Globally, November 3rd is celebrated as Diwali, the festival of lights. It is arguably one of the biggest celebrations inside and outside of India for the South Asian community. What is most incredible is the diversity of significance of the day for a number of different faith communities including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs.
While Diwali is popularly known as the “festival of lights”, the most significant spiritual meaning is “the awareness of the inner light”. Central to Hindu philosophy is the assertion that there is something beyond the physical body and mind which is pure, infinite, and eternal, called the Atman. The celebration of Diwali as the “victory of good over evil”, refers to the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance, the ignorance that masks one’s true nature, not as the body, but as the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality. With this awakening comes compassion and the awareness of the oneness of all things (higher knowledge). This brings anand (joy or peace). Just as we celebrate the birth of our physical being, Diwali is the celebration of this Inner Light.
While the story behind Diwali and the manner of celebration varies from region to region (festive fireworks, worship, lights, sharing of sweets), the essence is the same – to rejoice in the Inner Light (Atman) or the underlying Reality of all things (Brahman).
Diwali, is one with several stories attached to it. The most popular in the Hindu tradition is the story of the return of Rama, the king of Ayodhya, with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana to his capital city after a 14-year exile and a war in which he defeated the demon-king Ravana, a story recorded in the epic poem, the Ramayana. It commemorates the people of Ayodhya, who lit oil lamps along the road to light the returning king’s path in the darkness of a new moon night, and welcome them back, finally, to their home.
Given that Rama is very frequently identified with the Hindu god Vishnu, the preserver, and his wife Sita with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, the holiday is as such devoted primarily to the worship of these deities. For many in the Hindu community, Diwali is also the beginning of a new year. A popular greeting around this time is “Shubh Diwali.”
In the Sikh tradidtion 52 Hindu princes were by the Grace of Sri Guru Hargobind Ji released from the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s Gwalior Fort (Madhya Pradesh, India). It was for this reason Sikhs celebrate Bandi (prison) Chorr (release) — Guru Sahib Ji was offered freedom but refused unless the other princes, who were today’s equivalent of political prisoners / prisoners of conscience, were released also. Emperor Jahangir cleverly agreed on the condition that only those who could hold on to Guru Sahib’s cloak would be released; Guru Sahib thus had his Sikhs design a cloak with 52 tassels and was released along with all the princes. The lesson for humanity from Guru Sahib is that one should contemplate the suffering of others before one’s own and that the freedom and rights of others is more important than one’s own.
In the Jain tradition, Diwali marks the attainment of enlightenment by Lord Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism who laid down the central tenets of the Jain religion as it is practiced today. Jains celebrate Diwali by lighting lamps, distributing sweets, fasting and practicing acts of charity.
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