The Story of Diwali – The Legend of Rama

by vpundir | November 9th, 2007

Happy Deepavali
The festival of lights

Today is दीपावली (Deepavali/ RO – Diipavălii/ IPA – di:pɑ:vəli:), commonly and correctly known to the West as the Hindu festival of lighs. In fact, the word Deepavali itself is a compound word formed by the combination of two Sanskrit (or Hindi tatsam) words: दीप (Deep/ RO – Diip/ IPA – di:p/ Meaning – lamp), and आवली (Avali/ RO – Avălii/ IPA – ɑ:vəli:/ Meaning – Line), and literally translates into „A Line of Lamps”.

Over the past few decades, the dimunitive दीवाली (Diwali/ RO – Diivalii/ IPA – di:vɑ:li:) has become the more common word used to refer to the festival within India. In Nepal, it is more commonly known as Tihar (Meaning – festival) and Swanti. In addition to the Hindus, the festival is also celebrated by Sikhs, Jains and Nepalese Buddhists.

Legend goes that the origin of the festival lies in रामायण (Ramayana/ RO – Ramaiăn/ IPA – ɹɑ:mɑ:jʌn), one of the two major epics (the other one being महाभारत/ Mahabharata/ RO – Măhabharăt/ IPA – Mʌhɑ:bhɑ:ɹʌθ) of the Hindus. Ramayana is the story of मर्यादापुरुशोत्तम (Maryadapurushottam/ RO – Măriadapurușottăm/ IPA – Mʌɹjɑ:ðɑ:pʊɹʊʃɒθʌm/ Meaning – the most honorable of men) Lord राम (Rama/ RO – Ram/ IPA – ɹɑ:m), the crown prince of the prosperous northern Indian region of अयोध्या (Ayodhya/ RO – Ăeodhia/ IPA – ʌjɒðjɑ:), who decided to go on a self-imposed exile from communal life for 14 years to fulfil a promise his father, the dead king दशरथ (Dashrath/ RO – Dașrăth/ IPA – Dʌʃrʌθ) made to Rama’s stepmother. Wife princess सीता (Sita/ RO – Siita/ IPA – Si:tɑ:) and loyal half-brother लक्ष्मण (Lakshman/ RO – Lăcșmăn/ IPA – Lʌkʃmʌn) followed Rama into the forest while half-brother भरत (Bharat/ RO – Bhărăt/ IPA – Bhʌrʌθ) stayed back to take care of the kingdom as Rama’s leige.

After several adventurous years in the forest, the trio of Rama, Lakshman and Sita is broken up when Lanka’s king रावण (Ravana/ RO – Ravăn/ IPA – Rɑ:vʌn) abducts Sita. Rama and Lakshman organize an army of monkeys and bears and launch an offensive on the mighty kingdom of Lanka. After an epic battle, Ravana is defeated and killed, and princess Sita reunited with her husband (the day is celebrated as Dashahara). Fortuitously, this happens just 20 days before the end of the 14 years of exile. Thus, after enjoying a few days of Lankan hospitality, the princes and the princess fly back to Ayodhya in an aeroplane lent to them by विभीषण (Vibhishana/ RO – Vibhișăn/ IPA – Vɪbhi:ʃʌn), Ravana’s brother and the new king of Lanka .

When the three reach Ayodhya, the citizen welcome them and celebrate by lighting thousands of lamps to brigthen the moonless night. Deepavali, according to the legend, is the yearly commemoration of the return of the virtuous, victorious and beloved king of Ayodhya.

There is also another reason for celebrating Deepavali; one that is more practical or sociological. Deepavali is the “other” new year for the Hindus. While Holi, in spring, heralds the beginning of the year for the agricultural community, celebrating the harvest of the winter crop (rabi) harvest, Deepavali, in autumn, marks the transition from one financial year to another for the traders. Of course, the summer crop (kharif) harvest is also celebrated.

Communities within India celebrate the festival differently. For instance, in Bengal, the festival is more commonly known as Kaali Pooja, and is marked by worship of Goddess Kaali.

In most of India, though, the celebration starts in the evening with a ceremonial worship of the Goddess Lakshmi (the giver of prosperity) and Lord Ganesh (the giver of wisdom). Thereafter, diyas (earthern lamps filled with oil or ghee) are lit around the house. In recent times, candles and Christmas-light-style electric-lights have extensively supplemented, and even largely replaced, the diyas.

It’s all fun and frolic after that. People, who can afford it, don new clothes and take presents and sweets to the homes of friends and neighbors. For many, especially children, the whole festival of Diwali is signified by one word: fireworks. It would be tough to find a Hindu who has never enjoyed lighting a sparkler, cracker, “bomb”, “rocket”, anar, or chakri on Diwali.

Of course, because of all these independent (meaning every home has its own) firework displays, Deepavali is the busiest day of the year for the fire brigades. The police is also on high alert because of high rates of alcoholism and gambling on this day, owing to the superstition that financial gains made on this day bode well for the rest of the year.

Another interesting fact is that Deepavali is always on a no-moon night. No-moon night is of special significant for those that follow the magical and the occult, and Deepavali is said to be the day when the magical and the spiritual powers are at their strongest. Thus, it is believed that there are countless occult rituals and ceremonies performed this night, though it is unverifiable considering that such ceremonies are performed in shrouds of secrecy.

Like many other Hindu festivals, Diwali is also spread over several days. In fact, the celebrations go on for 5 days, with the main festival flanked on both sides by subordinate ones. The first day is धन तेरस (Dhan Teras/ RO – Dhăn Terăs/ IPA – ðʌn θɛɹʌs). Dhan means wealth and Teras is diminutive or contracted form of त्रयोदशी (Trayodashi/ RO – Trăiodășii/ IPA – θɹʌjɒðʌʃi:) which means the 13th day, simply signifying that this is the 13th day of the second half of the month. It is considered auspicious to buy gold, silver and other metals on this day. Making other major purchases (e.g.- buying a car) is also considered good. This practice is perhaps a misunderstanding of the name of the day itself: The day is thought to be the day when धन्वन्तरी (Dhanvantari/ RO – Dhănvăntării/ IPA – ðʌnvʌntʌɹi:), the master of healing and the idol of doctors, appeared in the great churning of the Ksheer Sagar – while the day takes its name from Dhanvantari, it is possible that over time the commonfolk took it to mean wealth.

Day two is नरक चतुर्दशी (Narak Chaturdashi/ RO – Nărăc Chaturdășii/ IPA – Nʌɹʌk tʃʌθʊɹðʌʃi:). Narak is a deformation of the word नर्क (Narq/ Ro – Nărc/ IPA – Nʌɹk) which means hell, and Chaturdashi means the 14th day. It is said that Lord कृष्ण (Krisna/ RO – Crrșn/ IPA – Kɹʃn) killed नरकासुर (Narkasura/ RO – Nărcasur/ IPA – Nʌɹkɑ:sʊɹ/ Literally – the demon from hell) on this day. It is believed that taking a bath before sunrise, when the stars are still visible in the sky is equivalent to bathing in the holy Ganges. Many people go around the house, creating on the floor colorful patterns called rangolis using powders usually found in the kitchen – earlier it used to be different flours and ground spices, but nowadays edible colors are often used.

The third and the most important day is known as Lakshmi Pooja or Deepavali. The fourth day is गोवर्धन पूजा (Govardhan Pooja/ RO – Govărdhăn Puja/ IPA – Gɔ:vʌɹðʌn Pu:dʒɑ:) which symbolizes Lord Krishna’s advice that humans should harmonize with nature. It is also known as annkoot signifying that thrashing of the newly harvested crop begins on this day. Additionally, as per the Vikram calendar, this is the first day of the new year.

The last day of the festivities is भाई दूज (Bhai Dooj/ RO – Bhai Duj/ IPA – Bhaɪ θu:dʒ) with Bhai standing for Brother and Dooj meaning the 2nd day. On this day, brothers and sisters meet to express their love and affection for each other.

In conclusion, I leave you with these words from the बृहदरण्यक उपनिषद (Brhadaranyak Upanishad, RO – Brhădarăniăc Upănișăd/ IPA – Bɹʌhʌðʌɹʌnjʌk ʊpʌnɪʃʌð), which sum up the message of this festival:

असदो मा सदगमय
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय
मृत्योर्मा अमृतमगमय
ॐ शान्ति शान्ति शान्ति

RO transliteration:
Ăsădo ma sădgămăyă
Tămăso ma giotirgămăyă
Mrîtyor ma ămrătămgămăyă
Oum șanti șanti șantii

EN translation:
(O Lord, lead us)
From illusion towards the truth.
From darkness towards the light.
From mortality towards eternity.
Oum (the seminal sound) peace, peace, peace (May peace be unto the earth).

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