Celebrating Diwali

By Archana Sunil

There are many stories to share about why Hindus celebrate Diwali or Deepavali (Row of lamps). Growing up in India I remember it being about Lord Ram returning to his kingdom Ayodhya from exile with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman. But it wasn’t until I came to America and met Indians from other parts and faiths of India that I realized there were several other stories around Diwali. I’ve attempted to share just a few here.

Let’s start down in the southern states. There was once an evil demon Narakasura, son of Bhudevi(Goddess Earth) and Lord Vishnu. His power and strength grew over time and eventually intimidated the Devas (heavenly gods) and he attacked their kingdom. When all efforts failed to subdue Narakasura and his evil deeds, especially the torture of women, the gods turned to Lord Krishna’s wife Satyabhama for help. Satyabhama was the only one who could kill Narakasura as she was an incarnation of Bhudevi. Narakasura had been granted the boon of only being killed by Bhudevi and none else. Satyabhama did not take long to slay Naakasura and redeemed the Earth of Narakasura. Another version of this story says that Narakasura was slain by Lord Krishna. Either way, Deepavali/Diwali in South India is celebrated with rows of oil lamps to honor this event.

Let’s go further up to the northwest state of Punjab, where the Sikhs of India hail from. Sikhs celebrate Diwali to commemorate the release of their sixth Guru Hargobind and 52 other princes from the Gwalior fort under Mughal Emperor Jahangir. He had been arrested for political reasons. True to his faith he however prayed for several days for the recovery of his oppressor from an illness. In return Jahangir ordered his release. But Guru Hargobind refused to leave without the other 52 Hindu princes and kings who had also been held captive. It was negotiated that whoever could hold on to the Guru’s cape would be allowed to leave with him. The guru then had a special cape made with 52 tassels so that every single person could hold on to his cape and leave the fort. When they arrived in Amritsar he saw that they were celebrating with lamps and sweets and they joined in the celebration, thus giving us the story behind why Sikhs celebrate Diwali. It is also known as Bandi Chod Diwas (The Day of the prisoner’s release).

Vardhaman Mahaveera was the 24th and the last Tirtankara (teacher) of Jainism. Born to a royal family in the state of Bihar, he gave up all worldly comforts in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. After about twelve years he eventually attained Kevalnyan, enlightenment, and continued his journey for the next thirty years teaching others what he had learned and experienced. He passed away and attained Nirvana(liberation) at the age of 72. There was darkness all around and his followers lit oil lamps to overcome the sadness. So Diwali for Jains hence became a reason to celebrate the removal of darkness with light and of ignorance with wisdom and knowledge. The Jain new year starts the day after Diwali – Pratipada. So feel free to wish a Jain friend ‘Happy New Year’ too.

And finally, one of the most popular stories around Diwali from the northern parts of India – the return of the beloved Prince Ram to Ayodhya after fourteen years in exile. Prince Ram had been exiled to fourteen years in the forest by his father King Dasharatha who had to fulfill a promise he had made to one of his queens in a battle. As Prince Ram prepared to leave, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana insisted on joining him. The three lived in the forests for fourteen years amidst many adventures. The most significant one being Sita kidnapped by Ravana, the ten headed King of Lanka. After several fights and struggles Sita was rescued by Ram and Lakshman with the help of several local kings and their armies including the monkey God Hanuman. When they finally returned to Ayodhya they were welcomed with rows and rows of oil lamps, colorful flowers, sweets and other festivities. The people lovingly crowned them King and Queen of Ayodhya.

Whatever the story behind each family’s Diwali, there is one thread that runs through all of them. Like many other Hindu festivals Diwali celebrates the victory of good words, thoughts and actions over evil; the victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.

I wish you all a lifetime of health, wealth and peace. Happy Diwali and Deepavali!