Decoding Diwali: A celebration of wealth and prosperity
The auspicious day isn’t only about crackers and festivities on amavasya of krishna paksha, according to the Hindu lunar calender. It is a cluster of festivals around that date.
The word Diwali has become ubiquitous. But it’s a corruption. The right word is Deepavali, deepa and avali. Deepa is a lamp, with an allusion to the lamp of knowledge (jnana) driving away the darkness of ignorance. We worship Devas and Devis with offerings, known as upachara, and a standard upachara is the offering of a lamp. Arati involves the use of lamps, and nirajana is the auspicious act of waving lamps before a deity. Avali means row, array or line. Thus, Deepavali is an array of deepas. Our perceptions of the Rama story aren’t based only on Sanskrit texts. Even in Sanskrit, Valmiki Ramayana isn’t the only narration. There exist Yoga Vasistha Ramayana, Adhyatma Ramayana and Raghuvamsham, not to speak of the Rama story described in Mahabharata. Today, the Valmiki Ramayana is divided into seven sections, known as kandas, and Rama’s return to Ayodhya is described towards the end of Yuddha Kanda. Bharata instructs that Ayodhya be prepared for his reception and goes to receive Rama in Nandigrama. There are beautiful descriptions of the preparations.
When did Pushpaka vimana land in Nandigrama? In the morning, and there are descriptions of his welcome and coronation the next day. There is no mention of deepas. After all, his arrival and coronation took place during the day. There is a tradition and belief that Deepavali represents celebrations when Rama returned to Ayodhya, with the entire city in a celebratory mood, decorated with arrays of lamps. It’s a firm belief and the internet, the source of all wisdom these days, says so. But that’s not what Valmiki Ramayana says, nor for that matter does Ramacharitmanas. However, in descriptions of the same incident, Ramacharitmanas does mention the women of Ayodhya, standing there to welcome Rama, with lamps on plates and other objects too. This is like the arati that is done when welcoming a guest. Rama was from treta yuga.
From dvapara yuga, there was Krishna and the story of Narakasura. Narakasura was the king of the Pragjyotishpura and Kamarupa region, and his account features in Mahabharata and many Puranas. (His son, Bhagadatta, fought on the Kaurava side in the Kurukshetra War and was killed by Arjuna.) As often happens, insolent because of his power, Narakasura abducted women and stole Aditi’s earrings. (Aditi is the mother of the gods.) When Aditi complained, Krishna killed Narakasura and rescued the 16,000 women abducted by him.
Our festivals follow the lunar month and a lunar day is known as a tithi. A lunar tithi doesn’t exactly correspond to a solar day and the tithi may change in the course of the solar day. Part of the solar day may be one tithi and the other part may be a succeeding tithi. Some tithis are more auspicious for festivals than others. The lunar tithis follow a cycle of fifteen days, from pratipada (the first) to chaturdashi (the fourteenth). The moon waxes during the bright lunar fortnight (shukla paksha) and wanes during the dark lunar fortnight (krishna paksha). The culmination of waxing is the night of the full moon (pournamasi or purnima) and the culmination of waning is the night of the new moon (amavasya). In our traditions, there is something special about all transitions in time—day to night and night to day (sandhya), shukla paksha to krishna paksha and vice versa, the sun moving from one sign of the zodiac (rashi) to another (sankranti), the transition from uttarayana (the northward movement of the sun) to dakshinayana (the southern movement of the sun) and vice versa. Therefore, it is understandable that there should be something special about purnima and amavasya.
Festivals are occasions for celebrating and there are celebrations when there is wealth and prosperity. Historically, prosperity has been linked to harvests. That’s the reason there are so many festivals in the months of September and October. The Gregorian month of October (Ashvina and Kartika, according to Indian calendars) is more special than most. This year, the month started with worship of Devi and Vijaya Dashami. We then have a clutch of three tithis in krishna paksha, trayodashi, chaturdashi and amavasya. That trayodashi is popularly known as Dhanteras, a variation of dhana-trayodashi. Dhana means wealth. So dhana-trayodashi is a celebration of wealth and prosperity.Devas and asuras churned the ocean for amrita and in the process, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods, manifested themselves. The day of Lakshmi Puja is not uniform throughout the country. For example, in eastern parts, Lakshmi Puja is on the tithi of purnima that follows Vijaya Dashami. But in some parts, Lakshmi is worshipped on dhana-trayodashi, as in Dhanvantari. Because of Dhanvantari, this trayodashi has now become ‘National Ayurveda Day’.
The next day is chaturadashi. I mentioned Narakasura earlier. This chaturdashi is known as Naraka chaturdashi or bhuta chaturdashi. Before dying, Naraka sought the boon that he should be worshipped with lights on this day and it was granted. Many people think Shiva Ratri occurs only once a year, in the month of February or March. This is not true. That Shiva Ratri in February or March is Maha Shiva Ratri. In addition, there is a monthly (masika) Shiva Ratri, on chaturdashi of krishna paksha. Hence, this chaturdashi, on the tithi preceding Deepavali, is also masika Shiva Ratri. This brings us to the night of amavasya. In some parts of India, this is the day of Lakshmi Puja. In other parts, this is the day of Kali Puja—both Lakshmi and Kali are Devi’s forms. India is a country with many festivals.
Usually, they are localised. If one is looking for a pan-Indian festival, that would be those three days in October, trayodashi, chaturdashi and amavasya in krishna paksha. But it doesn’t quite end with those three days. Following krishna paksha, we step into shukla paksha and the first day of shukla paksha is Bali pratipada. Most of us know the story of the generous Bali and how he was vanquished by Vishnu in his vamana avatara. Our traditions have different ways of reckoning with time. One of these is manvantaras, a manvantara being an era that is presided over by one specific Manu. Our present manvantara is known as Vaivasvata manvantara. What some people don’t know is that devas and rishis change from manvantara to manvantara. Since Indra is a title and not a proper name, so does Indra. Bali, the great Vishnu devotee who gave up everything to Vishnu in his dwarf avatara, will be the Indra in the next manvantara.
He is waiting and has been granted the boon that he visits the earth once every year. That day happens to be Bali pratipada. The day also happens to be the occasion for another festival, Govardhana Puja. This story is about Krishna and Indra. The gopas and gopis of Vrindavana wanted to worship Indra and Krishna persuaded them not to do so. When Indra got angry and showered down incessantly, Krishna held up Mount Govardhana and protected Vrindavana.
The second lunar tithi is known as dvitiya and the succeeding dvitiya (also known as Yama dvitiya) is the day when sisters pray for the well-being of their brothers. We sometimes know this as Bhai dooj. According to tradition, this is the day when Krishna visited his sister Subhadra, after killing Narakasura. In some parts, this is also the day when Vishvakarma, the architect of the gods, is worshipped. We aren’t quite done. The sixth lunar day is known as shasthi. That gives us the name Chhath and Chhath Puja traces its origins to Karna worshipping Surya, the Sun God.
In sum, Deepavali isn’t only about crackers and festivities on amavasya of krishna paksha in Ashvina/Kartika. It is a cluster of festivals around that date. There are two main harvests, one in spring and one in autumn. Perhaps, historically, the clustering of festivals in autumn signifies a switch in relative importance from the spring harvest to autumn, though there are several festivals around the spring harvest too. A good harvest means wealth and prosperity, and all these festivals are a celebration of that.
Because of its symbolic importance, indicating the triumph of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance, all our festivals have involved the use of deepas or lamps, not current garish electric lights. Sanskrit literature, epigraphic records and accounts by travellers have documented the use of deepas, sometimes referred to as Deepavali, but also known as Deepotsava and Deepamalika. I have especially focused on Hinduism, but there are reasons for these celebrations in Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism too.
Festivals stimulate expenditure and lead to growth. Economists refer to these as multiplier effects. We are delighted when we receive Diwali gifts and give them. In the course of this, we shouldn’t forget the symbolism of the deepa. In the last resort, that is what all this is about.
Highlight quote: Historically, prosperity has been linked to harvests. That’s the reason there are so many festivals in the months of September and October.