Light. If there is one word that sums up the festival of Diwali, it is light. Across traditions and varying significance of this festival, light runs through like a stream connecting all the dots. Occurring on the darkest night in the Hindu calendar, the Amavasya, Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit term Dipavali, which means a row of lights. It lasts for about five days, beginning with Dhanteras and ending with Bhai Dooj. The celebrations also include waiting for the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, to grace the house and bring more wealth into the family.
To begin with, Diwali always falls on a different day every year. This date of this festival is decided by the phases of the moon, and the darkest night is the night of Diwali. The dominant narrative that I heard growing up was of the Hindu epic Ramayana. After Lord Rama returns from his exile of 14 years, the residents of Ayodhya light up the entire city with earthen lamps and reinstall him as the King of Ayodhya. The celebration of his return marks Diwali. However, there are many other stories that form the five days of the celebration. There is no one dominant narrative that runs through India, which has often been assumed. Not everyone celebrates it in the same way and for the same reasons.
For most of the Southern part of India, Diwali marks Lord Krishna defeating the demon Naraksura. As he died, he wished for a boon, that his death be celebrated with lights. Thus, a day before Diwali is known as Narak Chaturdashi, the day when homes are cleaned and all the dirt from homes is supposed to be eliminated. For the Jain community in India, this was when their 24th guru Lord Mahavira attained his enlightenment or nirvana. For the Sikh community, this was the day when Guru Hargobind Singh returned to his hometown Amritsar. The story goes that he had been unfairly imprisoned in Gwalior for a long time and as he is released, thus begins the celebration of lights.
Light, liberation, and celebration are the common themes that run through all celebrations. Most of them are just stories one hears as one grows up but every family develops its own separate Diwali tradition. For some, the preparations of this festival begin months in advance. Homes are painted a new color, both inside and outside, a process that takes months. A lot of families schedule weddings before or after this time; a new house, blessed by the gods, and lit up for a wedding lines up perfectly with Diwali. For some, it is a preparation of weeks. Cleaning the house is the beginning, and weeding out dirt, unwanted things (or continuing to hoard!), it is almost like spring cleaning.
The five days become the most crucial part of this celebration. Day one is dhanteras, a day to accumulate metal and buy new things for the house. Most families buy gold during this time. Some buy silverware to commemorate the day. This day is specifically important for worshipping the goddess of wealth, Laxmi. The next is Narak Chaturdashi which is also often referred to as Chhoti Diwali. As mentioned before, this is the day when people celebrating make sure their homes are spick and span.
The actual festival of Diwali is on day three. This is the darkest night in the year – thus the emphasis on light. While the morning and afternoons are spent in preparing food for the night, evenings are typically reserved for making rangolis at the entrance of the house. These are small designs, ranging from simple to intricate, that are supposed to welcome the gods and goddesses as they enter your home. Ideally, since it is almost the beginning of the new year, most homes wear something new in their outfit. There is a small ritual or pooja involved, in which earthen lamps are lit all across the house. A moonless night is made bright by the rows of the deep or earthen lamps and thus Deepavali is celebrated. Most homes follow this up with fireworks of varying kinds.
This is followed by the Hindu new year, which by some is also celebrated as Annakoot. A variety of dishes is made on this day and then offered to the gods. Finally, the fifth day of the celebration is Bhai Dooj, a festival where sisters go to their brother’s house and commemorate their relationship with a little tilak on the forehead.
The entire week, and even the weeks prior to this, gift giving is practiced in every social relationship you have, professional or personal. You have to honor the mailman as well as the boss of the place you work at. Considering the hierarchies of different kinds of work that exist in India, this is supposed to be a very important gesture. Gifts can include anything from sweets to clothes and jewelry. Of course, most companies capitalize on this, as the maximum sales of gold happen during this time of the year. Advertising campaigns go big on buying things for your family or significant other. Although companies capitalize upon Diwali, the festival still manages to have an authentic feel in every house that celebrates.
Diwali is my favorite festival, and having studied in a Catholic school for 14 years, I always equated it with Christmas, both being equally important to me. While I am not particularly religious, Diwali fills me with a strange sense of hope and light and all things new. Being away from home, I even indulged in a bit of worship as my mom taught me how to do it. This is the only festival I am willing to make the compromise on.
It is the time when everyone in the house is working together, cooking together, and making memories together. Entire extended families sometimes get together, even with matching clothing. While our regular dressing is jeans and t-shirts, Diwali gives us the opportunity to dress up in traditional clothing and wear the jewelry that is out of our reach all year round. Decorating the entire house in fairy lights, making and then putting up garlands of flowers, looking for intricate Rangoli designs but settling for what my artistic skills and younger brother allowed to be made, preparing the diyas or earthen lamps with oil and cotton to be lit up, and finally, the firecrackers!
There is a wholesomeness to this festival. The way I have always celebrated and seen it celebrated has been inclusive. It is not a husband-wife ritual, or a mother-child ritual, and doesn't require any specific relationship. This is where everyone comes together. My role is as important as any other person's in the family, no matter what age or gender. Considering that a festival just 11 days after Diwali—gyaras or the 11th day—does not particularly require young women to be a part of the ritual, and a festival just a few days prior to it requires wives to fast for the long lives of their husband, for the most part, Diwali exists unproblematically in the way it functions. Of course, the reliance still is on Brahmanical chants and Hindu rituals but there is scope for everyone to be included and for everyone to celebrate what they wish to.
Along with light, this festival is about togetherness and being whole. My first Diwali away from home was celebrated with my Indian and international friends in Bowling Green. The hard work of cooking for about 15 people felt nothing next to the immense joy of bringing people together for a celebration. This is more than a birthday; this was sharing my culture and the traditions that my family and I have built over the years.
Anyone with a penchant for celebrating positivity, the emergence of good, and light and all things bright can participate in this festival. In addition to celebration, one gets a ton of food and sweets. Even trying on traditional clothing for the festival as a means to honor the sentiments of those celebrating it with you is great! Diwali invites everyone. All you have to be is willing to participate. Many festivals in India come with their set of problems—casteism, sexism, blatant misogyny, or exclusivity. Based on what I have seen and read as a grown-up, Diwali has always been more inclusive.
However, it is also a festival about accumulating wealth and distributing it. The give and take, the exchange and even the lights can sometimes be particularly problematic in those less privileged households, where one does not have electricity to put up lights, or enough money to buy so much as a spoon from the local market. Big companies and corporations furthers monetize the event, serving a specific class of people in the country. In order for Diwali to be inclusive, it needs to be a celebration of life and light, and not a celebration of wealth.
Come together, eat together, and make memories. That is ultimately the message of Diwali.
Tarishi Verma is a third year PhD student at the Bowling Green State University. When not found tediously rummaging through piles of books, she cooks, sings, and drinks matcha latte.
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