DIVALI or DEEPAVALI means “a row of lights”. It falls on the last two days of the dark half of Kartik (October-November). It commences with the Dhan-Teras, on the 13th day of the dark half of Kartik, followed the next day by the Narak Chaudas, the 14th day, and by Deepavali proper on the 15th day.
There are various alleged origins attributed to this festival. Some hold that they celebrate the marriage of Lakshmi with Lord Vishnu. In Bengal the festival is dedicated to worship of Kali. It also commemorates that blessed day on which the triumphant Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana. On this day also Sri Krishna killed Narakasura.
However, the entire structure of a Hindu life is built on the observance of innumerable religious festivals all the year round, and these festivals form one of the most important components of this strong structure of Hindu life. In fact, the daily life of an ideal Hindu is found to be governed by religious codes and principles; as such religion is the life-blood of the Hindus, as it were. These festivals bring about in man, moods of reverence, spiritual awe and render them receptive to the intimations of the divine; they spiritualise the thought of man, and with the current of spiritual thought and ideas it is constantly kept up through out the year.
The Divali festival, it is surmised dates back to that period when perhaps history was not even written, and in its progress through centuries it lit the path of thousands to attain the ultimate good in complete ecstacy. The word “Deepavali” means a row of lights. Deepa means light and Avali means row. And indeed, the illumination forms its main attraction, being a hut of the poor or a mansion of the rich is all alit with the orange glow of little twinkling diyas – small earthen lamps – to welcome Maha Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and prosperity.
Divali or more aptly Deepavali is very enthusiastically celebrated for five continuous days and each day has its significance with a number of myths, legends and beliefs. These mythological stories are metaphorical expressions to some subtle truths.
The First day is called Dhanteras or Dhantrayodashi which falls on the Thirteenth day of the month of Kartik. The word ‘Dhan” means wealth.
As such this day of the five-day festival has a great importance for the rich mercantile community of Western India. Homes and Business premises are renovated and decorated. Entrances are made coulourful with lovely motifs of Rangoli designs to welcome the Goddess of wealth and prosperity-Maha Lakshmi Devi. To indicate her long-awaited arrival, small footprints are drawn with rice flour and vermilion powder all over the houses. Lamps are kept burning all through the nights. Beleiving this day to be auspicious women purchase some gold or silver or at least one or two new utensils. “Lakshmi-Puja” is performed in the evenings when tiny diyas of clay are lighted to drive away the shadows of evil spirit. “Bhajans” – devotional songs – in praise of Goddess Laxmi are sung and “Naivedya” of traditional sweet is offered to the Goddess.
A very interesting story about this day is of the Sixteen year old son of King Hima. As in relation to his horoscope he was destined to die by a snake-bite on the fourth day of his marriage. On that fateful day after his marriage his young wife did not allow him to sleep. She laid all the ornaments and lots of gold and silver coins in a big heap at the entrance of her husband’s room and lighted innumerable lamps all over the place. And she went on telling stories and singing songs. When Yama, the god of Death arrived there in the guise of a Serpent his eyes got blinded by the dazzle of the brilliant lights and he could not enter the Prince’s chamber. So he climbed on top of the heap of the ornaments and coins and sat there the whole night listening to the melodious songs. In the morning he quietly went away.
Thus the young wife saved her husband from the clutches of death. Since then, this day Dhan-Teras came to be known as the day of “Yamadeepaan” and lamps are kept burning throughout the night in reverential adoration to Yama, the god of Death.
The Second Day is called Narak-Chaturdashi which falls on the 14th day of the month of Kartik. The story goes that the demon king Narakasur ruler of Pragjyotishpur (Province to the South of Nepal) after defeating Lord Indra had snatched away the magnificent earrings of Aditi, the Mother of Goddess and imprisoned sixteen thousand daughters of the gods and saints in his harem. On the day previous to Narakchaturdashi, Lord Krishna killed the demon and liberated the imprisoned damsels and also recovered those precious earrings of Aditi. His destruction made all happy and the women in particular saw his end as a moral victory for them. Thus, Deepavali gained great importance among women who on this significant day do homage to the Universal Mother in the name of goddess Lakshmi to imbibe in them the powers and courage to join the battle against Narakasura’s tendencies and for the complete liberation of women.
Another legend is the scriptural recordings of King Bali’s arrogance and pride, is yet another story from which mankind can learn. With his valour Bali conquered every bit of space, thus he became the most powerful king on earth. In his kingdom, justice was mere word, truth had no place and happiness was a dream. His form of charity was an occasion for pomp and show and those who went to seek Alms from the king Bali suffered the indignity of insults and humiliation. In fact, he felt that the vast wealth will remain and the pittance he handed out now and again could not affect even an iota of his asset. His false beliefs, arrogance and mis-rule ended when the Lord disguised as a beggar and humbly proved to Bali that his concepts were totally wrong and even his vast wealth could disappear in seconds. King Bali asked the dwarf beggar to ask for anything in his kingdom and with three steps even his crown vanished. With his first step Lord Vishnu covered the entire heaven and with the second step the earth and asked Bali where to keep his third step. Bali offered his head and became spiritually enlightened. Thus, this festival has a far deeper significance than a mere exhibition of gaiety and splendour. The Narakchaturdashi day therefore is dedicated to lights and prayers heralding a future full of joy and the elimination of greed.
The Third Day of this festival of Divali is the most important day of Lakshmi Puja which is entirely devoted to the propitiation of Goddess Lakshmi. On this very day the sun enters its second course and passes Libra which is represented by the balance of scale. Hence, this design of Libra is believed to have suggested the balancing of account books and their closing. Despite the fact that this day falls on Amavasya day it is regarded as the most auspicious.
The day of Lakshmi-Puja falls on the dark fortnight of Amavasya. The strains of joyous sounds of bells and drums float from the temples as man is invoking Goddess Lakshmi in a wondrous holy “pouring-in” of his heart. All of a sudden that impenetrable darkness is pierced by innumerable rays of light for just a moment and the next moment a blaze of light descends down on earth from heaven as golden-fotted "Deep-Lakshmi" alights on earth in all her celestial beauty and glory amidst chantings of Vedic Hymns. A living luminance of Universal Motherhood envelopes the entire world in that blessed moment of love and divinity. A sublime light of knowledge dawns upon humanity and devotion of man finally conquers ignorance. When the sun sets in the evening and ceremonial worship is finished all the home-made sweets are offered to the goddess as “Naivedya” and distributed as “Prasad”. Feasts are arranged and gifts are exchanged on this day. Devotees go to the temples, visit homes and relatives.
On this auspicious day Lord Shri Krishna around whom revolved the entire story of our great epic Mahabharat who preached the immortal song divine the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, discarded his body.
One very interesting story about this Divali day is from Kathopanishad of a small boy named Nachiketa who believed that Yama, the god of death was black as the dark night of Amavasya. But when he met Yama in person he was puzzled seeing Yama's calm countenance and dignified stature. Yama explained to Nachiketa on Divali day that by only passing through the bondage of his mortal frame man may realise the divine within him. Man sees the light of the highest wisdom that the soul is immortal. Only the body goes through changes!!!
The fourth day is Varshapratipada which marks the coronation of King Vikramaditya and Vikram-Samvat was started from this day. Govardhan-Puja is also performed in the North on Divali day. It is mentioned in the Vishnu Puran that the people of Gokul used to celebrate a festival in honour of Lord Indra and worshipped him after the end of every monsoon season, but one particular year, Krishna stopped them from offering prayers to Lord Indra who in terrific anger sent torrential rain to suberge Gokul. But Krishna saved Gokul by lifting up the Govardhan mountain and holding it over the people as an umbrella. Govardhan is a hill in Braj, near Mathura and on this day of Divali people build Govardhan of earth, decorate it with flowers and then worship as symbol of worship to Lord Krishna.
The fifth and final day of Divali festival is known by the name of “Bhaiya-Duj”. As the legend goes Yamraj, the God of Death visited his sister Yami on this particular day. She put the auspicious "tilak" on his forehead, garlanded him and led him with special dishes and both of them ate the sweets, talked and enjoyed philosophical discussion to their heart’s content. While parting, Yamraj gave her a special gift as a token of his love and in return Yami also gave him a lovely gift which she had made with her own hands. That day Yamraj announced that anyone who receives tilak from his sister will be blessed with his wishes be fulfilled. That is why this day of Bhaiyaduj is also known by the name of “Yama-dwitiya”. Since then, this day is being observed as a symbol of love between sisters and brothers. It became also imperative for the brother to go to his sister’s house to celebrate Bhaiya-duj.
The spiritual aspect of this holy Festival of Lights, is that, to secure the Grace of God we are asked to have absolute Faith in God and leave it to Him to dispose of us as He pleases. We also have to remember that, we have to overcome anger by love, evil by good, greed by liberality, arrogance by humility and falsehood by truth. A religious festival of this type is ethical and spiritual and its essence is to be found in the life of Sri Rama.
In our little wisdom, let us not ask why God perform this repeated tale of letting Adharma raise its ugly head and then come down to this world of the mortals to cut it off and re-establish dharma. But let us resolve as such, to study the inscrutable ways of the Lord and translate the knowledge so obtained into appropriate action in our own lives, hoping one day for that Flash of enlightenment which will set at rest all such questions about the purpose of creation. Till then, let us have faith in the Lord and study his infinite wisdom as enshrined in the scriptures of His inexhaustible manifestations, and finally act our part in that play (Leela) of His on this planet, however, insignificant and unglamorous it might be.