Diwali: Hindus, Jains and Sikhs mark grand festival of lights

“From untruth lead us to truth. From darkness lead us to light. From death lead us to immortality. Om peace, peace, peace.”
English translation of a Vedic prayer celebrating lights

A cityscape lit up with abundant lights and fireworks in the sky

Diwali lights and fireworks in India. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 23: The worldwide festival of lights launches from India today, in the ancient Hindu celebration of Diwali. In recognition of the triumph of light over darkness, Diwali bears great significance for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike. As awareness of Indian culture spreads, major celebrations now are hosted around the world. And please note: Dates and spellings of Diwali vary by country and region.

This holiday is so important around the world that, this week, ReadTheSpirit is publishing two columns about Diwali. Our regular holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton reports here; FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis adds more about Diwali—plus a delicious recipe!

Preparations for Diwali begin weeks in advance, so a flurry of pre-Diwali activity can be seen in most cities of India. In a shopping extravaganza comparable to the Western Christmas season, gold jewelry, fine clothing, sweet treats and household goods fly off racks in marketplaces across India. At home, surfaces are scrubbed clean, women and children decorate entrances with Rangoli and men string strands of lights. Official celebrations begin two days before Diwali, and end two days after Diwali—spanning a total of five days. (Wikipedia has details.) During this five-day period, the old year closes and a new year is rung in.

Did you know? Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit fusion of dipa (“light,” or “lamp”) and avali (“series,” “line,” or “row”). For Diwali, rows of lamps are lit in homes and temples.

Small lamps in leaf shapes filled with oil and lit with wick on one side

Diya, earthen lamps filled with oil, are lit for Diwali. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the two days prior to Diwali, celebrants wrap up their shopping, bake sweets and bathe with fragrant oils. On Diwali, excitement builds as evening approaches. While donning new clothing, diyas (earthen lamps, filled with oil) are lit, prayers are offered to deities and many households welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity who is believed to roam the earth on Diwali night. To receive the blessings of Lakshmi tonight means a good year ahead. The night’s extravaganza is a sky ablaze with fireworks. And, families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts. Tonight, the diyas will remain lit through the dark hours.

The day following Diwali is Padwa, honoring the mutual love between husbands and wives. The next day, Bhai Duj, celebrates the sister-brother bond. On Bhai Duj, women and girls gather to perform puja and prayers for the well-being of their brothers, and siblings engage in gift-giving and the sharing of a meal.

ATMAN, HIGHER KNOWLEDGE

Several Hindu schools of philosophy teach the existence of something beyond the physical body and mind: something pure and infinite, known as atman. Diwali revels in the victory of good over evil, in the deeper meaning of higher knowledge dissipating ignorance and hope prevailing over despair. When truth is realized, one can see past ignorance and into the oneness of all things.

DIWALI AMONG JAINS AND SIKHS

On the night of Diwali, Jains celebrate light for yet another reason: to mark the attainment of moksha, or nirvana, by Mahavira. As the final Jain Tirthankar of this era, Mahavira’s attainment is celebrated with much fervor. It’s believed that many gods were present on the night when Mahavira reached moksha, and that their presence illuminated the darkness.

Sikhs mark the Bandi Chhor Divas on Diwali, when Guru Har Gobind Ji freed himself and the Hindu kings from Fort Gwalior and arrived at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Today, Bandi Chhor Divas is commemorated with the lighting of the Golden Temple, fireworks and more.

NEWS AND EXTRAS:
POLLUTION CAMPAIGNS,
GOLD THEFT IN LONDON

The Festival of Light has turned into a festival of excess pollution and noise in recent decades, and campaigns across India are asking celebrants to be mindful of their choices this Diwali (read more in the Deccan Chronicle). Online, major merchants like Amazon and Snapdeal ran major sales this year as Diwali season approached, and in London, festival-goers are voicing their fears of wearing gold jewelry in the face of growing gold thievery (BBC has the story).

Interested in coloring pages, crafts, printables and a how-to video of the Jai Ho dance? Find it all and more at Activity Village.

Find a kid-friendly approach to teaching about Diwali from National Geographic.

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Categories: Faiths of India

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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Categories: Faiths of India