All You Need to Know About…Diwali


Diwali lanterns

Over the past five days, nearly a billion people around the globe celebrated a holiday you’ve probably never heard of. Diwali is an incredibly important holiday to Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists the world over. The best way to think of it is as if Rosh Hashanah and Christmas had a love child and it was more important than both of them. Over five days of festivities, merrymakers celebrate the victory of good over evil, hope for prosperity in the coming year, and gather with friends and family to celebrate, eat delicious food, and exchange presents. Besides these common customs, traditions and even the dates of the festival vary between different families and ethnicities.

Traditionally the festival begins on the 15th day of the month of Kartika (or Aippasi) of the Hindu lunisolar calendar, which is specifically used to calculate the days of holidays. This day is called Dhanteras, and it is celebrated as a day to clean the house for the new year, pray to the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and honor the god of medicine, Dhanvantari. The second day of Diwali is Naraka Chaturdasi, which celebrates the victory of the god Krishna over the demon Narakasura.

Following Naraka Chaturdasi is the actual day of Diwali (the 18th or 19th of October this year). On this day people perform the Lakshmi Puja, a ceremony for Lakshmi that asks for prosperity and good luck in the coming year. It is also traditional to light tea-lights called diyas all around the house to welcome the goddess. Revelers will attend parties, wear their best new clothes, and splurge on sweets.

The fourth day of Diwali is Bali Padyam, which is dedicated to marital relationships; in the first millennium, couples would often get married on this day. The festival finally ends with Bhai Dooj, which is when male family members give gifts to their sisters and female cousins after the latter pray for their protection in the coming year.

According to legend, Diwali was first celebrated when the Hindu demigod Rama returned from 14 years of exile with his wife and followers after slaying the demon Ravana and his armies. In honor of the prince’s return, the people of his kingdom lit thousands of lights along his path, thus beginning the tradition. Over the years, the festival has evolved into the gigantic affair it is today.

While Hindus are the majority of Diwali celebrants, members of the other Dharmic religions also celebrate forms of the holiday. According to Jain custom, Diwali is celebrated in honor of the enlightenment of its last great spiritual leader, Mahavira. As in Hinduism, the Jain Diwali marks the beginning of the new year and is celebrated with lights and get-togethers. Many members of the Vajrayana Buddhist community in Nepal celebrate Diwali as well, primarily because of their strong ties to India and Hindu traditions. The Sikhs celebrate Diwali as Bandi Chhor Diwas, meaning “Day of Liberation”. This holiday marks the liberation of the Sikh spiritual leader Hargobind from the prisons of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. 

As the Indian diaspora has spread across the world, Diwali has become a holiday with increasing recognition in the West. President Obama celebrated Diwali every year he was in office, and President Trump continued that custom this year. Members of the Indian community in the U.S. (including my own family) continue to celebrate Diwali by lighting diyas, giving gifts, and getting together with their relatives, just as their kin almost halfway across the globe do.