by Sanjana Lakshmi
When most of my non-South Asian friends hear about Diwali — which begins this Sunday — the immediate connection they make is, “Oh, that’s the festival of lights, right?” And while it’s true that Diwali features millions of bright, beautiful lights in and around households, places of worship and even storefronts and office buildings wherever it is celebrated, there’s more to the holiday than merely pretty lights and colors, good food and good clothes. After all, those things come with most holidays. So, what makes Diwali special for those who celebrate it?
1. Diwali is Celebrated by People of Many Faiths.
Diwali, or Deepavali, as it’s known for some, is a festival celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and some Buddhists in South Asia and the diaspora. It is an official holiday in many countries — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, just to name a few. Each faith has its own reason to participate in the festival:
For Jains, Diwali is celebrated as the day that Lord Mahavira attained moksha, freedom from the cycle of reincarnation. Lord Mahavira was the 24th and last Tirthankara, or someone who has overcome this cycle of life, death and rebirth, of this cosmic era. On Diwali, Jains remember Lord Mahavira’s teachings, such as those of ahimsa or nonviolence, aparigrapha or non-possessiveness, and anekantvada or open-mindedness and pluralism.
For Sikhs, Diwali is known as Bandi Chhor Divas, or “Day of Liberation.” It commemorates the release of Guru Hargobind, the sixth guru, and 52 other kings from prison, where they were held by Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1619.
For Hindus, Diwali’s religious significance tends to vary regionally within the subcontinent. One of the most prominent stories remembers the climax of the epic Ramayana, when Lord Rama defeats the demon king Ravana and returns to the kingdom of Ayodhya from exile with his wife, Sita. For some Hindus, Diwali also pays tribute to the Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, fortune, and beauty. Others celebrate Lord Ganesha, the god of auspiciousness and wisdom, and still others commemorate Lord Krishna’s defeat of the demon Narakasura. For many, Diwali is the Hindu New Year.
For Buddhists, Diwali is the auspicious day on which Emperor Ashoka — after what is known as his killing spree in the Battle of Kalinga around 265 BCE — decided to follow the path of Buddhism. Buddhists celebrate both the Buddha as well as Emperor Ashoka on this day.
While Diwali is important to each faith for different reasons, a common factor in all of the understandings of the holiday is the triumph of good over evil, of “light over darkness” — and this is why Diwali is the festival of lights.
2. There’s no one way to celebrate.
In many regions, Diwali takes place over the course of five days, and it is the third that is the main festive day. As the celebration approaches, people clean their entire households, wear new clothes or their nicest outfits, and bake mouth-watering sweets. People also decorate their households with lit diyas, or little earthen pots, candles and colorful rangoli patterns that are drawn on the floor using rice, sand or flowers. Families tell stories and legends about why the holiday is celebrated and many people go shopping — store owners put everything on sale.
Because of the varied reasons Diwali is celebrated, there is no uniform religious ceremony related to the holiday. Many Hindus hold pujas, or ceremonies, for Lakshmi on the third day of the festival. It is said that Lakshmi travels the earth on Diwali night. People decorate their homes with as much light as possible and open their doors and windows in the evening, placing diyas and candles on window sills and doorsteps, so that Lakshmi can find her way there in the darkness. She blesses households with wealth and success.
My favorite part was always after the Lakshmi puja — when we would all go outside and light firecrackers. We always celebrated with so many different kinds, from small sparkers to flowerpots and rockets, and in the distance, there are always fireworks lighting up the sky. The fireworks are a celebration, but are also supposed to chase away any evil spirits lingering around the home.
Related: A Non-Muslim’s Guide to Ramadan
Other faiths celebrate Diwali in different ways — Sikhs light up the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and there are also beautiful fireworks displays. Similarly, Sikhs wear new or nice clothes and exchange sweets. Jains offer prayers to Lord Mahavira and place lights to mark his passage to heaven and to keep his knowledge alive. Buddhists light lamps and celebrate the Buddha.
3. It Openly Celebrates a Female Deity.
For me, Diwali was always special because it so openly celebrated a female goddess, Lakshmi — one whom I was named after. Of nearly all the major world religions, Hinduism is the only one I knew about that worships God in a female form. While this does not necessarily make Hinduism inherently feminist — and there are many real-world experiences of Hindu women who would tell you quite the opposite — the use of male and female identifiers for God in Hinduism creates an understanding that God is not exclusively male nor exclusively female.
Although I am not religious, Diwali remains culturally significant in my life. Normally I’m at university during the festival, but I try to find friends with whom I can celebrate the occasion, even if it’s just to go out for South Asian food or get henna done on our hands. It is a day that people of so many faiths and with so many backgrounds see as auspicious, and for all who take part, it is a day that celebrates good over evil.
It’s important to remember that Diwali has cultural and religious significance beyond the pretty clothes, good food and beautiful lights. This holiday season, let’s make a genuine effort to take an interest in not merely the aesthetics of festivals and auspicious days but understand why they are so special to those who celebrate them.