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Diwali: The Festival of Lights

If you are to walk into a Diwali celebration you are likely to be met by the warm glow of diyas, small earthenware oil lamps. As you approach the celebration, you may begin to hear rhythmic music and lively chatter. You might pass by a mesmerizing rangoli design made of colored sand, rice and/or flower petals. As the music and chatter get closer you may see flashes of bright, ornate clothing swaying and twirling with the music. You may hear greetings and laughter as family and friends exchange small gifts and sweets with one another. As the day settles into night and the welcoming presence of the diyas grows stronger, a scream and crackle of fireworks may precede the burst glittering light into the night sky.

Diwali is a four day festival that takes place typically at the end of October or November. In pop culture, Diwali is frequently referred to as an Indian and Hindu celebration, but Diwali is celebrated in various countries outside of India (mostly other South Asian countries) and holds significance in multiple religions. The root words of Diwali are deepa vali, which translate to "row of lights". The exact dates of Diwali depend on the lunar calendar. Historically the festival corresponds with the end of harvest, which is significant in the agriculturally centered economies of the regions that celebrate it.

There are a variety of origin stories associated with different regions or religions that celebrate the festival. Many Hindu origin stories share a common theme of a heroic deity defeating a decidedly evil opponent. One Hindu myth relays the story of King Rama returning to his home, Aryodyha, after 14 years of exile and fending off the ten-headed king of demons, Ravana. In another Hindu myth, Lord Krishna is said to defeat a demon called Narakasura. Other Hindu myths focus on the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi. Some regard Diwali as the marriage between Lakshmi and Vishnu, others as the birthday of Lakshmi. Hindus in North India invite the goddess Lakshmi (of wealth) into their homes by guiding her way with rows of diyas. In Bengal the goddess Kali is worshipped. The exact celebration and attributed significance may vary from culture to culture, religion to religion, and even family to family. However, the overarching theme of Diwali is triumph of light over darkness, of good over evil.

For Sikhs who celebrate Diwali, the festival coincides with the commemoration of an event in 1619 when 52 political prisoners were held by the Mughals. Bandi Shor Divas, which translates to “prison break”, occurred just days before Diwali when Guru Hargobind freed himself as well as 52 other political prisoners. Upon returning to the city of Amritsar, the group was met by candles and lamps lighting their way. For sikhs the festival celebrates the prevail of moral right over moral wrong.

For Jains, Diwali celebrates Lord Mahavira achieving moksha and breaking the cycle of reincarnation. Jains may fast for three days leading up to the festival in order to pay tribute to Mahavira’s sacrifice and contribution to Jainism. Jains will also light oil lamps, lanterns, and candles to decorate their homes. Light is meant to represent knowledge and by decorating with light, it is meant to remove ignorance. Jains however might not partake in the use of fireworks during Diwali because of their devotion to “ahimsa,” a Jain principle that means to regard all living beings as equals. Fireworks may be harmful to the environment and cause pollution. Most Buddhists don’t celebrate Diwali, however a small group of Vajrayana Buddhists from Nepal do. It is meant to celebrate the conversion of Emperor Ashoka to Buddhism.

No matter how you celebrate, your cultural background, or where you live, you are likely to come across the vibrant colors, clothes, and festivities of Diwali. Next time you do, jump in and join the fun. Diwali is about celebrating all that is good; we can all get behind that!

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