Blog by Shammi Gill and Susan Gardner
Diwali, the five-day multi-faith festival is celebrated at the start of the Indian Lunar calendar, (this year, it takes place between November 10-15) throughout South Asia. While traditions vary slightly across religions, the festival marks the start of an auspicious new year and a time of bountiful harvest.
Diwali, celebrated primarily by Hindus, Jains, and some Buddhists, has great cultural, religious, and spiritual significance. For Sikhs, Diwali coincides with another holiday known as Bandi Chhor Divas, which translates to “the day of liberation.” These festivals symbolize the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance.
Across traditions, the lighting of diyas (earthen lamps) is believed to represent the inner light that protects us from spiritual darkness. Diwali and Bandi Chhor Divas are celebrated all over the world by getting together with family and friends, decorating homes with diyas and candles, and even lighting fireworks. During this time, homes are filled with the sweet smell of traditional food and delightful sweets, and the celebrations provide an opportunity to let go of past grudges, move on, and be merry.
The holidays of Diwali and Bandi Chhor Divas represent lessons and values to be kept throughout one’s life.
Diwali in Hinduism
For those who celebrate Diwali through the Hindu tradition, each value and lesson is celebrated on a particular day of the five-day holiday, and it is learned through the struggles and triumphs of Gods and other important figures in the Hindu religion’s mythology.
Day 1, Dhanteras (Day of fortune): The first day of Diwali is considered an auspicious day for cleaning the house, buying gold, or gathering luck-bringing trinkets and utensils. Dhanteras celebrates the birth of Dhanvantri, the god of medicine. ‘Dhan’ means ‘wealth’ and ‘Teras’ refers to the thirteenth day of the dark Lunar month. So, on this day, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi is also invoked to bless the household with prosperity.
Day 2, Naraka Chaturdasi (Day of knowledge): Alarms are set, and families rise before dawn to take a holy bath, change into new clothes right after, and have breakfast with friends and family. Naraka Chaturdasi commemorates the Diwali story of how Shri Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, defeated the demon Narakasura, thus banishing fear from the world.
Day 3, Lakshmi Puja (Day of light): The big celebration, is filled with food and fireworks! Homes and streets are decorated with diyas and rangolis. Prayers are offered to Lakshmi. It is also the day when the years-long gloom over the ancient city of Ayodhya is said to have been lifted with the return of the rightful and righteous ruler of the kingdom, Lord Ram – along with his wife, Sita, and brother Laxman, from their fourteen-year-long exile in the forest.
Day 4, Govardhan Puja: Friends and family exchange gifts. The legend goes that Lord Indra was provoked and tried to submerge the town of Gokul. Lord Krishna saved the people of Gokul from the wrath of Lord Indra by lifting the Govardhan Mountain to provide succor. A blessing was bestowed on the Govardhan Mountain that it will be honored through the ages. The tradition has been followed ever since.
Day 5, Bhai Dooj: An opportunity for more family time and tasty meals, this time centered around brothers and sisters. Traditionally, the men of the family visit the homes of their married sisters to pray for each other’s good fortune.
Diwali and Jainism and Buddhism
The founder of Jainism is Lord Mahavira. During Diwali, Jains celebrate the moment he reached a state called Moksha, (nirvana, or eternal bliss) and a day that marks new beginnings, a kind of new year. Hence members of the Jain community wish each other a Happy New Year by saying, “Nava Saal Mubarak.”
Buddhists, on the other hand, celebrate it as the day the Hindu Emperor Ashoka, who ruled in the third century BC, converted to Buddhism. The day is celebrated as Ashok Vijayadashami. On this day, the monasteries and temples are decorated, and Buddha is worshipped.
Bandi Chhor Divas and Sikhism
Bandi Chhor Divas, which translates to “the day of liberation,” is celebrated by Sikhs by lighting candles to remember the day when Guru Hargobind Sahib was released from prison in 1619 after he had been wrongly imprisoned by the authorities at Gwalior Fort. When he was released, Guru Hargobind Sahib insisted that 52 princes who were also wrongly imprisoned should be freed as well. The emperor agreed that when Guru Hargobind Sahib left, only those who could hold onto the Guru’s cloak would be freed. Guru Hargobind Sahib then had a special robe made with 52 tassels so that everyone could go free. The holiday reminds Sikhs of the need to take a stance against injustices and have the strength to defy oppression. When Guru Hargobind Sahib was released and traveled back home to Amritsar, he arrived during the celebration of Diwali. The Sikhs celebrate Diwali by wishing each other “Happy Bandi Chhor Divas.”