Meaning & Significance
Deepavali is a festival where people from all age groups participate. They give expression to their happiness by lighting earthen 'diyas' (lamps), decorating the houses, bursting firecrackers and inviting near and dear ones to their households for partaking in a sumptuous feast. The lighting of lamps is a way of paying obeisance to god for attainment of health, wealth, knowledge, peace, valor and fame.
It is one time in the whole year that children volunteer to leave their beds long before the day begins. In fact, the traditional oil bath at 3 a.m, is the only chore that stands between them and the pre-dawn adventures. They emerge, scrubbed clean to get into their festive attire, and light up little oil lamps, candles and scented sticks(agarbathis), the wherewithal for setting alight crackers and sparklers.
On Diwali night, little clay lamps are lit in Hindus homes, but now a days colored electric lamps are also used. What is the significance of lighting a lamp? There is a logical answer to this question. It is through the light that the beauty of this world is revealed or experienced. Most civilizations of the world recognize the importance of light as a gift of God. It has always been a symbol of whatever is positive in our world of experience.
To Hindus, darkness represents ignorance, and light is a metaphor for knowledge. Therefore, lighting a lamp symbolizes the destruction, through knowledge, of all negative forces- wickedness, violence, lust, anger, envy, greed, bigotry, fear, injustice, oppression and suffering, etc. Competition is stiff, and even the little girl in silk frocks and their finery are watching out for the best sparklers and flowerpots, the rockets and Vishnuchakras, which light-up the night sky like a thousand stars. Grown-ups are the soul of generosity. Festive bonhomie abounds.
Diwali, commonly known as the Festival of Lights, is the most widely celebrated holiday in India. An official holiday, it is observed by Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. Diwali marks the beginning of a new year, when followers settle financial accounts and conflicts with others, and look forward to new enterprises. Though celebrated in different styles, Diwali universally signifies the renewal of life. The name Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word “Deepavalai.” Deepa, meaning “light,” and avalai, meaning “a row,” refer to the rows of lights customarily placed at the entrance of homes during the five-day celebration.
The origins of Diwali are associated with at least five different events in the rich tradition of Hinduism. The story most Hindus observe as the inspiration for Diwali is Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya with his consort, Sita, from a 14-year exile in the forest, victorious in his battle over the demon, Ravana. In countless cities and villages throughout India, this scene is re-enacted with great detail and pageantry.
Each of the five days of Diwali has special significance. On Dhanteras, the first day of Diwali, homes and businesses are cleaned, renovated and decorated in anticipation of the new year and the arrival of Goddess Lakshmi who provides blessings of wealth and prosperity. Lights are left burning through the night. Women often purchase gold, silver, new outfits or kitchen utensils, believing this day to be auspicious.
On the second day, Nakra – Chaturdashi, devotees observe the victorious return of a blood-smeared Krishna announcing the death of the demon-king, Narakasura. According to some stories, Narakasura attacked Krishna but was later killed by Krishna’s consort Satyabhama. Devotees take a symbolic bath and light lamps to celebrate liberation from evil and the triumph of light. The light is thought to dispel ignorance and bring enlightenment.
Lakshmi Puja is held on the third day, Chopada Puja. Devotees light pathways with lamps to guide Lakshmi, who is believed to return to the world to shower her blessings on all. People exchange gifts, visit temples and friends, and prepare feasts. After ceremonial practices, homemade sweets are offered to the goddess and then distributed to devotees as prasad, or blessed offerings.
On the fourth day, Govardhan-Puja, devotees bathe deities in milk and dress them in fine clothing to commemorate the day Krishna defeated Indra after he drowned the City of Gokul. On the final day, Bhayya-Dul, brothers visit their sisters in their homes to commemorate Yamaraja, the God of Death who is fed special foods by his sister, Yami, Goddess of the Yamuna River, as a gift of love.
Regardless of the origins of Diwali, it is a holiday meant to bring about the highest and most honorable attitudes and behavior among people.
A Hinduism Glossary, listing definitions for all the terms in bold in this Background Essay, has been provided in the section Support Materials For Teachers.