India is a diverse land. Himalayas in the North, desert in Rajasthan, forests in the North East, plains in the South, rivers all over, beaches in the east and west. Till recently our country did not have modern means of communication, yet we find priests in Kathmandu, Kashmir, Assam reciting the famous prayer to the Sungod, the Gayatri Mantra, in precisely the same intonation, accent, to the very syllable, in which a priest in Kerala or Bengal would. And Gayatri is just one of the thousands of mantras that have been handed down to us over the ages.
The festivals of Dussehra and Deepavli are a picturesque web into which so many strands have gone, religious, social and cultural, cherished and preserved by people in the north, south, east and west alike. There may be variations in details, social values attached to it but the essence is one. For e.g. in Maharashtra it also the commencement of the fresh crop year. But in the south Maharashtra, western ghats the occasion is looked upon as the parting of seasons and coming in of the sunny weather.
The tradition may be the same in north or south, although the emphasis may be more on one aspect in some parts of the country. I cannot help but appreciate the marketing genius of the rishis who invented these traditions. They used the same festival to weave the country into one cultural unit and practiced the popular MNC mantra, think global, act local, long before MNC’s ever existed. It reflects their understanding of human psychology. India represented the world while a region was local. It is similar to Hindustan Lever selling different variants of Taaza Tea in the North and South catering to differences in taste.
Man is a bundle of desires. Everything that he does is with the intent of satisfying them. The ancient rishis knew that to gain the state of Absolute Bliss and Knowledge we have to look inward. Keeping this in mind they introduced festivals through out the year to remind man of his supreme goal and ideal. A spin off is the happiness and spirit of unity that festivals promote.
The festival of lights is celebrated in the month of Kartik (October and November). Besides India, it is a national holiday in Fiji and Trinidad. It is also publicly celebrated in Malaysia. Deepa means lamp and Avali means rows so deepavli means a festival where we have “row of lamps”. Amongst the many stories behind the festival, two are most popular.
For some (more North) it is the celebration of the triumphant return of Lord Ram to the Ayodhya after killing Ravana. During the festival, people light rows of oil lamps along houses and windows to welcome Lord Ram and Sita home.
For others it is the celebration of the death of the titan of hell, Narakasura (N), at the hands of Lord Krishna. The story of N (son of earth) written in the Sabha Parva of the Mahabharata. By virtue of boons received from Brahma and Shiva, he conquered and plundered the earth and hell. He carried away 16,000 fair daughters of the gods and imprisoned them in his harem. Narakasura robbed the earrings of Aditi, the mother of all Gods. Left with no choice the Gods requested Lord Krishna to kill N. In a fierce battle the Lord killed N. After his death his mother prayed that her sons downfall might be recalled by the world as the day when good triumphed over evil.
Businessmen worship goddess of wealth Lakshmi, on diwali. They seek her aashirwad to be blessed with more wealth. Some of you might wonder whether it is wrong to do so. Nowhere in our philosophy is earning money considered an evil activity. What is important is the proper use of wealth and annihilation of desires through self-control & spiritual development. Unfortunately, western education has made us obsessed with acquisition of materialistic objects (there are many pluses of education too.) The Rishis felt that even when we busy earning money, we should think of God, hence the worship of goddess Lakshmi.
Like other festivals, this one too relates to man overcoming ignorance and ego to attain realization. The darkness of the night represents the desire-ridden ego, which causes the mind to get agitated. The 16,000 damsels represent the desires that arise in an egoistic man. All desires cannot be fulfilled. I spent three hours today at Crossroads, Bombay’s newest shopping mall. I wanted to buy the whole mall. There is no limit to what I wanted to buy.
Approaching Lord Krishna to kill N shows the lack of ego on their part. When in trouble the mighty gods had no problems in approaching Krishna. For a man to overcome desires he has to look inward. Desires get killed one by one. This is represented by the fireworks on the night of Diwali. With dawn, the darkness is over, all ignorance removed and desires destroyed. We get up before dawn; apply oil for a holy bath to wash out the contamination caused by N. The bath at dawn indicates the cleansing of the egocentric desires.
In Maharashtra the festival of Bhaubeej is very popular. It is similar to raksha bandhan except that the reasoning behind it is different. The sister worships her brother with an Arati. The brother stands for Krishna who did the noble deed of killing N. Before stepping into the special square, lined with various designs in corn powder, to receive the worship, the brother taste a particular bitter fruit (Karith in marathi), which Krishna is said to have tasted before setting out for the kill.
Some of you might argue that the origins of these festivals are deep rooted in our mythology. But a myth, it may be noted, is no yarn. It was Ruskin who described the myth as a story with a meaning attached to it other than what is apparent, and a characteristic feature of it, he went to add, is something extraordinary about its circumstances.
Have a great time, not forgetting to share some of your happiness and wealth with the less fortunate.
This essay is based on inputs from my Email Guru and Symbolism in Hinduism by the Chinamaya Mission.
1. About the festival - www.diwalifestival.org
2. To send Diwali cards www.diwali-cards.com