Deepawali or Diwali, is a festival of lights symbolising the victory of righteousness and the lifting of spiritual darkness. The word ‘Deepawali’ literally means rows of diyas (clay lamps). This is one of the most popular festivals in the Hindu calendar. It is celebrated on the 15th day of Kartika (October/November). This festival commemorates Lord Rama’s return to his kingdom Ayodhya after completing his 14-year exile.
The most beautiful of all Indian festivals, Diwali is a celebration of lights. Streets are illuminated with rows of clay lamps and homes are decorated with colours and candles. This festival is celebrated with new clothes, spectacular firecrackers and a variety of sweets in the company of family and friends. All this illumination and fireworks, joy and festivity, signify the victory of divine forces over those of wicked.
The Goddess Lakshmi (consort of Vishnu), who is the symbol of wealth and prosperity, is also worshipped on this day. In West Bengal, this festival is celebrated as Kali Puja, and Kali, Shiva’s consort, is worshipped on the occasion of Diwali.
In the South, Deepawali festival often commemorates the conquering of the Asura Naraka, a powerful king of Assam, who imprisoned thousands of inhabitants. It was Krishna who was finally able to subdue Naraka and free the prisoners. To commemorate this event, people in Peninsular India wake before sunrise and make imitation blood by mixing kumkum or vermillion with oil. After crushing underfoot a bitter fruit as a symbol of the demon, they apply the ‘blood’ triumphantly on their foreheads. They then have ritual oil baths, anointing themselves with sandalwood paste. Visits to temples for prayers are followed by large family breakfasts of fruits and a variety of sweets.
Another story of king Bali is attached to the Diwali festival in South India. According to the Hindu mythology, King Bali was a benevolent demon king. He was so powerful that he became a threat to the power of celestial deities and their kingdoms. And Lord Vishnu came as the dwarf mendicant Vamana, to dilute Bali’s power. Vamana shrewdly asked the king for land that would cover three steps as he walked. The king happily granted this gift. Having tricked Bali, Vishnu revealed himself in the full glory of his godhood. He covered the heaven in his first step and the earth in his second. Realising that he was pitted against the mighty Vishnu, Bali surrendered and offered his own head, inviting Vishnu to step on it. Vishnu pushed him into the nether world with his foot. In return Vishnu gave him the lamp of knowledge to light up the dark underworld. He also gave him a blessing that he would return to his people once a year to light millions of lamps from this one lamp so that on the dark new moon light of Diwali, the blinding darkness of ignorance, greed, jealousy, lust, anger, ego, and laziness would be dispelled and the radiance of knowledge, wisdom and friendship would prevail. Each year on Diwali day, even today, one lamp lights another and like a flame burning steadily on a windless night, brings a message of peace and harmony to the world.