Towards an understanding of Diwali

Dear Editor,
Diwali is a festival that occurs on the fifteenth day of the Indian calendar month of Kaartik. Diwali, also called Deepavali, means “rows of lighted lamps”, and the celebration is often referred to as the Festival of Lights.
During this time, homes are thoroughly cleaned, and windows are opened to welcome the coming of new wealth. Little oil lamps, called deeyaas, are lit and placed in rows to commemorate the occasion. Gifts are exchanged, and festive meals are prepared during Diwali.
The celebration means as much to Hindus as Christmas does to Christians.

Festivals are an expressive way to celebrate our glorious heritage, our culture, and our traditions. They are meant to motivate us to rejoice on special occasions, and to express emotions with our loved ones. Festivals play an important role in adding structure to our social lives, and connecting us with our families and our historical backgrounds. They give us a necessary distraction from exhausting routines in our day-to-day lives and inspire us to remember ethics and values that have moulded us from childhood.
As we observe festivals, we pass on knowledge, legends, and traditions to the next generation.
The first thing to note about Diwali is that it is a festival. Festival time is characteristically different from ordinary, everyday time. Festival time is sacred time, whereas everyday time is filled with insecurity, fear, profanity, and corruption. Festival is called Parva in Sanskrit, and, by definition, Parva is that which makes us complete – it makes us sacred, courageous, and connected with our inner selves. Diwali, like Phaguaa-Holi, is one festival that makes us feel complete.

Diwali and dark night
The second point about Diwali is that it occurs on the darkest night of the month, called Amaavasyaa. Outer atmospheric darkness is significant of inner emotional and spiritual darkness. When we kindle and place lamps on the outside, Diwali is calling upon us to kindle and place the lamp of wisdom in the temple of our heart. Additionally, the Diwali festival gives us a clarion call to seek out all human hearts that are dark with emotional turbulence. There are millions of souls out there groping in darkness – afraid of what is yet to come. Diwali calls upon us to share the light of wisdom with such souls, and thus lend them a sense of assurance and protection.

Diwali and reaping harvest
The third point is that Diwali is a time when farmers reap bountiful harvests. Reaping crops is considered a time of amassing wealth. In Vedic/Hindu society and culture, wealth is seen as a positive notion. Vayam syaama patayo rayeenaam – Let us be masters of wealth in abundance, says the Yajur Veda. Wealth is not a corruptive contrivance used to harm others. What is corrupt is one’s attitude towards wealth. Wealth equals power, and power is good, as long as it does not harm another living creature.
Wealth should be used to develop oneself and the society in which one lives. It should not be a barometer to measure social prestige, but should be a tool for us to rise to higher levels of magnanimity and divinity. In celebrating Diwali, we perform Havan by chanting holy Mantras and making offerings of newly harvested grains unto a blazing sacrificial fire, and then sharing a portion of our accumulated wealth.
Vedic tradition teaches us the concept of Prasaad. Prasaad is what remains after a portion has been offered. Is your wealth Prasaad? Have you shared your resources with someone who is hungry, or who does not have enough to make a success of life? This is another call inherent in the celebration of Diwali.
We who are not farmers by profession can still feel comfortable with this sowing-reaping significance of Diwali. The question is one that targets the inner spirit: Did we sow seeds of virtuous inclinations and habits, called Sanskaars, that can germinate and grow into bearing fruits of enriched character? Is this year’s Diwali the time for us to reap such fruits?

Diwali and Rishi Dayananda
In addition to focusing on wealth on Diwali Day, Hindus also focus on the passing of the leonine soul of Mahaa Rishi Swami Dayananda Saraswati. On Diwali Day, October 30, in the year 1883, Rishi Dayananda breathed his last and entered into Emancipation. Approximately half of an hour before he breathed his last, many of the Rishi’s devoted followers stood in front of him, contemplating the noble figure lying prostrate before them. Sometime between 5:30 and 5:40pm, the Rishi beckoned, giving a signal that they stand behind him. They all did, in total silence. The Rishi now signalled for all doors and windows to be opened up, and looking at the ceiling, asked: What is the day and date today? What fortnight [Paksha] is it? Reply: Swamiji, it is the end of the dark fortnight [Amavasya Krishna Paksh]. Today is Tuesday. Hearing this, he looked up at the ceiling, composed himself for contemplation, began chanting Veda Mantras, and praised God in both Sanskrit and Hindi. With deep joy on his face, he repeated the Gayatri Mantra in clear tones, and was absorbed in deep trance [Yoga Samadhi] for quite a few minutes. He then opened his eyes and exclaimed, in a tone lower than normal:
Merciful and Almighty God!
What a wonderful life-drama You have enacted!
This is Your Will! Yea! This is Your Will!
Let Your Will be fulfilled!
With these last words, the Rishi turned in his bed to lie sideways, took a deep in-breath, held it for a while, and then completely expelled it with one vigorous effort. The soul of India’s greatest saviour in modern times had finally passed on into the Great Beyond. It was 6:00pm, Diwali Day, October 30, 1883.
Historians ask a pertinent question: Seeing that the festival of lights started simultaneously with the exit of the Rishi’s Soul, can we ask: Can it be intelligently assumed that the universal illumination of Diwali was in honour of the departed Soul? Can it be further assumed that a huge, bright, and glorious light in the form of the Rishi had kindled countless human heart-lights, saw them flickering luminously, and then departed?
Those present around the Rishi’s bed on Diwali Day, 1883 would never forget that moment in history when the soul of the Rishi passed on in peace and tranquility. In their experience, it was as if a huge, tall mountain had suddenly collapsed and left them stunned and shocked.
Gurudatt Vidyarthi of Lahore, Punjab, a scientist and agnostic, who was looking at the Rishi all the time, standing on one side of the room, was converted in a moment from being a skeptic to a confirmed God-believer. The moving scene of the Rishi’s calm and resigned ‘death’ forever wiped away from his mind the lingering doubts that he had entertained about the existence of God. Swamiji’s so-called death gave Gurudatt a new life and a new faith.
As Swamiji’s soul flew to the Great Beyond, Gurudatt saw bright visions: one was the Rishi’s death without tears of agony, and the other was the Rishi, comparable to a huge, bright light, kindling, in Diwali style, the flickering light of hope in the hearts of humanity, overcome for centuries by hate, untruth, superstition, and irrationality.
Did death conquer Dayananda? Gurudatt asked himself. Reply: Oh no! it was Dayananda who conquered death. The Rishi cast off life with as little concern as an elephant casting off a garland of flowers. His life was filled with the bliss of the soul, and he made humanity drink from his hand the nectar of that bliss. And now he passed into the reservoir of God’s Bliss.
The Rishi’s followers and admiring friends may lament over his death, but in life, he stood face to face before His God, executing His command, for which he was sent into the world.

Diwali and brother-sister relationship
Another practice during Diwali is Bhaiyyaa Dooj. On this day, women are given gifts by their brothers, and are held in the highest respect. While Rakshaa Bandhan is Sisters’ Day, Bhaiyyaa Dooj is Brothers’ Day.

Diwali – a new financial year
In North India, Diwali is also the time to close old accounts books and open new ones, and so it represents the commencement of a new fiscal year. Hence, many Hindus celebrate the dawn of a new year.
In certain other parts of India, the celebration of Diwali lasts for five days. Each of the five days is marked with worship and meditation. During these five days, people focus on a celebration of life, joy, and goodness. From darkness we enter into light, and light empowers us to do good deeds and bring ourselves closer to divinity.

Diwali calls upon all human beings to recognise that there are many minds living in so much darkness that they see no bright future for themselves. Homes are broken, children run to the streets looking for support from drugs and crime; and generally, people are hungry.
This Diwali, as you and I chant Mantras and kindle little lamps, let us focus on our own selves and the selves of people in the community. Place a deeyaa in your heart, in your home, in your village community, and in the nation at large. And, finally, let’s remember the soul of Rishi Dayananda Saraswati.

Happy Diwali!
Satish Prakash, PhD