Diwali is a festival of utmost importance in the Indian subcontinent. It is celebrated with exceptional enthusiasm across the country by people of every sect and religion. People light diyas (cotton string wicks inserted in small clay pots filled with oil) to signify victory of good over the evil within an individual. The celebration of Diwali, a moveable feast, occurs this year on October 17, 2009 in the Western, Gregorian calendar.
A harvest festival and a celebration of the Lunar New Year, Diwali has strong astrological energies, like similar festivals the world over. Basically, this is a seasonal, astrological festival marking the transition from the old lunar year to the new in Hindu India, though naturally it has lost some of this emphasis with the rise of modern urban civilization. The celebration takes different forms in different parts of India.
In North India, the lamps are lit to remind the community of Rama's return to his kingdom of Ayodhya after fourteen years in exile. During this time Rama, one of the main figures of devotion in the Hindu faith, conquered the tyrant Ravana, who had abducted his wife Sita and held her in his island fortress of Lanka. Rama's heroic deeds are set out in the epic ballad Ramayana and so, at least in this regard, Diwali celebrates the victory of virtue over vice. In Ramayana, Rama, the rightful heir to the throne of Ayodhya, accepts exile in the forest due to his father's vow to his scheming stepmother. He is accompanied in his exile by his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana. The Ramayana is a mythological account of Rama's conquest of evil with the aid of Hanuman, the monkey king, and the undying love of Sita. The symbolism of the story of Rama is one of the most powerful and enduring love stories of all time, and is cherished by the Indian people.
As with other Indian festivals, Diwali signifies many different things to people across the country. While in North India Diwali celebrates Rama's return to Ayodhya after the defeat of Ravana and his coronation as king, in Gujarat, the festival honors Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and in Bengal, it is associated with the goddess Kali.
The worship of Lakshmi and Ganesha is also celebrated throughout the country at this time. It signifies the renewal of life, so new clothes are worn on the day of the festival. It seems to have begun as a harvest festival, yet, as the beginning of the lunar New Year, it also heralds the approach of winter and the start of a new sowing season. Diwali marks the beginning of the Hindu and Gujarati New Year and is celebrated with the lighting of lamps and candles - and lots of fireworks. It is the traditional time to replenish wardrobes with new clothes and exchange gifts (often clothes) and sweets with friends and neighbors.
Because there are many regions in India, there are many manifestations of the Diwali celebration. The festival begins with Dhanteras, a day set aside to worship the goddess of prosperity, Shri Lakshmi. Lakshmi is the consort of Vishnu and her statue is found in every home. On this day, the homes of the faithful are thoroughly cleaned and windows are opened to welcome her blessing for the New Year.
In rural villages cattle are adorned and worshipped by farmers and, in the South of India, cows are offered special veneration as the incarnation of the goddess. Candles and lamps are lit as a greeting to Lakshmi.
In Indian culture a wealthy person is believed to have been rewarded for the good deeds of a past life. On this day, people exchange gifts and purchase new items for the house, as this is considered auspicious, ensuring happiness and prosperity for the whole of the coming year. Businessmen (marwadi) pray for prosperity on this day to Lakshmi to give them the best results for the year ahead.
On the second day Kali, or Shakti, the goddess of power, is worshipped. Kali is power, or strength used for the protection of others, and Maha-Kali (supreme power) is the power of the divine force in the dance of destruction. This day celebrates the destruction of the demon (asura) Raktabija.
Another myth recalls the defeat of Narakãsura, the demon-king of Prãgjyotishapura. His yogic powers had fattened his ego, so he had become a menace to the people. He had 16,100 women in his harem. The Gods implored Sri Krishna to rescue them from this fiend. Sri Krishna came from Dvaraka and destroyed Narãksura's huge army, finally beheading Narakãsura himself. The population was freed from the oppressive tyranny and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. All the women kept by the demon-king were freed, and to preserve their social virtue, Sri Krishna made them all his wives.
Diwali celebrates the end of the harvest, known as the Kharif when the fresh crop of rice is in, but also marks the beginning of the new season. Delicacies are prepared from pounded partly-cooked rice (called Poha or Pauva) from the recent harvest. This custom is held in rural and in urban areas, especially in Western India. This day (Kali Chaudas) also focuses on abolishing laziness and evil. North Indians call it Narak Chaudas and pray for the souls of departed loved ones.
On the third and most important day - the last day of the year in the lunar calendar - lamps are lit, shining brightly in every home. The lamp shining at the dark of the New Moon symbolizes knowledge and encourages reflection upon the purpose of each day in the festival. The goal is to remember this purpose throughout the coming year. Lakshmi Puja (ceremonial worship) is performed on this day, awakening an appreciation of prosperity and a sense of responsibility towards it. Lakshmi, always depicted as a very beautiful woman, stands on a lotus. She has lotuses in various stages of bloom in her two hands and wears a lotus garland.
Cascades of gold coins are usually shown flowing from her hands, suggesting that those who worship her gain wealth. She always wears gold-embroidered red clothes, as red symbolizes activity and the golden lining indicates prosperity. Lakshmi is the active energy of Vishnu (the maintaining power of the universe), and also appears as Lakshmi-Narayan - Lakshmi accompanying Vishnu.
Lakshmi is the Goddess of Wealth and Ganesha is the Lord of Happiness. Lakshmi and Ganesha Puja is performed for prosperity, material abundance, and spiritual prosperity. The faithful believe that the worship of Lakshmi should not be neglected, lest poverty and suffering fall upon those who fail to remember her.
This Puja is performed in the evening, as the Taurus ascendant and the Leo ascendant are considered the best for preserving material benefits for the year. At this time, old business accounts are settled and new books are opened. The books are worshipped in a special ceremony and participants are encouraged to remove anger, hate, and jealousy from their lives.
The fourth day of Diwali falls on the first day of the lunar New Year and is called Vishkarma Day. Also known as Padwa or VarshaPratipada it marks the coronation of the legendary King Vikramaditya. Families celebrate the new year by dressing in new clothes, wearing jewelry and visiting family members and business colleagues bearing sweets, dried fruits and other gifts. This day is often used by manufacturers to pray for their equipment so that it works well and makes profit during the year ahead.
In ancient times, the people of Gokul would celebrate a festival in honor of Lord Indra, worshipping him at the end of each monsoon season. However, in one particular year, the young Krishna halted the custom of offering prayers to Indra - who had in a fit of anger poured down a deluge to destroy Gokul. Krishna saved Gokul from the deluge by lifting up a mountain called Govardhan and holding it over the people as an umbrella. So, on this day, Govardhan Puja is performed to commemorate this feat by Shri Krishna.
This day is also observed as Annakoot and prayers are offered in the temples. In Mathura and Nathadwara, the deities are bathed in milk, then dressed in shining attire, featuring ornaments of diamonds, pearls, rubies and other precious stones.
On the final day (Balipratipada) of the festival, Bali, a titanic figure in Indian Mythology, is recalled. Bali was the powerful demon-king of Paataala (the netherworld), who had boldly extended his kingdom over the earth as well. On this day Shri Vishnu, taking the form of Vaamana, a dwarfish Brahmin, approached Bali requesting a boon comprising the amount of space equal to three of his steps. Bali, famed for his generosity, granted the boon. However, the "dwarf" then grew into a gigantic form and with one step covered the entire earth; with the second he covered the sky - and then asked Bali where he should place his third step. Bali, left with no other choice, presented his own head. Shri Vishnu placed his foot on Bali's head, pushing him back down to the netherworld, the rightful territory of Bali's reign. However, Bali prayed that he might be permitted to visit the earth once a year. Then it was the turn of Vishnu to grant the boon. Thus, the focus of this day is to see the good in others, including enemies. It is particularly revered in Kerala.