Most Popular Hindu Festival
Diwali (also known as Deepawali), or 'the festival of lights' is perhaps the most popular of all Hindu festivals. Like most festivals, Diwali has its mythological and historical bedrock. Legend has it that Hanuman (the legendary monkey-god and prime devotee of Lord Rama, the god-hero of the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana) delivered the much awaited message of Rama's return to Ayodhya (Rama's kingdom) after 14 years in exile. The entire kingdom rejoiced upon hearing the news and Ayodhya was washed, cleansed and dressed up with lights and shimmering earthen lamps to welcome the Lord himself. Diwali is celebrated even today to commemorate this event.
Celebrated To Mark The Triumph of Good Over Evil
Before his final return to Ayodhya, not only was Lord Rama required to spend 14 years in exile, but he had to slay Ravana, the ten-headed ruler of Lanka, who abducted his wife, in order to rescue her. Thus the festival is also celebrated to mark the triumph of Good over Evil, light over darkness, sunshine after rain, laughter after pain.
Diwali is celebrated in the Hindu month of Kartik (around November) on Amavas, or the new moon right after Dussehra. Today Diwali is also dedicated to Ganesha (the elephant-headed God of Wisdom and Prosperity) and Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth).
The Mythological Story
The mythological story of Sagar Manthan or 'churning the ocean' may help us understand why Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, is worshipped during Diwali. Legend has it that once all the devtas, or demigods were under a curse that made them weak in body and mind. They were advised by Brahma (Creator in the Hindu Holy Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer) to drink amrit, or the elixir of life. But amrit could only be obtained by the churning of the ocean, which, needless to add, was no mean feat. Now the question arose as to how to go about churning the gargantuan ocean. Lord Vishnu (the Hindu Preserver of the Universe) came up with a solution saying that Mount Meru could act as the churning stick, while Vasuki (the mythical serpent) could be used as the coil around Meru. Pleased with the suggestion, the devtas went to the asuras, or demons and sought their help in accomplishing the formidable task. The devtas' promise to share the amrit with the asuras tricked the latter into consenting to tug Vasuki from one end.
Thus ensued a phenomenal churning that, however, threatened to destroy the three worlds (Heaven, Earth and Hell). The gods simply could not let that happen, so Vishnu appeared in the guise of a giant tortoise or Kurma (Vishnu's second incarnation) and stabilised the churning by acting as a base under Mount Meru. It is said that eventually, spectacular treasures emerged from the great ocean including Laksmi the Goddess of Prosperity and Wealth, Sura the Goddess of Wine, Chandra, or the moon, Apsaras, the celestial nymphs, Kaustabha, the precious gem of Vishnu, Uchchaishravas, the divine horse, Parijata, the wishing coral tree, Kamdhenu, the wish-fulfilling Divine Cow, Airavata, the four-tusked white elephant, Panchajanya, or the conch, Sharanga, the invincible bow, and Dhanvantri, Nimi and Bharadwaj - the physicians and surgeons.
The Distribution of Poison and The Nector
Then appeared Halahala, the deadly poison, that had to be extracted before it could spell doom across the universe, and finally emerged the Amrit Kumbh, or pitcher of amrit. The mighty Shiva (the Destroyer of the Universe) stepped in to consume the poison as he was the only one who had the capacity to contain Halahala. Shiva drank the poison but kept it in his neck, perhaps to prevent the poison from entering his stomach. Ever since, he has been nicknamed Neelkantha or the blackneck. Meanwhile, in order to prevent the asuras from consuming the amrit, the devtas took the priceless pot and fled, with the asuras trailing behind in pursuit. Eventually the asuras caught up with the devtas who, in turn, decided to take on the asuras. It is believed that in all this melee, a few drops of amrit fell from the pot on spots that are the present-day towns of Nasik, Ujjain, Haridwar and Allahabad, rendering indestructible and sacred for all times to come.
Goddess Lakshmi -The Main Deity
Since Goddess Lakshmi was amongst the spectacular treasures that emerged from the great ocean, hence, along with Ganesha, who is customarily invoked before ceremonies are performed, Lakshmi presides over all the ceremonies that are performed during Diwali.
Days before Diwali, people get into a veritable tailspin, what with all the planning and shopping to be done for the ceremonies, especially for the grand Diwali night.
They wash, clean and even whitewash their homes and shops - it seems no god or goddess blesses a mess! The women folk especially in South India decorate their homes and doorsteps with colourful rangolis (patterns made on the floor by using various coloured powders). Dhan Teras Celebrations
Two days before Diwali is called dhan teras (dhan is wealth in Hindi and teras is 13 th , to signify the 13 th day after the full moon).
This day is devoted to Goddess Lakshmi as it is believed that she pays each house a visit on this day of the year. People hold a Lakshmi puja (prayer ceremony) in their homes. This day is especially significant for the merchant class, and quite understandably so. Traditionally this day marked the commencement of the new financial year and is still considered to do so by some people. In urban India, many business deals are finalised around this time and business houses give a Diwali bonus and gifts to their employees on the occasion.
The day before Diwali is celebrated as Chhoti Diwali (small Diwali). This is the day when Hanuman reached Ayodhya to deliver the long-awaited message of Lord Rama's return. On Chhoti Diwali, people socialise and exchange sweets and gifts. There is a puja in the evening, and the puja sthan (most Indian homes have a special room or corner with a little temple in which they pray) is decorated with empty earthen lamps and newly purchased idols that are to be worshipped in it. In Bengal, people celebrate the Kali puja on this day. Kali is the Goddess of War and is highly revered by the Bengalis. In South India, an oil massage followed by a bath before dawn on this day is equated to taking a dip in the holy River Ganga. and a dip in the Ganga (the holy river of India supposed to absolve one of all sins) on this day is also considered to be an act of piety.
The Shopping Day
The day is also chalked out for shopping. Markets are piled up with goodies and decorated to the hilt. Every year, there is an array of new things on display. Shopkeepers offer mega Diwali discounts to allure customers.
Firecracker stalls have every conceivable cracker and 'bomb', from rockets to sparklers to fire snakes, burning trains and what have you, covered in shiny golden and silver paper, for children and adults alike.
Children look forward to their shopping binge primarily for this reason. Hordes of families throng the markets of their towns and villages for the Diwali shopping spree. Clothes are bought for all members of the family.
Buying utensils on dhan teras is also a must, as doing so is considered auspicious. Lamps, candles, festoons, animal-shaped sugar candies, sweets covered with silver foil and packed in bright cardboard boxes, colourful earthen idols of various important gods and goddesses and other things adorn endless rows of shelves.
The Mass Celebration of Diwali Festival
Finally the big day arrives and the excitement reaches fever pitch, especially for the children, as they can hardly wait for the night to get their hands on the crackers! But the day itself is not without its share of delightful moments.
The women of the house get their culinary act together to turn out an elaborate feast. An extensive fare is laid out for the household, and certain sweets are especially made during this festival, as Diwali is also the festival of sweets and feasting. In the evening, lamps and candles are placed all around the house after which the entire family assembles for the puja. A big earthen diya (lamp) is lit and later taken around the house to light all the candles and diyas.
Every house - big or small - participates in this ritual. Even the most modest shacks are transformed into bright households with a few diyas. Every little village and town glitters on this night. The sky is set ablaze with thousands of crackers bursting and diffusing coloured lights high into the sky.