Called the festival of lights, Diwali is arguably the most important holiday of the year and is observed by over a billion people across faiths. The five days of Diwali are marked by prayer, feasts, fireworks, family gatherings, charitable giving, and for some, even a new year. While the shadow cast by the coronavirus will make this a bittersweet Diwali for many, we must derive comfort from the spirit of the holiday—the belief that light will triumph over darkness
Diwali is India’s most important festival of the year—a time to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and good over evil. Widely observed among more than a billion people from a variety of faiths across India and its diaspora, the five days of Diwali are marked by prayer, feasts, fireworks, family gatherings, and charitable giving. For some, Diwali is also the beginning of a new year.
But Diwali is perhaps best known as a festival of lights. Derived from the Sanskrit dipavali, which means “row of lights,” Diwali is known for the brightly burning clay lamps that celebrants line up outside their homes.
The dates of this festival are based on the Hindu lunar calendar, which marks each month by the time it takes the moon to orbit Earth. Diwali begins just before the arrival of a new moon between the Hindu months of Asvina and Kartika—which typically falls in October or November of the Gregorian calendar. In 2020, Diwali begins on November 12, and its most important festival day will take place on November 14.
How Diwali is celebrated
Just as the legends of Diwali differ from region to region so, too, do the holiday’s rituals. What most have in common, though, are the abundance of sweets, family gatherings, and the lighting of clay lamps that symbolize the inner light that protects each household from spiritual darkness.
But generally, each of the five days of Diwali has its own significance. On the first day of Diwali, people pray to the goddess Lakshmi, bake sweets, and clean their homes—which they decorate the next day with lamps and rangolis, designs made on the floor out of colored sand, powder, rice or flower petals.
Diwali’s third day is its most important: On this day, people may go to temple to honor Lakshmi or gather with friends and family for feasts and fireworks. Devotees also set ablaze the lamps they had displayed the day before.
For many celebrants, the fourth day of Diwali marks the new year and a time to exchange gifts and well wishes. Finally, the fifth day is typically a day to honor one’s siblings.
Over the years, Diwali has become India’s biggest holiday season—rivaling Thanksgiving or Christmas in the United States. Shoppers take advantage of the sales and communities across India and across its diaspora host small fairs. Fireworks are also a major part of the celebrations, particularly in New Delhi where they are often criticized for causing spikes in the city’s notoriously bad pollution.
This year, however, the coronavirus pandemic is upending these celebrations. Some temples will be streaming services online, while family gatherings will be more intimate than usual—if they happen at all.
Meanwhile, New Delhi has banned the use of firecrackers this year in hopes to mitigate the harmful effect of air pollution on human respiratory systems, which are particularly vulnerable during the pandemic. And, across the world, cities from New York to San Antonio are moving their Diwali festivals online.
While the shadow cast by the coronavirus will make this a bittersweet Diwali for many of those marking the holiday, they may be able to derive comfort from the spirit of the holiday—the belief that, eventually, light will triumph over darkness.
The meaning of Diwali—and its many legends
There are many stories around what exactly Diwali commemorates and why it is celebrated. However, they all ultimately represent the victory of good over evil.
In Hinduism alone—which is considered the world’s oldest living religion, dating back to the second millennium B.C.—there are several versions of the Diwali story that vary among geographic communities. These, however, are all epic tales of victory won by men who were considered incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, regarded as the sustainer of the universe, and whose role it is to restore the balance of good and evil in times of trouble.
Perhaps these diverse origin stories of Diwali point to a shared argument that Indian culture is making about the world: that good – whether as one of the many avatars of Lord Vishnu, an enlightened Jain prince, or an imprisoned guru – will necessarily triumph over the evils of demons, injustice and ignorance.
Certainly that’s an argument worth celebrating, especially in the chaotic times we live in today.
Victory of Lord Ram over Ravana
• Among Hindu families, many claim the festival celebrates the defeat of the evil demon king Ravana by Rama – an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and the hero of India’s Ramayana epic. In the most famous part of this epic tale, Rama’s wife is abducted by the demon Ravana, and Rama must journey to the land of Lanka to save her with the assistance of his brother.
Defeat of demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna
• A different tradition states that the festival commemorates the defeat of the demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna. Like Rama, Krishna is an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who has come to assist humanity in its time of need.
• Some stories tell of Krishna’s efforts to rid the world of demons. In this particular story, the King Naraka gains extraordinary abilities through a deal with a demon and becomes intoxicated with power.
• Narakasura, as he is now called, destroys the kingdoms around him and eventually plans to assault even the heavens. Krishna appears and uses his divine powers to neutralize Narakasura’s weapons, eventually beheading him with a multi-pronged discus.
Vishnu and Lakshmi
• Other traditions associate the festival with the birth of the goddess Lakshmi and her marriage to Vishnu. In the Hindu tradition, Lakshmi is worshipped as the goddess of wealth, while Vishnu is seen as the preserver of humanity
• In India’s early agrarian society, Diwali coincided with the last harvest before winter—a time to pray for Lakshmi for good fortune. Today, Indian businesses still consider Diwali the first day of the financial new year.
• While there are many stories of her birth, the most prevalent is that Lakshmi appeared during the churning of the divine ocean of milk from which the nectar of immortality comes during a fight between the gods and demons. After appearing, she chooses to marry Vishnu and to assist him in working for the benefit of humanity
Defeat of Hiranyakshipu by Narasimha
• In southern India, Hindu families commemorate the defeat of the demon Hiranyakshipu by Narasimha, the lion-headed incarnation of Vishnu. Like many Indian stories, Hiranyakshipu is a demi-god who believes he is immortal after receiving a divine blessing from the Hindu creator-god Brahma that lists the conditions for his death.
• According to the boon, he cannot be killed at day or at night, inside or outside, by human or by animal, by projectile weapons or by hand weapons, and neither on the ground nor in the sky.
• In response to Hiranyakshipu’s terrorizing of the heavens and Earth, Vishnu then incarnates as the lion-headed god Narasimha to kill the demon. He kills him at dusk, on the step of his house, as a chimeric lion with his claws as he lies on Narasimha’s lap – all conditions that satisfy the elements of the boon.
Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists, three minority religions in India, have their own Diwali stories
• For Sikhs, whose religion arose in the late 15th century as a movement within Hinduism that is particularly devoted to Vishnu, Diwali commemorates the release of the 17th-century guru Hargobind after 12 years of imprisonment by Mughal emperor Jahangir.
• After the public execution of his father by Mughal leaders, Guru Hargobind became increasingly passionate about forming an independent Sikh homeland through military action if necessary. He was eventually jailed by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, but was released two years later on the day of Diwali.
• Popular legends state that when he was freed, Guru Hargobind tricked the Mughal emperor into allowing him to bring out as many men as could hold onto the hem of his cloak and, in this way, helped release 52 other prisoners who held onto 52 threads coming off of his garment.
• Jains, whose ancient religion dates back to the middle of the first century B.C. and also shares many of the beliefs of Hinduism, observe Diwali as the day that Lord Mahavira, the last of the great Jain teachers, reached nirvana.
• And Buddhists, whose religion emerged in the late 6th century B.C. in what some describe as a reaction to Hinduism, celebrate it as the day the Hindu Emperor Ashoka, who ruled in the third century B.C., converted to Buddhism.