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Archive for November 5th, 2010

The Rangoli of Lights

‘Tis the season to be jolly over a wide range of holidays celebrated by loads of people in various points on the globe and things brighten up considerably after the ghoulish glee of Halloween in the US and Dia de los Muertos in Mexico as the lights go on in India.

Yes, it’s Diwali, दीपावली in Sanskrit, and also known as Deepavali, the Festival of Lights.

The name Diwali is itself a contraction of the word “Deepavali”, which translates into row of lamps. Diwali involves the lighting of small clay lamps (diyas) (or Deep in Sanskrit: दीप) filled with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil. During Diwali, all the celebrants wear new clothes and share sweets and snacks with family members and friends.

I did my bit today by stopping into the Indian-owned shops I frequent with wishes for a Happy Diwali and was treated to big smiles, lovely whiffs of incense and a gander at more-than-usually elaborate alter offerings. The Hindu temple in town will be hoppin’ tonight!

Unlike in the Christian world where only one version of any given holiday is deemed acceptable and all those pagan vestiges like putting trees in houses and hunting for colored eggs are considered mere fluff, those of various beliefs embrace Diwali for a host of different reasons.

Where the Hindus in some regions spend their holiday worshipping Lord Ganesha and mark the marriage of Lakshmi to Vishnu, those in Bengal dedicate the festival to Mother Kali, their goddess of strength.

The Jains use the occasion to celebrate the moment Mahavira attained Nirvana:

Diwali has a very special significance in Jainism, just like Buddha Purnima, the date of Buddha’s Nirvana, is for Buddhists as Easter is for Christians. Lord Mahavira, the last of the Jain Tirthankaras, attained Nirvana or Moksha on this day at Pavapuri on Oct. 15, 527 BC, on Chaturdashi of Kartika, as Tilyapannatti of Yativrashaba from the sixth century states:

Mahavira is responsible for establishing the Dharma followed by Jains even today. According to tradition, the chief disciple of Mahavira, Ganadhara Gautam Swami also attained complete knowledge (Kevalgyana) on this day, thus making Diwali one of the most important Jain festivals.

For the Sikhs, the lights have a glow all their own:

Diwali is a Hindu festival of lights that was appropriated by the Sikhs to celebrate the release from prison of Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru, from prison in 1619. The Golden Temple was illuminated with lights to welcome the Guru home, and Sikhs continue this tradition by lighting lamps on Diwali each year. The Golden Temple is illuminated with thousands of lights.

There are, of course, roots trailing all the way back to the earth, as all religions to if you follow the path far enough:

Deepavali marks the end of the harvest season in most of India. Farmers give thanks for the bounty of the year gone by, and pray for a good harvest for the year to come. Traditionally this marked the closing of accounts for businesses dependent on the agrarian cycle, and is the last major celebration before winter. Lakshmi symbolizes wealth and prosperity, and her blessings are invoked for a good year ahead.

No matter what the specific focus of worship, there’s a shared perception of Diwali that I find … well … illuminating:

In each legend, myth and story of Deepawali lies the significance of the victory of good over evil; and it is with each Deepawali and the lights that illuminate our homes and hearts, that this simple truth finds new reason and hope. From darkness unto light — the light that empowers us to commit ourselves to good deeds, that which brings us closer to divinity. During Diwali, lights illuminate every corner of India and the scent of incense sticks hangs in the air, mingled with the sounds of fire-crackers, joy, togetherness and hope. Diwali is celebrated around the globe.

So, Happy Diwali to all! No matter what your belief may be, light and good deeds deserve celebrating!

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