by Anju Bhargava
Deepavali popularly known as Diwali, literally means a row (avali) of lights (deepa). In essence it is the celebration of the victory of good over evil and the awakening and awareness of the Inner Light. This Inner Light, though not seen outside, outshines all darkness by removing all obstacles and dispelling all ignorance. When this inner realization blossoms then there is universal compassion, love, and the awareness of the oneness of all things. It awakens the individual to one’s true nature, not in the physical, but as the unchanging, infinite, and transcendent reality; the Sat (Truth), Chit (Consciousness) and Ananda (Inner Joy). This, for the Hindus, is the very goal of life. Monotheistic Hinduism’s original name is “Sanatana Dharma” or Eternal Order.
At its heart, Hindu philosophy emphasizes the presence of that which is pure, infinite, and eternal, which is something beyond the physical and mind. The Vedic prayer (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad — I.iii.28) captures the spirit of Diwali: Asato ma sadgamaya. Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya Mrtyorma amrtam gamaya…: “Lead me from the untruth to Truth. Lead me from darkness to light. Lead me from death to immortality.”
The foundation of Indian civilization is the pluralistic acceptance embodied in the ancient Vedic scriptures; the perennial Vedic thought: “Ekam Sat, Vipraha Bahuda Vadanti”: “The Truth is One. The Realized Ones (rishis) describe the One Truth in several ways.” Acceptance of this Truth gives people a way to express their differences while finding a common ground. And, Diwali shares a special connection with American values. It exemplifies the ideals of “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one.
The ancient ones (rishis) creatively brought Vedas to life through the festivals. The Festivals serve an important link between philosophy and the practical application for people in all walks of life. They exemplify the struggle between good and evil and that ultimately victory is of good and it needs to be celebrated. These joyous occasions remind us, and future generations, that it was only through the selfless service of those who sacrificed that the victory was attained. Service and giving, being a karma-yogi, are an integral part of multifaceted Vedic Hindu traditions.
Diwali is a holiday uniting the world cultures. Celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists (commonly referred to as Dharmic/Indic traditions) and the by those of any, “all and no faith,” the different aspects of Diwali create an interlocking, global mosaic. Often, Muslims and Christians participate, and artisans of all faiths make the lamps, fireworks and sweets that are used to celebrate the occasion. The lights shine and illuminate the small mud homes and the palatial mansions, which now both dot India’s landscape. In America, many homes celebrating Diwali are decorated with Christmas lights as well as Shabbat candles.
For Hindus themselves, the festivities of Diwali are celebrated through the recitation of many stories. Universally, the celebration is the triumph of Good (Lord Rama or Lord Krishna) over Evil (Ravana, Narakasura, etc.).
For Jains, the philosophical significance is similar to the Hindu perspective. Diwali reflects the joy of Lord Mahavir on attaining liberation through the path of right knowledge, right faith and the right conduct; known as three Jewells for Liberation.
The Sikhs, who were the protectors of Hindus, have also always celebrated Diwali. Its significance increased when, on this day the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, was freed from captivity of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir, along with other political prisoners.
Buddhists in India and Nepal honor Emperor Ashoka who, on this day, took to Ahimsa (non-violence), a key Vedic principle which became an integral part of Buddha’s teachings. King Ashoka sent his emissaries to many parts of Asia, and they spread Buddha’s teachings.
Diwali traditionally marks the beginning of the New Year for Hindu businesses and the last harvest of the year before winter. Many celebrants close their books and open new accounts with prayers for success and prosperity. Symbolically it is a new start – forgive and forget – in all aspects of life, including relationships with family and friends. It is the time for community and family celebration with prayers through puja, of togetherness, of sharing all resources.
Many Hindus also invoke Goddess Lakshmi, (from sanskrit word lakshye which means aim) for blessings at the outset of this process of worldly and spiritual accounting. Prayers of thankfulness, (Lakshmi Puja), are offered for future prosperity by people of all faiths. Lakshmi Puja is another common factor in Diwali celebrations which connects the people of the Indian subcontinent and now globally.
Today Diwali is enjoyed by most Indians, regardless of faith, and by people of Dharmic faiths globally. Everyone celebrates it through festive fireworks, lights, flowers, sharing of sweets, and worship as is customary for each religious and/or non-religious group. No house is too big or too small for illumination.
While the story behind Diwali varies from region to region, the essence is the same: to rejoice in the Inner Light and understand the underlying reality of all things. Diwali unifies and lights the lamp of understanding within us. Seva (communal service) during Diwali means bringing in light, especially in the life of those less fortunate than us.
May the spirit of Diwali bring Joy, Health, Wealth, Prosperity, Peace, and Spiritual Enlightenment!
Loka Samastha Sukhi Nau bhavantu – May the Lord bless the whole world with eternal peace and goodwill…
Anju Bhargava was a member of President Obama’s Inaugural Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and is the founder of Hindu American Seva Charities. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.