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Diwali - Festival of Lights
By Meera S. Sashital

Diwali is the most beautiful and the grandest festival of jubilation that heralds the advent of Kartik the holiest month. It is observed by the majority of people in India from the highest to the lowest. The term Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit word Deepavali meaning cluster of lamps. Deep meaning lamp, `Vali' meaning `line or row' of lamps. Its other name is Deep-Malika or Deep-Mala, the string of lamps.

Diwali festival is believed to date back as far back as Satya Yuga and is held in honor of Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity. To be precise, Diwali begins on the 13th day of the second dark half of Aswin month and continues till the second day of Kartik light half, i.e. last three days of Aswin and the first two days of Kartik.

On the 13th day of the second half of Aswin, women bathe, after applying unguents and fragrant oils. The image of the Goddess Lakshmi is washed with milk and worshipped for three days commencing on this day. Again vessels are scrubbed and given a shiny look and water is stored in them. the water containers are decorated with garland of flowers and applied with vermillion made ready for the early bath the next day, water representing the holy Ganges. The latest convention in the cities is to bedeck the water taps instead of the outdated copper containers.

The origin of Diwali is attributed to many reasons. According to some, after Bali was hurled by Vaman into the lower regions, the imprisoned gods were set free and were taken with Lakshmi to Kshirsagar, where they rested. Hence this festival is consecrated to the worship of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity.

Mythology has it that on the 14th of Aswin (Naraka Chaturdashi) Lord Vishnu had killed Narasura or the Giant of Filth, born of the Goddess Earth. So, it is to commemorate the victory of Lord Vishnu over the demon Narakasura. On the day of the Naraka Chaturdashi, the ancient custom, it seems, was to collect dung heaps and manure and remove it far from the house. This heap was worshipped, topped by a burning lamp and offering of a coin. This was done prior to the predawn bath taken after anointing the bodies with oil. Two baths were taken. After the first bath, a lamp made of rice-flour and an over piece of the same thing called `mutke' were waved round each male by some girl or a married woman. Then the male crushed the `chirat', the fruit of the cucurbitous plant, and extinguished the lamp symbolizing the killing of Narakasura, the giant of wickedness. Even now most of the early customs prevail, though in a modified form. Today, on the eve of Diwali, the houses are cleared of unwanted terms, the whole house dusted and washed, or even whitewashed to give it a new look.

According to some authorities, the early customs of removing the manure, destruction of filth etc appertain to the end of the first rice producing season and the sowing of other crops after manuring the soil. It is connected with the change of season too, when the sun passes from the northern to the southern hemisphere. Diwali has its moral and hygienic import also the victory or mastery over our senses by purifying our mind and mortal body, the allegoric house.

The day following Naraka Chaturdashi is Amavasya, the 30th dark night and last day of Aswin which also marks the end of the Vikram or Samvat era. It is commonly known by the name of Pedhipujan, and to some, is sacred to Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning. But, majority follow the day to be sacred to Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth. Traders close their old accounts and, new accounts being opened by the business community stopping all transactions for the day. In Bengal, it is believed that the night of the pitris departed ancestors, begins at this time and the lighted lamps are meant to serve as a guide to these benighted souls. The shrad has or offering to ancestors are also performed on this day, i.e. Amabasya the 30th dark night of Aswin by prayers and expressing gratitude to the departed souls.

The first day of the Kartik has been ascribed with many legends. For example, it hails the New Year for those who follow the Vikram or Samvat era. This day King Vikramaditya was believed to have been coronated. For slightly speaking about Saturn, King Vikram was avenged by Him for which Vikram loses his kingdom and had to undergo seven and a half years' tortutous life of suffering including false charges. In the end, after the set period of Saturn, and owing to Saturn's mercy King regains his lost kingdom and happiness.

According to some it is also the day on which King Bali was made to abdicate and sent to the nether world by Lord Vishnu, Thus, it is termed as Balipratipada. Bali was a demon but was known so much for his generosity the he even seemed to excel the Gods in merit. His generosity became a cause of danger to Gods lest he became powerful with his merit. Hence, Vishnu takes the incarnation of Vaman i.e. a dwarf and goes to Bali. For alms, Vishnu in the garb of Vaman, asks for a simple boon, that is to grant as much ground as he could measure with his dwarfish three steps. The generous Bali, ignorant of the true identity, agrees. The dwarf grows into a gigantic size and the first step he covers the world, the next measure the upper world. When asked where to keep the third step, Bali bows and offers his head. Then Vaman pushes him to the nether world but makes him the King to rule over the dead. However, Bali prayed to the Lord that he might be permitted to visit the earth once a year. The annual visit of Bali is celebrated in Kerala as Onam, by welcoming him with floral decorations and lights.

Some commemorate the day as the coronation of King Rama who it seems was crowned after his exile. Illuminations on third occasion and King Rama's reign symbolize the ushering in of spiritual light and knowledge and removal of darkness or ignorance. Moreover, the first of Kartik is also called the `Ankot' day. In the Vishnu Purana it is related that the people of Gokul started worshipping Mount Govardhan instead of Lord Indra. Indra, being offended, sends deluge to Gokul. But, Krishna saves the people and their cattle by lifting the Govardhan mountain, serving it as an umbrella. As a result, cows and bulls are also decorated and worshipped on this day, and Govardjan Puja performed. The deluge could be an allusion to the excessive rains of the monsoons and the ending of the season.

The second day of Kartik is known as Yama Dwitiya or Bhau-Bij when sisters invite brothers and honour them. On this day it seems Yama the God of Death visited his sister Yamuna and was treated with love and hospitality. The sisters apply tilak and wave aarti to their brothers and the brothers offer present in return. It is one of the most sentimental and touching occasion of all.

On the two nights of the Diwali, it is the custom to gamble in the name of Shastras. But on the contrary, it seems, Rig Veda is absolutely against it and that gambling should never be indulged in.

Apart from India, Diwali is celebrated in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Nepal, Japan and Myanmar also. Diyas and paper lanterns are used to illuminate the houses and people rejoice partaking sweets and delicious dishes. Incidentally, in Bengal Diwali is celebrated as Kali Puja by worshipping Goddess Kali. Thus concludes the much loved Diwali Festival of jubilation, dainties and sweets. During the otherwise pitch dark and eerie four-night festival, the Diwali illuminations in every house with lighted diyas bring supernatural brightness and joy and hope of finding light in darkness, achieving knowledge where there is ignorance, and spreading love amidst hatred.

Source : Free Press Journal

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