Friday, October 16, 2009

Deepavali (Divali) - October 17

Living in multicultural and multireligious Malaysia is truly a blessing as we have the opportunity to learn a great deal about the cultural and religious celebrations of other Malaysians. Tomorrow, we celebrate one of Malaysia's great religious holidays, and for Hindu Indians it is their largest and best known holiday, Diwali (pronounced Di-vall-ee or dih-WAH-lee) or locally known as Deepavali, is popularly known as the "festival of lights"; however, its most noteworthy meaning in a spiritual sense may be "the awareness of the inner light".

Deepavali (தீபாவளி or Dīpāvalī,) (Hindi: दीपावली, दिवाली; Kannada: ದೀಪಾವಳಿ; Urdu: دیوالی; Tamil: தீபாவளி; Telugu: దీపావళి;Marathi and Konkani:दिवाळी) is a significant festival in Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism, and an official holiday in India and Malaysia.

Deepavali is a Tamil word meaning diyas in line தீபாவளி(deepavali) = தீபம்(deepam)+வளி(vali) (In tamil வளி(vali) = வரிசை(line))The word தீபம்(diyas) derived from the word தீ(fire).

Fundamental in Hindu philosophy is the belief that there is something beyond the physical body and mind which is pure, infinite, and eternal, called the Atman (pronounced in Sanskrit like Atma). Deepavali (Diwali) is the celebration of this inner light, in particular of the knowing that this light outshines all darkness (removes all obstacles and dispels all ignorance), and awakens the individual to their true nature, not as the body, but as an unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality. With the knowing of the Atman comes universal compassion, love, and the understanding of the oneness of all things.

In most regions, Diwali lasts for five days. It begins on the 14th day of the dark half of the Hindu calendar month of Asvina. (Hindu months are each divided into a light half, when the moon waxes, and a dark half, when it wanes.) In 2009, on the Gregorian calendar, Diwali begins on October 17th.

The story behind Diwali, as well as the length and specific details of the celebrations, varies widely from region to region; however, the essence is the same: to rejoice in the inner light (Atman) or the underlying reality of all things (Brahman) through festive fireworks, lights, flowers, the sharing of sweets and worship.

Deepavali celebrates this through festive fireworks, lights, flowers, sharing of sweets, and worship. While the story behind Dipavali varies from region to region, the essence is the same - to rejoice in the inner light (Atman) or the underlying reality of all things (Brahman).

Of the several events associated with it, the following are two important ones in Hinduism:

  1. Return of Rama to Ayodhya: Deepavali also celebrates the return of Rama, King of Ayodhya, with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana to Ayodhya after a 14 year exile, and a war in which he killed Ravana. It is believed that the people of Ayodhya lit ghee lamps along the way to light their path in the darkness. Since Ram traveled from South India to his kingdom in North India, he passed through the south earlier. This is the reason why the festival is celebrated a day earlier in South India. Deepavali usually comes 19 or 20 days after Dasara.
  2. The Killing of Narakasura: Celebrated as Narak Chaturdashi, one day before Deepavali day, it commemorates the killing of Narakasura, an evil demon who created havoc, by Krishna's wife Satyabhama. This happened in the Dwapara Yuga during this time of Krishna's avatar. In another version, the demon was killed by Krishna ( Krishna provokes his wife Satyabhama to kill Narshna defeating Indra: Govardhan Puja is celebrated the day after Deepavali. It is the day Krishna defeated Indra, the deity of thunder and rain. As per the story, Krishna saw huge preparations for the annual offering to Lord Indra and questions his father Nanda about it. He debated with the villagers about what their 'dharma' truly was. They were farmers, they should do their duty and concentrate on farming and protection of their cattle. He continued to say that all human beings should merely do their 'karma', to the best of their ability and not pray for natural phenomenon. The villagers were convinced by Krishna, and did not proceed with the special puja (prayer). Indra was then angered, and flooded the village. Krishna then lifted Mt Govardhan and held it up as protection to his people and cattle from the rain. Indra finally accepted defeat and recognized Krishna as supreme.

Variations notwithstanding, these stories share a common thread; that of the removal of evil, to be replaced by that which is good.

This sense of renewal is reflected in the way Hindus prepare themselves for Deepavali.

In anticipation of the celebration, homes as well as their surrounding areas are cleaned from top to bottom; decorative designs such as the kolam are drawn or placed on floors and walls; and the glow of lights, whether emitted from the traditional vilakku (oil lamps fashioned out of clay) or colourful electric bulbs, brighten up the abode of both rich and poor, signalling the coming festivities.

Temples are similarly spruced up with flowers and offerings of fruits and coconut milk from devotees, becoming more abundant and pronounced as the big day draws closer.

The spring cleaning and decorating are significant for they not only symbolise renewal but also prepare for the welcoming of Devi Lakshmi, the goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, who is believed to visit homes and temples on the day. It is said she emerged from the churning ocean only days after the new moon of Deepavali.

Besides the cleaning of homes and temples, Hindus also prepare themselves by cleansing their bodies and minds. Many among the devout fast, or observe a strict vegetarian diet, and spend hours during the preceding weeks in prayer and meditation.

The eve is usually spent making last-minute preparations for the next day. This is also the time when past quarrels are forgotten, and forgiveness is extended and granted.

On Deepavali morning, many Hindu devotees awaken before sunrise for the ritual oil bath. For some it is a symbolic affair (to signify purity) while others take full oil baths to remove impurities externally, as well as tone the muscles and nerves to receive positive energies. Then it's straight to the temples where prayers are held in accordance with the ceremonial rites.

The rest of the day is taken up by receiving guests, as is customary here in Malaysia. Most devout Hindus tend to be vegetarian, but that doesn't change the fact that Deepavali is the day to savour the many delicious Indian delicacies such as sweetmeats, rice puddings and the ever-popular murukku.

For the Jains: Diwali marks the attainment of nirvana by Lord Mahavira – the last of the Jain Tirthankaras – on October 15, 527 BC and is one of their most important festivals.

Mahavira is responsible for establishing the Dharma followed by Jains even today. According to tradition, the chief disciple of Mahavira, Ganadhara Gautam Swami also attained complete knowledge (Kevalgyana) on this day, thus making Diwali one of the most important Jain festivals.

Mahavira attained his nirvana at the dawn of the amavasya (new moon). According to the Kalpasutra by Acharya Bhadrabahu, 3rd century BC, many gods were present there, illuminating the darkness. The following night was pitch black without the light of the gods or the moon. To symbolically keep the light of their master's knowledge alive, the Gana kings illuminated their doors. It was reported that they had said: "Since the light of knowledge is gone, we will make light of ordinary matter."

Diwali (also called Bandi Chhorh Diwas or "the day of release of detainees") is a particularly important day because it celebrates the release from imprisonment in 1619 of the sixth Sikh Guru, Hargobind Ji.

Deepavali has been significant in Sikhism since the illumination of the town of Amritsar commemorating the return of Guru Har Gobind Ji (1595-1644), the sixth Guru of Sikhism, who was imprisoned along with 52 other Hindu kings at Fort Gwalior by Emperor Jahangir. After freeing the other prisoners, he went to the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) in the holy city of Amritsar, where he was welcomed happily by the people who lit candles and divas to greet the Guru. Because of this, Sikhs often refer to Deepavali also as Bandi Chhorh Divas - "the day of release of detainees."

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