Diwali is a joyous festival of lights, celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists (Dharmic traditions) and the festive spirit expressed by those of “any, all and no faith.” Though celebrated for different reasons, it has evolved from a pan-Indian festivity uniting multicultural diversity with worldwide cultures.
The very foundation of Indian civilization is based on the pluralistic acceptance embodied in the ancient Vedic scriptures; the oft used perennial Vedic saying: “Ekam Sat Vipra, Bahudha Vadanti,” meaning, “The Truth is One. The Realized Ones describe the One Truth in several ways.” Acceptance of this edict gives citizens space to express their differences while finding a common ground. And, closer to home, Diwali shares a special connection with American values as it exemplifies the ideals of “E Pluribus Unum,” or, “out of many, one.”
The strength of the Dharmic culture is the multitude of ways in which the Puranic (ancient traditional) stories and epics are brought to life through colorful festivals and selfless service (seva). These stories and epics bring to surface the deep philosophical truths of the ancient Hindu scriptures, known as the Vedas. The Festivals often express the common Vedic tenets of Hinduism, and of other Dharmic cultures, making them accessible to people from all walks of life.
Festivals form a lifeline that binds the Hindu and Dharmic cultures to family, the community and to the country where they reside. Festivals connect and bring people together in camaraderie and service. Hindu festivals also reflect and sustain the underlying pluralistic values for diverse people to co-exist harmoniously.
Hinduism is the contemporary word used for the monotheistic “Sanatana Dharma” or Eternal Order. The joy and peace in human life is based on observance of this eternal order. In the Hindu approach, an integration of spirit, mind and body is emphasized for pursuit of happiness (ananda). Festivals play a very important role in Hinduism as they manifest this integration.
A festival is a joyful synthesis and expression of spirituality, religion, philosophy, culture, service and social values. The spiritual aspect is founded on the human instincts of joy and happiness. The philosophical aspect is grounded in the struggle between the forces of good and evil with the ultimate triumph of the former. This struggle and ensuing victory of good is to be celebrated and used as a reminder to us, and future generations, that selfless service and giving are an interwoven part of the traditions.
“Service which is given without consideration of anything in return, at the right place and time to one that is qualified, with the feeling that it is one’s duty, is regarded as the nature of goodness.” (Bhagavad Gita 17.20)
In bringing together people of all Indic traditions — Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and others — the celebrations of the different aspect of Diwali create an interlocked mosaic.
For Hindus themselves, the festivities of Diwali are celebrated by many stories. Universally the celebration is the triumph of Good (Lord Rama or Lord Krishna) over Evil (Ravana, Narakasura, etc.).
Most of Northern India celebrates the homecoming of King Rama of Ayodhya after a 14-year exile in the forest with his wife Sita and brother Laxman. The people of Ayodhya (metaphorically translates to a place of no war) welcomed the trio by lighting rows (avali) of lamps (deepa), hence the name of the festival, Deepavali, or Diwali. The celebration of the victorious return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after killing the demon Ravana signifies the spiritual fulfillment of the journey (of life) after destroying the evil forces (asuras — negative tendencies) and strengthening the divine (divya) forces within.
Southern India honors this as the day Lord Krishna defeated the demon Narakasura. Krishna accompanied his wife, Sathyabhama, in battle. Together they subdued King Narakasura and freed the prisoners who were mostly women. Diwali celebrations in the North also honor Krishna who protected the people of Gokula from torrential rains under the Govardhan mountain.
In western India the celebration is in honor of the day King Bali who gave away his kingdom and went to rule the nether-world as ordered by Vishnu.
For Jains, Diwali has an added significance. Lord Mahavira attained the Eternal Bliss of Nirvana. His life was transformed into a spiritual journey of self penance and sacrifice.
The Sikhs have always celebrated Diwali. Its significance increased when, on this day the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, was freed from captivity of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir, along with 52 Hindu Kings (political prisoners).
Buddhists in India and Nepal honor Emperor Ashoka who, on this day, took to Ahimsa (non-violence), a key Vedic principle which became an integral part of Buddha’s teachings. King Ashoka sent his emissaries to many part of Asia and they spread Buddha’s teachings.
Goddess Lakshmi, (from the Sanskrit word “lakshye” which means “aim”) is invoked for blessings to restart our worldly and spiritual accounting. Prayers of thankfulness, (Lakshmi Puja), are offered for future prosperity by people of all faiths. Lakshmi Puja is another common factor in Diwali celebrations which binds the people of the Indian subcontinent and now globally.
Diwali traditionally marks the beginning of the New Year for Hindu businesses and the last harvest of the year before winter. Many close their books and open new accounts with prayers for success and prosperity. Symbolically it is a new start — forgive and forget — in all aspects of life including relationships with family and friends. It is the time for community and family celebration with prayers through puja, of togetherness, of sharing all resources, of food and gifts.
Today, Diwali is enjoyed by most Indians, regardless of faith, and by people of Dharmic faiths globally. Everyone celebrates it through festive fireworks, lights, flowers, sharing of sweets and worship as is customary for each religious and/or non-religious group. No house is too big or too small for illumination. Artisans of all faiths, including Muslims and Christians, participate in making the lamps, fireworks and sweets.
While the story behind Diwali varies from region to region, the essence is the same: to rejoice in the Inner Light and understand the underlying reality of all things. The spiritual meaning of Diwali is “the awareness of the inner light.” At the heart, Hindu philosophy emphasizes the presence of that which is pure, infinite and eternal, which is something beyond the physical and the mind. Diwali is the celebration of the awakening and awareness of the Inner Light. Although it is not seen externally, this Inner Light outshines all darkness, removes all obstacles and dispels all ignorance; it awakens the individual to one’s true nature, not as the body, but as the unchanging, infinite and transcendent reality. With this inner realization comes universal compassion, love and the awareness of the oneness of all things — the Sat (Truth), Chit (Consciousness) and Ananda (Inner Joy). For Hindus, this is the goal of life.
Festivals are also a time to donate and help those in need. In the United States, the community is enhancing sustainable civic engagement (seva) to serve by connecting with America through the spirit of Hindu/Dharmic festivals and the cultural heritage. DhanSeva (resources empowerment) is community service during the month of November, while celebrating the festival of Diwali. It is giving resources of any kind — material or spiritual or physical, whatever one can give.
Seva during Diwali means bringing in light, especially in the life of those less fortunate than us. There are many ways to serve. We can offer financial help and education; share knowledge; identify ways to promote economic empowerment; hold health camps; provide guidance in yoga; replenish local food banks for Thanksgiving; donate books, computers or equipment to local schools and libraries; serve the Veterans, etc.
Diwali unifies every religion, every home and every heart, and India transcends into a land of myriad lamps. Here in America, we are continuing this celebration marking it as a unifying pluralistic festival advancing community service. We hope Hindu and Dharmic traditions of Diwali and America’s commitment to service will illuminate innovative and empowering resources, both financial and spiritual and spur the distribution and sharing of common values of pluralism and collaboration.
May the spirit of Diwali bring joy, health, wealth, prosperity, peace and spiritual enlightenment!