Diwali: Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and more mark Festival of Lights

Diwali Diyas lit in dim lighting

A diya, the traditional lamp of Diwali, is customarily made of clay and symbolizes the “Festival of lights.” Paramount to Hindu philosophy is the Atman, something beyond the physical that is pure, infinite and eternal; it is the awakening to this “Inner Light” that Diwali represents. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 3: Here’s a holiday question for our readers: Are you seeing signs of Diwali wherever you call home?
ReadTheSpirit’s Home Office is in suburban Detroit, and we’ve seen displays of Diwali decorations in stores, for weeks, as families prepare for Diwali. Please, add a comment below or email us at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com if you spot a local sign of Diwali approaching.

The Festival of Lights cuts across a number of faiths: Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Indian communities all around the planet mark this annual holiday with lovely displays of lights.

Hands decorated with henna tattoos holding a small clay bowl filled with oil and lit with fire at the top

Hands decorated with Mehndi, or henna, hold a diya lamp. Photo by Shrinivasa Sharma, courtesy of Flickr

FOR HINDUS, Diwali lasts five days and is associated with several legends. Literally, “Diwali” is a contraction of “Deepavali,” which translates into “row of lamps”—thus indicating one of the most vital elements of the holiday. (Wikipedia has details.)

Diyas are the small lamps found in almost every Hindu home during Diwali. The lamps often burn throughout the night in order to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. (Some Hindus use colorful paper lamps known as kandils. Find kid-friendly explanations of Diwali from National Geographic.)

In the days and weeks ahead of Diwali, devotees buy new clothes, clean their homes, purchase fireworks and gifts, and prepare plenty of mouth-watering sweets to share with family and friends. (Learn more from DiwaliFestival.org.) Indian businesses prepare the end of their financial year, as a fresh year begins on Dhanteras, the first day of Diwali.

FOR JAINS, Diwali marks the time when Mahavira, the 24th and final Tirthankara (human who freed his soul from the cycles of karma and acts as a role model) achieved moksha, or nirvana. For Jains, Diwali is a type of anniversary of Mahavira’s attainment in 527 BCE. It’s believed that several gods were present at the time, and that they illuminated the darkness.

FOR SIKHS, Bandi Shor Divas is associated with Diwali. Commemorated as “Day of Liberation,” Bandi Shor Divas (spellings vary) celebrates the time when Sikh Guru Hargobind Ji, along with 52 princes, was released from prison in 1619. As Diwali was in full swing when Guru Hargobind Ji arrived in Amritsar following his release, the festival became tied with happiness for his liberation. The two—Bandi Shor Divas and Diwali—are distinct, yet Sikh families tend to mark them together.

FOR MILLIONS AROUND THE WORLD, Diwali is an official holiday: in India, Nepal, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Malaysia, Singapore, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and Suriname.

DIWALI FROM NORTH TO SOUTH, EAST TO WEST

Two countries are rivals for the grandest Diwali festival in the world: India, of course, and—Fiji! Nearly one-third of Fiji’s population is Hindu, and the government of Fiji set aside the holiday in 1970, along with one major Christian holiday and a major Islamic holiday. Officials wanted to honor all three of the main religions that comprise Fiji’s population. Diwali events in Fiji begin at least one week before the commencement of the actual festival, and fireworks, shopping events, diya lightings and special dishes make up the favored festival. (This year, the Consumer Council of Fiji is expressing concern for the over-commercialization of the holiday, which includes some advertisements for traditionally banned meats. Read more here.)

Women adjust circles of small lighted diya lamps

Women create a display of diya lamps for Diwali. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

INDIA: FROM HOMEMADE OILS TO CATTLE

In India, customs vary by region. In Tamil Nadu, a bathing tradition includes an oil of pepper corns and bael leaves (and a homemade medicine is popular to soothe digestive issues that may come with the influx of rich foods); in Karnataka, cows are elaborately decorated and fireworks are widely seen at night; restaurants in Hyderabad prepare sweets that are available only during this time of year. In many areas, local stage shows tell the stories associated with Diwali in a family-friendly atmosphere. Though the purchase of gold is a major custom associated with Diwali, that tradition is taking a downturn this year as India cut its legal gold imports. (Reuters has the story.) India took first place as the world’s top gold purchaser in 2012, but is likely to lose its spot to China in 2013.

DIWALI IN EUROPE, AUSTRALIA & THE UNITED STATES

Britain takes pride in its Diwali events, as Leicester hosts one of the largest parties outside of India and an enormous display of fireworks commences in the East End of London. Australia kicked off its first major Diwali festival in 2002, and today’s events include traditional Indian foods, Indian art, Diwali stories and a night sky filled with fireworks.

With an increasing Indian population, the United States witnessed its first Diwali in the White House in 2003; Barack Obama became the first president to personally attend Diwali at the White House in 2009. That same year, San Antonio became the first U.S. city to sponsor an official Diwali event.

HEADLINES:
TRAFALGAR SQUARE; PET SAFETY; POLLUTION

Indians in New Zealand celebrated Diwali a few days early this year, but the public is invited to Trafalgar Square in London for a lineup of contemporary music and dance, stalls of traditional foods and drinks and children’s activities.

Alerting pet owners to make preparations for their pets before the booming fireworks of Diwali, animal activist groups in India are handing out pamphlets and raising awareness about the stress experienced by furry friends throughout Diwali. (The Hindu reported. Or, read more in the Deccan Chronicle.) Nearly 40 pets in Hyderabad alone had to be rushed to veterinary care last year as a result of the immense number of firecrackers, and celebrants are being urged to avoid lighting crackers in residential areas. Helpline services and a specialized ambulance will be on hand this year for emergencies.

Air toxicity is expected to hit unprecedented and alarming levels in Kolkata this year, as poisonous gases and heavy metals fill the air after exceeding numbers of fireworks. Smuggled imports of Chinese firecrackers, which are more toxic than others, contributes to the high pollution levels; thousands of other banned crackers are also making their way into India as Diwali approaches. Officials note that unless strict monitoring services are employed, the pollution will be out of control.

As the price of dried fruit has skyrocketed, demand for chocolate has risen dramatically this Diwali, reports the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India. Read more in the Indian Express.

While the immersion of religious statues was banned in Allahabad high court for environmental concerns, a group of rural women is answering the demand—with eco-friendly figures made of cow dung. (The Times of India has more.) The women, who were educated in the sculpting by the Bioved Research Institute of Agriculture and Technology, report that the figures—lightweight, biodegradable and durable—are in high demand. While just a few figures were crafted last year, this year has seen the creation of hundreds of statues.

 (Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, a magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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