Holiday History: Diwali

Lit diya for Diwali
Shutterstock

Today marks the start of Diwali, also known as the “Festival of Lights,” the largest celebration in Indian culture.

Diwali is a five-day celebration that takes place in either October or November, depending on where it falls on the Hindu lunar calendar. Diwali celebrations can be traced back to ancient India as part of a tradition that dates back about 2,500 years.

Diwali most likely began as a harvest festival, but it is celebrated for several religious reasons. In the northern region of India, Diwali celebrates when the deity, Rama, defeated the 10-headed king demon. Rama is considered one of the incarnations of Vishnu, the god of preservation who creates, protects, and is able to transform the universe. Rama is considered the Supreme Being in Hindu culture. 

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In Southern India, the festival celebrates when another incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna, who is the god of protection, compassion, and love defeated the demon, Narakasura. The legend celebrates the freeing of Narakasura’s slaves from his oppressive reign. 

The most widespread tradition throughout India is to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and good luck, by lighting candles, fireworks, and diyas—small earthenware lamps filled with oil. Indians light these in rows in their homes, temples, streets and rivers.

Ultimately, Diwali symbolizes emerging from the dark into light as a metaphor for the journey from ignorance into knowledge. In India, the festival is a national holiday and is celebrated by both religious and non-religious citizens, much like the Christian holiday Christmas in America.  

Shutterstock Three Indian women celebrate Diwali with fireworks.

Traditionally, before Diwali begins, homes and offices will be cleaned. Then, they are decorated with rangoli, which are intricate designs in flower petals, colored rice, colored rocks, and sand. The rangoli represents happiness and liveliness within a household and welcomes the goddess Lakshmi. The doors and windows will be left open to allow Lakshmi to enter and bless the inhabitants with wealth and success. 

During Diwali, customs include gathering with family members, exchanging gifts, praying, and visiting the temples. Many traditional foods are made during Diwali, but sweets are considered the most important. The Indian dessert, “Mithai,” which is a variety of candies and desserts, is the most commonly exchanged gift. Mithai usually consists of a fruit, vegetable, or nut being condensed down with sugar and, occasionally, milk. 

Gambling, especially card games, is also a tradition on Diwali. It is considered a way to increase good luck in the upcoming new year. 

The U.S. government does not recognize Diwali as a national holiday, but in recent years many cities in the United States have begun holding festivals serving Indian cuisine and showcasing traditional dance and arts. 

According to Pew Research, more than 2.5 million Hindus now live in America. Hinduism is tied with Buddhism for the fourth-largest faith group in the United States behind Christianity, Judaism and Islam. That explains why Diwali observances are becoming more common around the country. 

This year, on October 15, the Indian community held DiwaliFest in Gainesville for the first time. The founders told WUFT in an interview that they plan to make it a yearly tradition. 

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