The Diwali festival is an ancient tradition that traces its origins back to India and Bengal. Like Christmas and pagan celebrations in the west, it is full of legends, symbols and meaning for the people who celebrate it. Diwali is generally celebrated for 5 days, with each day holding a different legend, story and/or myth to tell. The actual stories differ depending on the region of the celebration, but most all of the legends deal with themes of goodness and strength triumphing over darkness and evil – hence the need for and significance of symbols of light. The Times of India sums up the modern meaning of Diwali by saying, “Regardless of the mythological explanation one prefers, what the festival of lights really stands for today is a reaffirmation of hope, a renewed commitment to friendship and goodwill, and a religiously sanctioned celebration of the simple - and some not so simple - joys of life.”
During Diwali, homes, stores, sidewalks and other public places are decorated with small candles and clay oil lamps called diyas. The lamps (which are often traditionally filled with mustard oil and a cloth wick) are put into rows where they can be seen. The word Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word dipavali, meaning “row of lights.” In some places, the oil lamps are floated (like floating candles) in the river Ganges – released out onto the water to transport the light to the other side.
In addition to the “rows of lights,” several other traditions are associated with the celebration of Diwali. Gambling and game playing celebrate the legend of the goddess Parvati who played dice with her husband Lord Shiva. The legend states she blessed the tradition saying that anyone who gambled on Diwali night would be prosperous and wealthy in the coming year. (The first day of the five day festival is called Dhanteras (‘dhan’ meaning wealth, and ‘teras’ meaning 13th) – and specifically celebrates wealth and prosperity for the coming year.)
Fireworks and firecrackers are also a significant aspect to the celebration of Diwali. Lighting up the skies with fireworks is described as a symbol of the “light” literally exploding into the heavens – taking the message of goodness and light upwards into the sky. Other traditions say that the pop pop pop sound of fireworks and firecrackers is the sound of the joy of the people – demonstrating their life and energy. A third, more practical legend behind the reason for the fireworks is that the smoke from the fireworks help drive away the mosquitos that are high due to the monsoon season.
Diwali has also become a time of gifts and gift giving. Like Christmas in the west, this time of exchanging candies, dried fruit, jewelry and trinkets has grown into a serious commercial shopping season – which has lead to fears that commercialism is eroding the traditional, spiritual and historical aspects of this holiday. (But the popularity of rows of Diwali lamps and candles along sidewalks and in shops demonstrates that shopkeepers know the power of this festival to drive sales!) Diwali is the last day of the financial year for Hindu businesses – a kind of financial New Year – and is felt to be a good time both to shop and start new business ventures. So as you can see, the light – embodied in candles and oil lamps – helps to symbolize the themes of renewal, rebirth, hope and gratitude in annual celebrations all over the world.