Deepavali or Diwali as it has come to be known as, means many things to many people. It means holidays from school, shopping expeditions for clothes, sweets, gifts and crackers to children. To the office-goer it means an annual bonus that can make all this happen.
To the businessman Diwali means brisk business just as to the clay potter, Diwali is the occasion of the year when the bulk of his sales are made. Diwali has a special significance for the trading communities of India who usher in their new year and new accounting books (‘bahi khata’) during this time.
Clearly, Diwali is the most exuberant of all Indian festivals. It is the equivalent of Christmas in the West, and people of each age have added their meanings to the celebration of Diwali.
How did Diwali begin?
The origins of Diwali lie in ancient India as a festival probably celebrated after an important harvest. It was a good time for the cultivators or vaishyas to celebrate. The granaries were full at the end of a long monsoon, and winter was still to come. They paid off their debts, celebrated and started afresh.
Gradually, the vaishyas became landowners and traders and Diwali became a time for them to change their annual accounting books. Their new year started with Diwali.
This is the reason why Diwali is also the festival of Goddess Lakshmi, who personifies prosperity and wealth. Lakshmi pujas are held in most Hindu homes, especially in the north.
Diwali myths: the end of Rama’s exile
Over time, various mythological explanations were given for the celebration of Diwali.
The most popular myth among these is the one linked to the ancient prince Rama, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, returning to their kingdom, Ayodhya, after a 14-year exile, and the defeat of the king of Lanka, Ravana. To celebrate this event, people at Ayodhya are believed to have lit up their houses with lamps.
The legend of Dhanavantari: physician of gods
According to mythology he was the physician of the gods who is believed to have emerged with a pot of ‘amrit’ (nectar) during the ‘samudra manthan’ or the churning of the ocean, when the gods and the demons fought with each other. It is also believed that Lakshmi emerged from the churning of the ocean and, therefore, her worship forms a big part of the Diwali celebrations.
South India: the myth of Narasimha
In South India, the story linked to Diwali is that of Narasimha, the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu, who is known as the God of Preservation among the Hindu Trinity that is made up of Brahma (the God of Creation) and Shiva (the God of Destruction).
According to legend, Vishnu incarnates himself as Narasimha (man-lion) to rid the earth of an evil king Hiranyakshipu. The king had received a boon from Brahma that he could not be conquered by either god or human for the simple reason that he could be killed neither by beast nor man, neither inside nor outside, neither during the day nor at night.
When Hiranyakshipu’s atrocities became unbearable, the gods turned to Vishnu for help. Vishnu reincarnated himself as Narasimha, half man and half lion and, therefore, neither man nor beast.
As Narasimha, he killed Hiranyakshipu with his claws at the threshold (which is neither inside nor outside), and just before daybreak (a time when it is neither day nor night). That way he managed to get around the boon given to the king.