Deepavali literally means a row of lamps in Sanskrit. With the passage of time, the popular name has shortened to Diwali, particularly in northern India.
The Amanta (ending on the new-moon) version of the Hindu Calendar is prevalent in southern India and Maharashtra; spread over the last four days of the Ashwin month and the first two days of the new month of Kartika. According to Purnimanta (ending on the full-moon) version prevalent in northern India it falls in the middle of the month of Ashwayuja/Ashvin.
Significant Events related to Diwali:
Return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya: Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama, with his wife Sita plus brother Lakshmana to Ayodhya after a 14 year exile, and a war in which he killed Ravana, the demon king. It is said that the denizens Ayodhya lit ghee lamps to light their path in the darkness. Lord Rama journeyed from South India to his kingdom in the North, he passed through the south earlier; because of which the festival is celebrated a day earlier in South India.
Austerities of Shakti: According to the Skanda Purana, goddess Shakti observed 21 days of austerity from ashtami of shukla paksha (eighth day of the waxing period of moon) to get half the body of Lord Shiva. This fast is known as kedhara vrata; Deepavali being its completion day when Lord Shiva accepted Shakti as the left half of his form and appeared as Ardhanarishvara.
Lakshmi Puja (30 Ashvin or 15 Krishna Paksha Ashvin): Lakshmi Puja marks the most important day of Diwali celebrations in North India. Hindus worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Ganesha, the God of auspicious beginnings, lighting lamps all over streets and homes to welcome prosperity and for wellbeing.
Hindus leave the windows and doors of their houses open so that Lakshmi can come in. Rangoli patterns are drawn on the floors and the most popular subject is the lotus flower because images of Lakshmi show her either holding a lotus or sitting on one.There is much feasting and Diwali lamps make it easy for Lakshmi to find her way to favoured houses.
The goddess is worshipped in her dark form as Kali rather than in her domesticated form as Lakshmi in the Bengali and Oriya areas of India. Diwali marks the last battle in the period of Chaturmas when the demons become all powerful and must be wiped out.
There are two legends associated with the worship of Goddess Lakshmi on Diwali. According to the first, Goddess Lakshmi emerged from Kshira Sagar, the Ocean of Milk, during the great churning of the oceans or Samudra manthan.
The second legend relates to the Vamana Avatara taken by Vishnu to restore Indra's authority over the heavens which was taken away by Mahabali, a benevolent Asura King. Vamana in the guise of a short Brahman requests for three steps of land for him to live in. Mahabali agrees against the wishes of his Guru Shankaracharya. The dwarf grows so huge that he steps from heaven to earth, and earth to the lower worlds in two steps. King Mahabali offers his head for the third step. Vamana place his head on the king's head and grants him immortality for his benevolence.
Thus Vishnu teaches King Mahabali that arrogance should be abandoned to advance in life and wealth should never be taken for granted because it can be easily taken away.
On this day, Vishnu came back to his abode, Vaikuntha. Those who worship Lakshmi, Vishnu's consort on Diwali, benefit by her benevolent mood, and are blessed with mental, physical and material well-being.
As per spiritual references, "Lakshmi-panchayatan" enters the Universe on this day. Sri Vishnu, Sri Indra, Sri Kuber, Sri Gajendra and Sri Lakshmi are elements of this panchayatan or group of five. The tasks of these elements are:
- Vishnu: Happiness (happiness and satisfaction)
- Indra: Opulence (satisfaction due to wealth)
- Kubera: Wealth (Generosity; one who gives away wealth)
- Gajendra: Carries the wealth
- Lakshmi: Divine Energy or Shakti, providing energy to all the above activities.
Hindu philosophy endorses that there is something beyond the physical body and mind which is pure and eternal, called the Atman. Deepavali celebrates this inner enlightenment which dispels ignorance, awakening the individual to infinite spiritual reality. With the realization of the Atman one attains universal compassion and higher knowledge, leading to ananda or inner joy.
The festival celebrates this through festivities of fireworks, sharing sweets, and worship. While the story varies regionally, the underlying essence is to rejoice in the inner light or Atman and the reality of all things or Brahman.
Significance of Diwali
The festival marks the victory of good over evil and spiritual enlightenment. Symbolically it marks the arrival of goodwill as endorsed by the celebrated epic ‘Ramayana’.
Some North Indian businessmen regard it as favorable to start their financial year because of its association with the goddess of wealth and new account books are opened.
Diwali is also used to celebrate a successful harvest. Diwali marks the end of the harvest season in India. Farmers are grateful for the bounty of the past year and pray for a good harvest in the coming year. Traditionally this marked the closing of accounts for businesses dependent on the agrarian cycle, and the last major celebration before winter. The deity of Lakshmi symbolizes wealth and prosperity, and her blessings are invoked for a good year ahead.
Lamps are lit to help goddess Lakshmi find her way into people's homes. They also celebrate one of Diwali legends woven around the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya after fourteen years of exile; on a dark moonless night not able to see where they were going. People lit lamps outside their houses so that the new king and queen could find their way, thus beginning the tradition of the festival of lights.
In India oil lamps are often floated across the Ganges regarded as a good omen if the lamp manages to get all the way across.
Fireworks form a major part of the Diwali celebrations, although in recent years there has been a slow down because of noise and pollution with accidental deaths and injuries. Diwali being a festival of lights, people across India celebrate it via symbolic diyas, an integral part of Diwali decorations.
On the day of Diwali, many wear new clothes and share sweets.
Many Indians see it as an occasion to gamble. This arises from a legend that goddess Parvati played dice with her husband on this day and she said that anyone who gambled on Diwali night would do well.
Like Christmas in the West, Diwali is very much a time for buying and exchanging gifts. Traditionally sweets and dried fruit were common gifts to distribute. In most years shopkeepers expect sales to rise substantially in weeks before the festival. Diwali is also a traditional time to redecorate homes and buy new clothes.