By Aanandi Ross
Diwali reminds me of a time in childhood, when I stood on a very high hilltop at night, overlooking the dazzling spread of city lights below and felt ecstatic bliss. After learning about Diwali, I understand more: the lights and the bliss, outside and inside.
Diwali is a festival of lights, signifying knowledge over ignorance and light over dark. It is a very big holiday. We can liken it to a combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and the Fourth of July, all in one. Diwali is celebrated every year in autumn in the northern hemisphere, which is spring in the southern hemisphere.
The celebration dates back to ancient India as a festival after the summer harvest. It honors the sun as the cosmic giver of light and energy to all life. Derived from the Sanskrit dipam “light, lamp” and oli “glow of light,” “diwali” comes from dipavali, which means “series of lights.” For some, the festival preparations and rituals extend over a five-day period.
The main festival night coincides with the darkest new moon night of the month between mid-October and mid-November, this year on October 19th. We’ll look at it in three ways: as a cultural phenomenon; as a religious celebration, as a Hindu holiday; and as a spiritual opportunity, from a yogic perspective.
Culturally, Diwali is an official holiday in several countries. The celebration has gradually increased in scope, becoming part of the general local culture. It is one of the most popular and joyous festivals. It can be an extravagant party-time, complete with shopping, new clothes, decorative lights, gift-giving, celebratory foods, fireworks and sparklers.
As a Hindu celebration, Diwali is a holy day. Celebrations honor Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance at harvest time, who provides us with our stockpiles of food during the dormancy of nature, and who will bring forth spring’s flowering and fructification of nourishment. She is thus the Goddess of wealth. Hindus prepare by cleaning their homes and setting out lights — clay saucers of ghee with a wick, everywhere, outside and inside. New clothes are worn, pujas are decorated with flowers, prayers are offered. Sweets and dried fruits are enjoyed. The senses are employed to attune one to the presence of God.
It is a time when children hear ancient stories from their parents and elders about the Ramayana, a battle between light and darkness. Lord Rama who waged a war against the demon-king Ravana, who had kidnapped Lord Rama’s wife, Sita. Against great odds and with Hanuman’s help, Rama rescued Sita, and together they journeyed back home. The people were overjoyed and welcomed them home by lighting up the city with candle flames everywhere.
For us yogis, Diwali is a special time to honor the light of your own Self. We also honor the one who makes you able to know your Self, the Guru. Along with festivities, rituals can include a self-oil-massage specially prepared with herbs, bathing afterwards, and dressing in new clothes. Along with lights, sparklers and fireworks, look for the experience of Lakshmi’s power inside, bursting into bloom, dispelling darkness, and invoking an inner experience of being all the throb of life.
Celebrate Diwali! Honor the light, the Guru and your own Self.