Diwali is the largely celebrated festival in India. Hindus all over the world enjoy the festivities. At some point, every Indian gets curious about the history of the festival of lights. It’s not that they have no clue about the mythology. However, everyone knows one or more versions of it. They are surprised when they get to know about another. In this post, we have summed up pretty much all the versions of backstory of Diwali.
Killing of Narakasura
In the south, Diwali is strongly believed to mark the day of killing of Narakasura. It also marks the victory of Lord Vishnu over Naraka on a Chaturdasi, hence the day is also called as Naraka Chaturdasi. Naraka, a mythical demon is the son of Bhoomadevi, the Earth Goddess and Varaha, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Thanks to his great penance, he got boon from Lord Brahma than only his mother can kill him. Maddened with power and companionship of Banasura, he grew evil. He brought all heavens and all of earth under his control. Even Lord Indra could not stand in the face of his wrath. He lost all sense of respect for women and his subjects. He stole earrings of Aditi, the mother Goddess and kidnapped 16100 virgin princesses.
Aditi seek the help of Lord Krishna’s wife Satyabhama for help. Being informed about the ill-treatment and harassment to women, Satyabhama got furious over Narakasura. She requested her husband to wage war against the ruthless demon. Riding in his mount Garuda, he and Satyabhama attacked the fortress of the demon king. Eventually, Krishna killed Mura, general in Naraka’s army. An enraged Narakasura launched the divine weapon, ‘Shakti’ to render Lord Krishna unconscious. In rage, Satyabhama, who was an avatar of the Earth Goddess herself, fired a ferry arrow, killing Narakasura. It was when both parties came into realization of their mother-son bond. A dying Narakasura requested his mom, that his death should be celebrated with colorful lights.
Another version of the Naraka story involves events of Naraka kidnapping Lord Indra’s mother. A helpless Indra pleads to Lord Krishna for help. What follows is Lord Krishna taking along Satyabhama to the heavens to prepare for a war. In this version, Lord Krishna was well aware that Satyabhama is the mother of Naraka. Once Naraka is killed by his mom, Lord Krishna helps Indra’s mom to get released from Naraka’s fortress. In both the versions of the story, there is a lot of ambiguity. Even both the epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata doesn’t give more clarity in this matter. Regardless of the version you believe in, the Naraka backstory symbolizes the victory of good over evil.
Victory of Lord Ram
Most of India believes Diwali as the day to commence the return of Lord Ram. He returned to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile and winning over Ravana. In joy of returning of Ram, people in Ayodhya celebrated the day with fervor. It marks the tradition of lighting diyas on Diwali. It doesn’t just factor in the returning of the king. But, it also includes killing of Ravana which fits into the triumph of good over evil theme. King Rama is again an incarnation of god Vishnu.
When the evil King of Lanka, Ravana captures Sita, wife of king Rama, the latter builds an army of men and monkeys to rescue her. Hanuman, a prominent figure in vanara army builds a bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka. The army invades Lanka, frees Sita and king Rama kills Ravana. As Ram and Sita returns to the north India, millions of lights are spread across Ayodhya for welcoming them.
Contextual meaning of Ram is ray of light and Ayodhya is mind. When Ram returns to Ayodhya, it means a ray of light or hope entering the mind. It signifies the beginning of good times. In addition, ‘Sita’ in some context means body. Thus the event signifies positivity in mind on top of a healthy body. Bursting crackers in Diwali translates to getting rid of all the pent-up negative feelings. It’s the day to aim for new and solid beginnings.
Return of Pandavas
One of the lighter versions of Diwali’s mythology relates it to the return of Pandavas after 16 years of exile. This mythological event happened during the Mahabharata time. To mark the return of Pandavas, people of Hastinapur lit up firecrackers. The colors filled up the night sky. The streets we lit up by lighting diyas. Pandavas happened well after most of the Hindu epics and legends. Hence, it is considered a relatively closer Hindu backstory than any in the 21st century. Regardless, it fits so well into the theme of ‘right’ prevailing over the ‘dark’.
Pandavas were the original rulers of Hastinapur, who lost their kingdom over a gamble. They were sent to 16 years of exile into the forest, by the Guaravas. Pandavas include the five brothers – Dharma, Arjuna, Bheema, Nakula and Sahadeva. They faced the toughest of time during the exile, while escaping the attention of Guaravas at compulsion. Their return after the exile meant a huge relief to the people of their kingdom. Once the rightful kings were back and gearing up for a war to get their kingdom back, the people couldn’t have felt happier. Hence, they celebrated the day by lighting crackers into the sky, thereby announcing the return of their heroes.
Story of Yamadeepak
Most of us are familiar with Satyavan – Savitri story. The Yamadepak story is relatively unknown, which actually is attributed to history of Diwali. There was a young prince, who happened to be the most eligible bachelor in the region. Hima, the king wanted to get the 16 year old married. The court’s astrologer informed the king, that the prince exactly the fourth day from marriage. As per horoscope, the prince will die by snake-bite. Regardless, the king went forward with his decision of getting the prince married. The newly married wife didn’t take much time to know about this astrologer’s prediction. She became worried and concerned about saving her husband’s life.
She planned to surround her home with diyas and light them up. She believed Yamaraja cannot get past these lamps. As part of the process she placed all of her jwellery outside at the entrance of her husband’s room. Eventually, Yamaraj comes in the form of a snake to kill the prince. Being blinded by the lamps, he had to return back. What followed were many other attempts by Yamaraj to take the life of the young prince. However, the young princess was successful in saving her husband, thanks to the bright diyas. These lamps are referred to as ‘Yamadeepak’. From that day onwards, the tradition continued. Fittingly, Dhanteras is also called as the day of ‘Yamadeepdaan’.
Yama and Yami
Few Hindu sects attribute Diwali to sibling relationship of Yamaraj and Yami. Yamraj visited his sister Yami on this day. She applies tilak on his forehead and garlanded him. He was led to special menu of dishes, which both of them feasted on. They enjoyed a pleasant chat, much to the delight of both. As a parting ritual, they gave each other special gifts made by them. Thus, this day is observed as a symbol of sibling love involving sister and brother.
It is believed that Aditi, mother of Yama and Yami can’t feel the heat of sun. Sun god had no clue about it. After spiritually connecting with Sun god, Aditi got pregnant with Yama and Yami. Due to a curse from Chayya, goddess of shadow, Yama deva died. Moreover, he is believed to be the first person to die on planet earth. He turned into a god, once he died. He got a boon that he can return once every year to earth to meet with his sister, Yami. It is the reason why the festival is dubbed as ‘Bhai Dooj’.
Bandi Chorr Divas
Sikhs celebrate Diwali too, but in the name of Bandi Chorr Divas. They have been doing it since the early 1700s. It is the day, Guru Gobind Singh got released along with 52 kings from Gwalior prison. Bandi translates to ‘imprisoned, Chorr translates to ‘release’ and Divas translates to ‘day’. This day is celebrated for ‘right’ prevailing over ‘wrong’. It was the fruits of tremendous amount of resistance shown by Guru Gobind Singh as well as martyrdom of his father, Guru Arjun, against forced Islamic conversion in Jahangir’s reign. It has to be noted that Bandi Chorr Divas is not actually Diwali. It is just its Sikh equivalent.
Guru Arja, the fifth Guru of Sikhism and father of Guru Gobind Singh was arrested under the orders of Jahangir. Since he refused to convert to Islamic faith, he was tortured and eventually executed in 1606. These were the black days in Sikh history. It was then, Guru Gobind Singh succeeded as sixth Guru of Sikhism. He militarized the Sikh community and fought bravely against the Mughal emperor.
Jahangir made a fiery response by arresting the 14 year old and jailing him at Gwalior Fort in 1609. When he was released, he was allowed to take as many kings out of the prison, whoever has his hands on the back of his robe. Guru Govind attached a cape to his robe and made it possible for 52 kings to be released. This day is celebrated as Bandi Chorr Divas by Sikhs worldwide.
New Year for Hindus
Diwali also marks the New Year in Hindu calendar. Hindus of trading communities, start their accounts afresh for the year. In many Diwali greeting cards, you can notice that people wish you ‘Happy New Year’. Nevertheless, the familiar Hindu New Year falls in the month of Chaitra. But a few regions including Gujarat, Nepal and some parts of Maharashtra celebrate Diwali as the beginning of new financial year. Hence, it is usually referred to as Financial New Year of Hindus.
Similarly, Diwali signifies victory of good vs. evil in many versions of mythology. It is a recurring theme in Killing of Naraka, return of Pandavas and return of Lord Rama. Since it ends the dark days, it also implies birth of new times. The light repels the entirety of darkness, thereby giving people a ray of hope. Hence, it can also be dubbed as Hindu New Year, according to many versions of Diwali’s history.
In some region of Gujarat, it is observed as ‘Bali Pratipada’. It depicts the boon granted by Vamana, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu to King Mahabali. The boon lets the latter to visit his kingdom once every year, to see if people are well-fed and living happily. It was granted to the king for the generosity he shown towards Vamana. After offering his head as charity, he was made as the rule of underworld or ‘patala’.
Recent events associated with Diwali festival
Kids wait for Diwali right from the start of the year. They rejoice wearing new clothes, eating sweets and importantly, bursting crackers. Crackers are an integral part of the celebrations. However they cause noise and air pollution to some degree. With alarming air quality in key metros like Delhi, crackers become vulnerable to blame. Moreover for a long time, environmentalists have been asking for an outright ban or regulations on busting crackers.
The economy of crackers is pretty large as well. Recent bans and regulations on production of crackers have hit hundreds of families in the manufacturing town of Sivakasi. The bans were fuelled by declining air quality levels in key metros. To control noise pollution, most Indian towns permit less than a couple of hours to burst crackers. Government also advised to stop manufacturing of crackers that create too much noise.
In addition, the coming of online retail chains has impacted on economy of Diwali. Low level market players are having tough time adapting to the market conditions. The change in allegiances of customers is taking a toll on street vendors and local shops. That’s as far as the recent developments in Diwali goes.
Sikh Festival Diwali (Bandi Chhor Divas)
Bandi Chhor Divas is a Sikh festival that coincides with Diwali. Sikhs have always celebrated it along with Hindus. Since late 1900s Sikh religious leaders acknowledged Diwali as Bandi Chhor Divas. It celebrates the release of Guru Hargobind, sixth Guru in Sikhism, after being prisoned for over a decade by Jahangir. More than 50 Hindu kings were released along with him. The festival is celebrated as closely as Diwali, with lighting of homes and Gurudwaras. People make time for family and share gifts. It is an important festival in the Sikh community along with Hola Mohalla, Maghi and Vaisakhi. Most of the Sikh festival coincides with mainstream Hindu or Indian festivals.
As usual, celebrations include display of fireworks. In addition, Nagar Keertan, a street procession is held. Akhand paath, continuous reading of Guru Granath Sahib is observed. Shri Harmandir Sahib is adorned with tons of simmering lights. Gurudwaras organize continuous singing of Keertan, in addition to special shows from special musicians. Sikhs consider Bandi Chhor Divas as an important time to spend with families and visit Gurudwaras. They find rejoice in soaking into spiritual music played in Gurudwaras. Sikh communities all over the world, celebrate this festival with utmost fevor and excitement.
Backstory of Bandi Chhor Divas
Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru of Sikhism has a broad influence on Sanskari culture. People of every faith and caste gather together in Shri Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar during his time. Without any discrimination, they have feasted together there. It was times when Mughal Emperor, Jahangir was attempting Islamification of Punjab and Northern India.
Everyone looked up Guru Arjan as the savior and religious compass. The respect enjoyed by the Guru made it impossible to convert people of other faiths into Muslims. Thus Jahangir arrested Guru, tortured him and eventually executed him in 1606. It marks one of the dark days in history of Sikhism. The martyrdom of Guru Arjan is still remembered and respected.
Following Guru Arjan, Guru Hargobind followed his footsteps to become the sixth Guru. After becoming Guru at the age of 11, Hargobind donned two swords – one depicting Shakti and another depicting Bhakti. He militarized the Sikh community and waged wars against the Mughals. Fighting for respect and freedom, thousands of soldiers sacrificed their lives in the battle. At his age of 14, he was jailed by Jahangir at Gwalior Fort. Despite torture in jail, the sixth Guru never accepted to converting to Islam. It is believed that Jahangir fell ill, because of god’s intervention.
As a result, a god fearing Jahangir released Guru and stopped being a staunch enemy to Sikh community. According to Sikh traditions, Guru was released on a Diwali. It is celebrated as Bandi Chhor Divas till date. He brought a sense of unity in entire India. Guru got released with 52 other kings, thanks to a smart play from him. All of these kings started a new tradition of celebrating Diwali as Bandi Chhor Divas in their kingdoms. Sikhs remember Guru Hargobind on this day as the Guru who fiercely fought many battles against the Mughals.
Diwali traditions and customs
Diwali is the largest celebrated festival of Hindus worldwide. It is dubbed as the festival of lights, owing to the firecrackers which light up night sky. There are at least a dozen different mythologies and backstories for Diwali. The festival is celebrated in different forms by Sikhs and Jains too. Everyone has their own set of traditions and beliefs associated with this festival. Let’s look at some of the common traditions and customs in this post.
People rise up early in the morning for oil bath. You can use any of the preferred natural oils. The oil is rubbed in with a gently massage. It is left to be dried up by body’s heat for some time. People shampoo their hair to get rid of oil later. Oil bath cools down the body and keeps you fresh.
People gift sweets to neighbors, friends and family. It is a way to establish friendships and bonds. Sharing sweets is a deep rooted tradition in India. People consume sweet and savory dishes to create good vibes. Sharing gifts with neighbors of other faiths creates harmony in the society.
Houses are cleaned and even renovated on this auspicious day. The entrance is illuminated with oil lamps and sparkling fairy lights. Overall, it makes up for ambient settings in any Hindu household. Visiting the streets of India on the eve of Diwali is pleasing to the eye.
People decorate their homes by lighting ‘diyas’ in the entrances or doorways. These lamps are fuelled by oil or ghee. According to Hindu mythology, people of Ayodhya celebrated the return of Lord Rama by decorating whole town with lamps. Since then, the tradition enjoys a strong foothold in Diwali celebrations. It is also believed that lamps help Goddess Lakshmi find your home on no-moon day.
Rangoli, a beautiful and intricate pattern decorates the doorways and foyers on Diwali. Hindus apply Rangoli on doorsteps almost every day. However, the Rangoli for this auspicious day is grand and special. It is created with rice, flower petals and colored sand, giving it an elegant design.
Prayers are offered to the goddess of wealth and prosperity – Lakshmi Devi. According to Hindu belief, households which worship Goddess Lakshmi are blessed with enormous wealth and everlasting prosperity. During Diwali, people do special Pooja for the goddess. Besides Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess Kali is offered special prayers and mantras.
A prevalent tradition that is common in villages during Diwali is worshipping of cattle. Farmers do it, considering cattle as part of their livelihood. Hence, cows are equated to gods according to Hinduism. In south India, people worship cows as Kamadenu or incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi.
Diwali is never complete without bursting of firecrackers. It is believed that crackers will drive off the evil spirits from the neighborhood. In effect, it brings in wealth and prosperity. Moreover, kids always grow fond of firecrackers, especially the ones that blaze up the night sky.