Deepavali or Diwali is perhaps the most popular of all the Hindu festivals, bringing joy to the young and old all alike. It is widely celebrated throughout India, though with regional variations, and among the Hindus settled abroad. It may be called the Queen of All Festivals as it contains the seeds of Indian Strength which is unity in diversity, inclusiveness and core human values. Looked at from any angle – as festivities, as legends and as philosophy – this festival occupies a pride of place in Hindu culture. Diwali is a vrata and an utsava at the same time. Let us have a peek into its heart and find out what constitutes it to be what it is.
AS A FESTIVAL
It is very difficult to trace the origin and development of this festival. It is stated to be already well-known festival by the time of the Bhavishyottara Purana said to have been composed before 1000 A.D. Diwali is generally a celebration spread over five days. It falls during the last part of October and early November.
The first day is Aswin Krishna Trayoadasi which is called Dhanteras, also known as Dhantrayodasi or Dhanwantari Trayodasi. On Dhanteras Goddess Laxmi is worshiped to provide prosperity and well being. Hence Dhan Teras holds a lot more significance for the business community.
A legend says that once the sixteen year old son of King Hima was doomed to die by a snake-bite on the fourth day of his marriage as per his horoscope. On that particular fourth day of 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 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 those 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 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 of Dhanteras came to be known as the day of "Yamadeepdaan"and lamps are kept burning throughout the night in reverence to Yama.
According to another legend, during the Amrit Manthan when the gods and demons were churning the ocean for Amrit or nectar, Dhanavantri (the physician of the gods and an incarnation of Vishnu) emerged carrying a jar of the elixir on the day of Dhanteras.
On Dhanteras Day Hindus consider it auspicious to purchase gold or silver articles or at least one or two new utensils. It is believed that new “Dhan” or some form of precious metal is a sign of good luck. "Laxmi-Puja" is performed in the evenings when tiny Diyas of clay are lighted to drive away the shadows of evil spirits.
In villages cattle are adorned and worshiped by farmers as they form the main source of their income and are supposed to be the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi.
The second day is Narak Chaturdasi. The legend behind this day is very well known for the killing of the demon Narakasura. Narakasura ruled the kingdom of Pragjyotishpur. Puranas have it that Naraka, son of Bhudevi, acquired immense power from a blessing given by Lord Brahma after a severe penance. Under his rule, the villagers suffered a lot of hardship as the demon tortured the people and kidnapped the women to be imprisoned in his palace with his invincible might. Unable to bear the tyranny of the demon, the celestial beings pleaded with Lord Krishna to save them from his torture. But Naraka had a boon that he would face death only at the hands of his mother Bhudevi. So, Krishna asked his wife Sathyabhama, the reincarnation of Bhudevi, to be his charioteer in the battle with Naraka. When Krishna fell unconscious after being hit by an arrow of Naraka, Sathyabhama took up the arms and killed Naraka.
At the request of Bhudevi, the mother of the slain demon Naraka, his death is not treated as a day of mourning but an occasion to celebrate and rejoice. It is said Lord Krishna had an oil bath to rid himself off the blood spattered on his body when Naraka was killed.
Since then the custom of taking oil-bath (Abhyangan) before sunrise on this day has become a traditional practice. It is customary in the South to enquire one another whether he had Ganga Snaan meaning thereby whether he had oil-bath or Abhyangan.
The third day of Diwali festival is the most important one for Lakshmi-puja and is entirely devoted to the propitiation of Goddess Lakshmi. Despite the fact that this day falls on an Amavasya day it is regarded as the most auspicious.
Lakshmi Pooja, or the worship of the goddess of wealth, is the main event on Diwali in North and West India. It is extremely important to keep the house spotlessly clean and pure on Diwali. Goddess Lakshmi likes cleanliness, and she will visit the cleanest house first. Lakshmi Puja consists of a combined puja of five deities: Ganesha is worshiped at the beginning of every auspicious act as Vighnaharta; Goddess Lakshmi is worshiped in her three forms - Mahalakshmi (the goddess of wealth and money), Mahasaraswati (the goddess of books and learning), and Mahakali; Kuber (the treasurer of the gods) is also worshiped.
The fourth day, the day following the Amavasya, is "Kartik Shuddh Padwa" and it is only on this day that the King Bali would come out of Pathal Loka and rule Bhulok as per the boon given by Lord Vishnu. Hence, it is also known as ‘Bali Padyami’ or ‘Balipratipada’. This day is also called ‘Dyuta Pratipada’. ‘Dyuta’ means gambling. It seems that on this day Parvati defeated Sankara in a game of dice and that she became very happy whereas Sankara was distraught and sulking with sorrow. This scene is shown in the Ellora Cave No.21. Hence those that win in the gambling on this day are expected to be happy throughout the year and the opposite being the case with those who lose. The natural human urge to gamble fortified with this legend and sanctioned in Brahmapurana make people even today to indulge in gambling recklessly to their hearts’ content on this day. In some places gambling with cards is common and reaches its peak on the night of Diwali. According to Dr.P.V.Kane’s ‘History of Dharmasastra’(Vol.V, pt.1, p.203), the stakes soared up to three million rupees in a small country like Nepal in 1955 on the Balipratipada day.
This day also marks the coronation of King Vikramaditya and Vikaram-Samvat was started from this Padwa day. It is customary for people to visit each other and offer New Year greetings by saying ‘Naye Varsh ki hardik Shubh Kaamnayein’.
Govardhan-Puja is also performed in the North on this day. Govardhan is a small hillock in Braj, near Mathura and on this day of Diwali people build hillocks with cow dung, decorate them with flowers and then worship them. This festival is in commemoration of the lifting of Mount Govardhan by Krishna. As per Vishnu-Puran the people of Gokul used to celebrate a festival in honor of Lord Indra and worshiped him after the end of every monsoon season but one particular year the young Krishna stopped them from offering prayers to Lord Indra who in terrific anger sent a deluge to submerge Gokul. People were afraid that the downpour was a result of their neglect of Indra. But Krishna assured them that no harm would befall them. He lifted Mount Govardhan with his little finger and sheltered men and animals from the rain. This gave him the epithet Govardhandhari. After this, Indra accepted the supremacy of Krishna.
This day is also observed as Annakoot meaning mountain of food. Pious people keep awake the whole night and cook fifty-six or 108 different types of food for the bhog (the offering of food) to Krishna. In temples especially in Mathura and Nathadwara, the deities are bathed in milk, dressed in shining attires with ornaments of dazzling precious stones. After the prayers and traditional worship innumerable varieties of delicious sweets are ceremoniously raised in the form of a mountain before the deities as "Bhog" and then the devotees approach the Mountain of Food and take Prasad from it