Almost a billion people began the five-day celebration of Diwali yesterday.
Alright, maybe not every single one, but it is a very important holiday for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs and combined they number nearly a billion humans.
It is a huge holiday and I think it’s fair to say most non-Indian Americans don’t know anything about it -I certainly didn’t. So here are some of the salient points:
First, the word Diwali is a contraction of Deepavali, which means row of lights. The lights are used to light the way for the exiled Lord Rama to return to his kingdom, so Diwali is also known as the Festival of Lights.
The victory of Lord Krishna and his wife over the demon Naraka constitutes the basic story, but other things come into play – today, the second day, for instance, is devoted to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It’s very much a family holiday – one day is set aside for sisters to invite brothers to their homes. People wear new clothes and share special foods with friends and family.
One of the legends involves another demon who is released from hell for one day to light lamps everywhere in the world to dispel darkness and ignorance and to spread the light of wisdom. All over India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Singapore, Malaysia and Trinidad and Tobago, small clay lamps – deepa – are being lit, often in elaborate patterns and public displays.
Besides gods and demons, what Diwali is really about is our individual struggles to heed our better angels and that is always worth celebrating.