar cycle of twenty-eight days. The moon is the planet that is closest to us and hence has the maximum effect on us. So all our festivals have something to do with the moon. This festival is celebrated for five days starting from the 13th day of the dark phase of the moon. The new moon signifies the darkness of ignorance in which all of us are enshrouded. Hence, each one of us has the responsibility and the ability to light the lamp of wisdom within us and remove the darkness of ignorance in which we are enshrouded.
Since it’s such an important festival for the whole of Bharat, all the religions in this country, except the Abrahamic religions have woven some story about it into their own scriptures. It is celebrated by several other religions including Jainism, Sikhism and numerous folk religions. They have different mythological versions of the same tales. Jainism, Bharat’s sixth largest religion, hails this as the day on which Lord Mahavira, the last of the twenty-four Tirthankaras (Great Teachers) attained “Nirvana” (enlightenment). Most traditions surrounding Diwali go back thousands of years, but the most recent tradition associated with it is the one in Sikkhism. Sikhs celebrate Diwali as the occasion on which their great teacher Guru Hargobindji was released from the captivity of the Mughal ruler Jehangir from the fortress of Gwalior along with several Hindu kings. The Hindus of course have incorporated the story into the lives of both their great avataras – Rama and Krishna.
In North Bharat Diwali is celebrated for five days.
The first day of Diwali known as Dhanteras, is on the 13th night of the dark half of the lunar month of Kartika and falls on Sunday, 23rd October this year, 2022. Normally it comes two days before Diwali. Next day, 24th October, is both Naraka Chaturdashi and Diwali. Lakshmi Puja is normally done in the morning and the lighting of the lamps in the evening. Govardhan Puja is celebrated on Tuesday, 25th October and Bhai Dhooj on Wednesday, 26th October.
Day 1 – Dhanteras
“Dhan” means “wealth” and “teras” means thirteen. Dhanteras is celebrated on the 13th day of the dark fortnight of the moon in the month of Kartika. The tradition goes that on this day Shiva played dice with his wife Parvati, so on this day people play cards and other gambling games. Our ancient sages were great psychologists and they knew that the urge to gamble is as strong as the urge to drink in humans. So they curbed this instinct throughout the year and gave full freedom to it on this one day and gave a divine twist to it by saying that Shiva and Parvati played it on this day so that the players would at least think of the divine pair on this day!
Actually this day is meant for the worship of Dhanwantari who is the Lord of Ayurveda. Lord Vishnu took on the form of Dhanwantari when he emerged from the Milky Ocean on this day. He carried the pot of nectar or amrita in his hands which by taking people would regain their youth and health. Dhan means wealth and our greatest wealth is our health so on this day we should concentrate on becoming healthy and also pray for the health of the whole world especially in these trying times when so many viruses are floating around!
All these festivals have interesting stories connected with them. One Puranic story mentions that the horoscope of a prince stated that he would die of snakebite on the 4th day after his marriage. The wife was determined to save the life of her husband. On the 4th night she made sure that her husband didn’t sleep and kept him awake by narrating many interesting stories. She scattered a lot of gold and diamonds in all the entrances to the room. When Yamaraj, the Lord of Death came in the form of a snake he was dazzled by the jewels and couldn’t resist listening to the stories. Thus, the whole night passed and in the morning he left the place and spared the life of the prince.
Day 2 – Naraka Chaturdashi / Choti Diwali
Chaturdashi means fourteen and Naraka is the name of a demon. It was on this day that Lord Krishna killed the demon called Naraka and released the sixteen thousand and one hundred princesses who had been incarcerated by Naraka. Krishna had taken his wife Satyabhama with him since she was an incarnation of the earth goddess. Sometimes it is said that she assumed the form of Kali in order to kill the demon. Hence, on this day Kali is also worshipped. This day is also known as Choti Diwali. This year both Naraka Chaturdashi and Diwali fall on the same day – 24th October.
The princesses who had been released from the dungeon begged Krishna to marry them since even their parents would refuse to take them back after having stayed for some years with a notorious womaniser like Naraka. Of course, the chances of their ever being accepted by any man was out of the question. Lord Krishna was one who never let down anyone who approached him with devotion and therefore he accepted them and took them with him to his own city of Dwaraka. The day happened to be the amavasya (new moon) day of the month of Kartika. He was welcomed by the citizens with rows and rows of lights and hence on the night of Diwali we should light lamps and imagine that we are citizens of Dwaraka, welcoming the Lord after his glorious victory over the forces of evil as depicted by Narakasura. The esoteric significance is given below.
The word naraka means hell and Krishna is the divine who has taken on a human form and kills this demon, Naraka. He destroys the hell of misery we have created for ourselves within our minds due to our lack of understanding of our true nature. He frees the spirits of positivity which have been shut up within the prison of our ignorant mind and marries them (allows them to unite with him). The enlightened being will destroy the hell of ignorance in his mind which in turn throws open the door to many positive qualities which have been jailed inside. His true nature or home within himself will now be lit up with all positive qualities.
Symbolically we light thousands of lamps in our houses trying to remove the darkness of the night outside but our hearts are still choked with the darkness of intolerance, fear and hatred. In fact, this darkness has covered the whole world defying all attempts to remove it by right-minded people. The festival of Diwali celebrated every year is a continuous reminder to us to kill this demon and set free the positivity which is enshrined in us.
The same theme is repeated in the Ramayana. Rama killed the rakshasa Ravana and returned to his own city of Ayodhya along with his wife Sita, after fourteen years of exile, on the night of the new moon – amavasya. The citizens had been waiting for his return and welcomed him with thousands of little lights. Here Ravana is the epitome of the unbridled ego which has to be vanquished by Rama, the man of enlightenment. Rama rescues his beloved wife Sita who is the epitome of all positive traits like purity, spirituality and unconditional love. Re-enactments of the Ramayana, the story of Lord Rama, are part of the celebrations in some areas of Bharat.
Day 3 – Lakshmi Puja
The 3rd day of Diwali is Diwali proper and falls on the amavasya (new moon) day in the dark fortnight of the month of Kartika as has been said. This is said to be the darkest night of the year. Lakshmi Puja is done in the morning. She is the goddess of prosperity and on this day she is in her most benevolent mood, ready to fulfil the wishes of her devotees because this was the day on which she emerged out of the ocean of milk and the day on which she married Vishnu!
It is said that the goddess will not enter a dirty house or take her residence in a heart filled with negativity so it is very important to keep your house spotlessly clean and wear clean clothes and offer prayers with a clean and pure heart. She will enter only such houses that are filled with purity. Lamps are lit in the evening in order to light up the path and make it easy for her to enter the house.
On this day merchants redo their account books and pray for success and prosperity during the coming year. They do puja to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and invite her to their homes.
Again and again the theme of the ignorant mortal who is covered with abysmal nescience is repeated every year in the hope that one day the light of clear reason will prevail and humanity will realise that the solution to all its problems can be found by clearing the ignorance in their own hearts. The divine Self is ever residing in our hearts and ever ready to give us all help if we turn to Him. Since He has given us a certain amount of intelligence, He allows us to make our own choices until the day dawns when we realise that we are truly incapable of making the right choices. At this moment we turn to Him out of our own free will. At that time He will come running to our aid like Krishna did to help the princesses who had been jailed for many years.
Firecrackers are a must for Diwali. Apart from the fact that people especially children, love crackers, there is a scientific reason for burning them. Diwali comes straight after the monsoons when a lot of insects and mosquitos are flying around. The fumes produced by the firecrackers, if they are not made with harmful chemicals, will kill or repel many of these unwanted insects. Above all Diwali is the victory of our noble emotions over our negative tendencies.
Day 4 – Govardhan Puja
The 4th day of Diwali, is Govardhan Puja. To know the meaning of this we have to go to the village of Vrindavana which was the place where Krishna grew up in the cowherd village. At that time Vrindavana was a forest where Krishna and his friends used to go to graze their cows and calves. There was a hill near the forest known as Govardhan. The gopalas (cowherds) used to have an annual festival in which they used to worship Indra, king of the gods, since he was the Lord of rain. Their survival depended on their cows who in turn needed grass which of course would grow only if there was rain so the cowherds used to worship Indra every year. Once Krishna told them to stop worshipping Indra and worship Govardhan instead since the mountain was the one that provided them with grass and streams and whatever they needed for their livelihood. So the simple folk started their worship of the hill. Indra was furious and started to pour down torrents of water from the clouds. The village was on the verge of being washed away. They ran to Krishna to save them and it is said that the Lord lifted up the hill on his little finger and the whole village including the cattle took shelter under the hill which acted as an umbrella.
Of course, Indra was furious and he poured down more and more rain for seven days but the Lord held the hill aloft and the cowherds had no problem. This incident was what gave Lord Krishna the name Giridhari. Indra realised that this was no ordinary child. He came down to the village with the celestial cow Surabhi who did abhishekam (ceremonial bath) to Krishna with her milk. Indra’s pride was thoroughly humbled and he knelt in front of Krishna and begged him to forgive him.
This incident is the pivot of this ritual. A small hillock is made in the garden with cow dung cakes and it is decorated with flowers and garlands. Devotees go round the hillock and pray to Lord Govardhan and to Lord Krishna to protect them.
This day is also associated with the great King Mahabali who was an exceptional Vishnu bhakta. When he started to become very haughty, Vishnu took the form of a dwarf – Vamana, and defeated him and pushed him down into the last of the lokas known as Patala. On this 4th day of Diwali, Bali is supposed to return from this loka to his own land so this day is also known as Padva or Bali Pratipada in some parts of the country. (This is celebrated as Onam in Kerala.)
Day 5 – Bhaidooj
The 5th day is known Bhaidooj in North Bharat in which married girls return to their ancestral homes in order to celebrate their bond with their brothers. This festival is very similar to the festival of Raksha Bandhan. The only difference is that on this day no rakhi is tied by the sister. In fact, the roles are reversed and she has to give presents to the brother.
May this Diwali allow each one of us to cast off the shackles of ignorance which have tied us down for lifetimes, free us from the choking chains of the demonic Naraka ego and allow us to attain union with Krishna, the Purushottama, the Supreme Person, who alone can engulf us in the glorious light of eternal freedom which is ever existing in our hearts.
May this Diwali clean our whole country of its negativity and the whole planet of the negative emotions of greed and anger and make us realise that we are puny mortals compared to the overwhelming forces of nature that we have been taking for granted for so many years.
Hari Aum Tat Sat!
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