Diwali: A Brief History

Diwali is the ‘festival of lights,’ and is celebrated by Sikhs, Hindus and Jains. Although the date of the festival changes every year, it usually falls in October or November and lasts for five days. Many celebrate the festival in honour of the goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu and the goddess of wealth. It is common for families to open windows and doors in their home on Diwali to allow Lakshmi to enter their house and bless them with wealth and riches. The word ‘Diwali’ itself originates from the Sanskrit word ‘deepavali,’ meaning ‘rows of lighted lamps.’ The image of lamps links to the idea of good triumphing over evil, a prevalent theme in the stories that surround the festival. It is the light of the candle, good, that keeps away the darkness, evil. On the night of Diwali, families light tea lights and lamps and place them around their home to replicate this idea. Fireworks are also set off to celebrate the festival.  

For Hindus, Diwali celebrates the day that Lord Rama returned home with his wife Sita, following her kidnapping by the ten headed demon, Ravana. At this point Rama and Sita were living in exile, and upon discovering that Sita had been kidnapped, Rama despaired that he and his younger brother Lakshmana did not have the resources to to save her. However, this did not deter them from trying. While captured, Sita constantly resisted Ravana’s advances and refused to become his queen. After travelling to find help, they gained the support of an army of monkeys who were commanded by Hanuman. After a confrontation, Rama killed Ravana and took his wife Sita back home to Ayodhya. This story supports Diwali’s central theme: the triumph of good over evil. 

Rama and Sita - Vishnu's Bedtime Stories
Rama and Sita

While this version is regularly taught in schools, the ending of the story is usually omitted. Rama is crowned king upon his return to Ayodhya, but rumours begin to spread that Sita may have willingly eloped with Ravana. When Sita’s moral purity is called into question, Rama’s faith in her wavers. In one version of the story, Rama asks Sita to prove her innocence by undergoing a test before ‘Agni,’ fire. She passes the test, lives happily with Rama thereafter and gives birth to twins, Luv and Kush. In another version of the story, Rama’s mistrust of Sita leads to her banishment, and she gives birth to her sons in the woods. In their adolescence, Luv and Kush persuade their father that he was wrong to banish her. When Rama asks for forgiveness however, Sita rejects him, and effectively commits suicide by allowing her mother, the Earth, to swallow her up. Another slightly different version sees Sita dying of sorrow, thus solidifying her as a tragic, and moral heroine who was spurned by an intolerant society. In other versions of the story, Sita’s death leads Rama to drown himself, and they reunite happily in the afterlife. Despite Sita’s suicide in several versions of the story, she is revered in Hindu tradition, and is seen as the ideal of womanly virtue. The story of Rama and Sita is told in the Hindu epic the ‘Ramayana,’ of which Rama is the central character.  

For Sikhs, Diwali makes the escape of their sixth Guru’s, Guru Hargobind’s escape from jail in 1619. Guru Hargobind took 52 other princes with him when he escaped. When originally asking if this was possible, the prison guard said that Guru Hargobind could only take those who could hold onto his cloak. This cloak was made with 52 pieces of string, allowing Guru Hargobind to lead the 52 princes to safety. This particular event is known to Siikhs as Bandi Chhor Divas, or the ‘Day of Liberation.’ To celebrate Guru Hargobind’s safe return, the Golden Temple was illuminated with candles, a tradition that still occurs today. The foundations of the temple itself were also laid on Diwali in 1577. 

Guru Hargobind Singh escaping from jail with the 52 princes

Diwali is also important to Jains. The founder of Jainism is Lord Mahavira, and it was during the festival of Diwali that he reached Moksha, meaning eternal peace. 

Mahavira - Wikipedia
Lord Mahavira

Happy Diwali!

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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