India, the world’s largest democracy, is a country of a thousand festivals too. There’s one almost every day, given there are so many cultures, castes, religions, and traditions, all packed within the borders. But Diwali or Deepavali is probably the biggest of them all. Often described as the “festival of lights”, and also the “festival of sound”, because of the loud crackers, it’s celebrated in all corners of the country. Diwali dazzles, because there are lights everywhere. People decorate their homes, wear new clothes, and distribute sweets. There are special “Diwali Deals” everywhere.
The day is marked as an official holiday all across the country. Not just India, Diwali is an official holiday in several other countries too – Sri Lanka, Nepal, Mauritius, Myanmar, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Fiji, Singapore, and Malysia. And this makes these countries international vacation destinations for Diwali too as this festival is celebrated in grand and some unique manner in these places!
Diwali as a Diverse Hindu Festival!
It is believed that Diwali is primarily a Hindu festival. Some people believe that it is the celebration of the marriage of Lord Vishnu with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. And so Lakshmi puja is also carried out in the evening. In Bengal, devotees offer prayers to Mother Kali on the day. And in Maharashtra, prayers are held for Lord Ganesha, the symbol of auspiciousness and wisdom. Diwali is also held to commemorate the return of Lord Rama along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman to Ayodhya after their 14 years of exile, and Rama’s victory over the demon-king Ravana. The Marwari and Gujarati communities celebrate Diwali as their New Year.
Diwali has also been associated with the killing of the demon Narakasura, who captured almost the entire Earth and Heaven, and the return of the Pandavas from their exile of 12 years. Diyas are lit to celebrate such occasions.
Is Diwali only a Hindu Festival?
No, it is not! Diwali is not just a Hindu festival. Surprisingly, it has special significance in other religions too, namely Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.
Diwali in Buddhism
People following the Buddhist religion from across the world celebrate Diwali as an auspicious day. That’s because, this is the day when Emperor Ashoka gave up everything and adopted the path of peace after going through a lot of bloodshed and death. He decided to convert to Buddhism. That was somewhere around 265 BC. The day is thus marked as “Ashok Vijaydashami”. It is a day when Buddhists everywhere will chant mantras to remember Lord Buddha, and also the Emperor.
Emperor Ashoka started following the teachings of Lord Buddha, and in doing so, he became instrumental in spreading the religion throughout the subcontinent, and subsequently beyond. Using the resources of his kingdom, he placed edicts throughout his kingdom carrying inscriptions about Buddhism. These edicts are important, as one such pillar gives India its national emblem – the Ashoke Chakra that can be seen on India’s national flag too.
What does Diwali mean for Buddhists?
Diwali has a special significance for Buddhists for another reason. To them, the spiritual insight of Diwali is the triumph of good over evil as Emperor Ashoka gave up his violent ways and chose the path of peace and non violence on this day only. So it can be said the significance of Diwali to them goes much deeper, even more than that of the Hindus. However in truth, it is quite similar to Hinduism actually in this regard. This is hardly surprising though, as a few sects of the religions have reincorporated some Hindu traditions. There are many similarities between these two religions, though it is believed that Buddhism is more philosophical and non-materialist than many core concepts of Hinduism.
For instance, in Nepal, particularly among the Newar people there, they celebrate Diwali as the returning of light and balance to the world. It is apt to mention here that Newars, the indigenous people of Kathmandu Valley and surrounding areas of Nepal belong to Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman ethnicities and follow Hindu and Buddhist religions. The small number of Newar people in India and in other countries as well make it a point to celebrate Diwali every year, but of course, it’s nowhere near the celebrations held in this small Himalayan state. In Buddhism, there is a strong theme that is centered around enlightenment or nirvana, a kind of ascension that lifts the human soul and mind beyond the earthly plane, and reunites with universal consciousness.
Diwali is celebrated by the Buddhists in Singapore as well. Singapore incidentally is mostly a Buddhist society, though there are a lot of Hindus there too. Often the Hindus and Buddhists here are seen celebrating Diwali together, particularly in the “Little India” district, making it quite special. There is a lot of camaraderie and friendship among the people of both these communities. Hindus and Buddhists celebrating Diwali together is one thing you won’t usually come across in India too.
Diwali is an official holiday on that day in the city-country of Singapore. Many parades, concerts and exhibitions are held in Singapore on the day. In fact, the government of Singapore also organizes several programs on the Diwali day. Sometimes these events are held beyond the festival days as well.
Diwali in Sikhism
Diwali is an important day for the Sikhs too. This is the day when their religious leader Guru Hargobind Ji was able to free himself and other Hindu kings and gurus from the prison of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. After coming out from the Gwalior Fort, the guru and others went to the golden temple of Amritsar. So this day is celebrated to commemorate his homecoming. Even today the Golden temple is decorated in the grandest manner possible on the day of Diwali along with performance of breathtaking fireworks that has made Amritsar one of the top Diwali vacation destinations in India.
The Sikhs were facing a tough time after the demise of their 5th Guru Arjan Dev jee. Baba Budhha Jee, a respected figure in the community gave two swords to Guru Hargobind Sahib jee, who was to become the next leader. He was asked to stand up against the atrocities of Jahangir. Hargobind Sahib built a fort at Lohgarh in Amritsar and created a strong force of 500 infantry, 60 gunners, 300 horsemen and 700 horses. He was preaching peace all this time, but also trained the men in self defense and martial arts. The group won four battles against local Mughal generals and won them as well.
Emperor Jahangir came to know about this and wanted to arrest Guru Hargobind Sahib. He was informed that the Sikhs were trying to create a state within a state. However his trusted nobles Guncha Beg and Wazir Khan requested the guru to come and meet the emperor for a dialogue. But Hargobind Sahib was arrested when he came to the Mughal court and thrown into the Baoli of Gwalior fort along with 52 other kings of neighboring kingdoms.
However soon after, Jahangir fell ill. Court doctors advised the emperor to release the guru immediately because he has been cursed by the religious leader. It was Noorjahan who finally convinced Jahangir to release Guru Hargobind Sahib and his followers. Official orders were issued for the release of Guru Hargobind Sahib only as Jahangir was reluctant to let everybody go.
But the 52 kings stood up. They said that they will only allow the release if they too were released from prison. Jahangir said that “those who can hold on to Guru’s robe can walk away”. The emperor secretly didn’t want to free any more than four or five of these kings. Guru Hargobind Sahib would not be outmaneuvered in this way. The guru then came up with a unique plan. He ordered a cloak to be made with 52 tails. They spent the whole night stitching pieces of their robes to the Guru’s robe, making sure that everyone was holding on to the guru.
Jahangir kept his word. The next day was Diwali. Guru Hargobind Sahib was released along with everybody else. That was in 1619. Struggle for independence of the Sikhs intensified after the guru’s release, as Jahangir had thought it would. Much of it centered on the Bandi-Chhor or Diwali day.
The Sikhs were naturally very happy with the release of their leader. They wanted to celebrate the occasion. Since that day, Sikhs from the world over have been celebrating the Bandi Chhor Divas on the Diwali day. The guru’s mother was naturally very happy too like the others. She ordered the distribution of special food and sweets among everybody in the community. That has become a tradition. Sikh people will thus visit the homes of their friends and relatives with foods and sweets and greet each others.
Bandi Chhor Divas and Diwali
Guru Hargobind Ji has been known as the Bandi-Chhor from the day of his release from prison, more so because he was instrumental in securing the release of all the other prisoners as well. “Bandi-Chhor” here means “the liberator”. Bandi means Prisoner, and Chhor means Release.
Actually, Bandi Chhor and Diwali are separate festivals. Both these events are officially celebrated on different days. But the Sikhs celebrate both together on the same day as the guru was released from prison on the Diwali day of 1619. Also, when the guru arrived in Amritsar, the people there were celebrating Diwali. So it was like a double bonanza for them. Over the years, Bandi Shor has become a very important festival for the Sikhs. It ranks just after the Baisakhi festival that is held in April every year.
In India, the day is marked with the annual lighting up of the Golden Temple. There are firework displays and other festivities too. In fact, the entire city of Amritsar is lighted up with candles and lamps. Elsewhere in the world, gurudwaras are all wonderfully decorated. People offer prayers everywhere and will have langar. And like the Hindus, the Sikhs too wear new clothes, exchange sweets and greet each others.
Diwali- Martyrdom Day of Bhai Mani Singh Ji
The Diwali day is important among the Sikh community for another reason. This is the day when in 1737 Bhai Mani Singh Ji was martyred for refusing to pay taxes imposed by the Mughal Empire in Delhi on people from non-Muslim communities. The empire had dictated that anybody who prayed at the Khalsa would have to pay this tax. Bhai Mani Singh Ji was a senior strategist and scholar in the community. He wrote the final version of the Guru Granth Sahib.
His refusal to pay the taxes was a gesture of protest against Mughal rule. Sikhs from everywhere would remember Bhai Mani Singh Ji and his sacrifice on every Diwali day. He was executed publicly in Lahore. Bhai Mani Singh Ji kept reciting the Sukhmani Sahib, while he was being cut joint by joint, limb by limb.
Diwali in Jainism
Diwali is a special day in the Jain calendar as well, just like the Hindus, Buddhists and the Sikhs. This is the day when Lord Mahavira attained Moksh, Nirvana, or eternal bliss. Naturally, it is a great event in Jainism. Diwali is thus celebrated as ‘Mahavira Nirvan Diwas‘ also called ‘Mahavir’s Nirvan Kalyanak Divas‘ which means the Lord Mahavir’s Attainment Anniversary.
Bhagwan Vardhman, also known as Mahavira, was the last of the 24 Tirthankaras or prophets of Jainism. It is said that he attained nirvana on October 15th 527 BC at Pavapuri, which is in today’s Bihar. October 15th 527 BC was the Diwali day. People from the Jain community across the world would thus remember Mahavira on this day.
Lord Mahavira attained eternal bliss at the break of dawn of the Amavasya, or the night of darkness. It is said that the night before was particularly dark. Everybody, including commoners and even the King lighted lamps to make it easier for the prophet to attain his passage to illumination. 9 Malla, 9 lichchhavi of kasi and kosai, and 16 Gana kings illuminated their doors to keep the light shining. So Mahavira’s attainment of nirvana is seen as a passage from darkness to illumination or the attainment of the ultimate knowledge. It’s symbolic. It is believed that many Gods were present at Pavapuri to witness this momentous occasion. This has been mentioned in the Kalpasutra by Acharya Bhadrabahu.
Lord Mahavira was observing a two day fast as he sat in the Samavasaran. He also served his last discourse, which has become famous as Vipak Sutra and Uttaradhyayan Sutra. But throughout the night he was shedding his last remaining Karmas, and moving towards nirvana, even as the world stood still and there was complete darkness everywhere. It is said that the Gods themselves removed this darkness with the help of gems.
This is interesting because a lot of similarities can be found between Jainism and Hinduism here. Both celebrate Diwali as the festival of lights. Sikhism though is different. There is less of light here, and more of prayers, distribution of food and sweets and general merry-making. Modern day Sikhs of course illuminate their homes and gurudwaras with lamps and candles.
Significance of Lights on Diwali in Jainism
To the Jains however, the light of Diwali has another special significance. It signifies the light leaving his body and traveling to heaven, having succeeded in escaping from the trap of rebirth. They will thus illuminate lights to mark this passage, and also to keep the light of his knowledge burning.
This is what Acharya Jinasena writes about the attainment of nirvana in Harivamsha-Purana, which is a supplement to the Mahabharata. He composed this work in the Shaka Samvat era in 705 BCE.
tatastuh lokah prativarsham-araat ako
samudyatah poojayitum jineshvaram
This is what it means…”Gods illuminated Pavanagari by lamps to mark this important day. People should celebrate “Dipalika” and worship Jinendra (Lord Mahavira) to celebrate his attaining of nirvana. Interestingly, this is the oldest reference to Dipawali or Diwali.
In Jainism, Lord Mahavira is regarded as an important reformer. His teachings make up what is today’s modern day Jain philosophy. To the Jains, Diwali is not just a day to celebrate Mahavir’s passage to enlightenment. It is also an occasion to recognize his contributions to humanity and remember his teachings of ahimsa and justice.
The Jain New Year or “Vira Nirvana Samvat” begins with Pratipada just after Diwali. Jains have traditionally been business people for centuries. So the business or accounting year starts from this as well. But unlike the Hindus and even Sikhs, the Jain people wouldn’t normally fire crackers to celebrate the day. Most of them would instead decorate their offices, shops, homes and temples with diyas and lights. Many of them would also offer charities. And like the other religions, these lights depict the attainment of illumination and knowledge, and the removal of ignorance.
Jains will of course offer their prayers on this day. They will sing religious songs and chant mantras at homes and in temples. There is also the Jain ritual of visiting the Pava-puri on the Diwali day to offer their prayers to God. “MAHAVIRSWAMI PARGATAY NAMAH” is the most common mantra that is read. There are many song and dance performances as well. Many Jains will also visit Pavapuri, which is the home town of Lord Mavahira on this day.
Since they are business people, most Jains will also offer Puja of Dhan and put up their books of accounts on puja. This has been a tradition in the community for a very long time. Usually the women would fast for two days to pray for a good and prosperous year. Women will also go to the derasar tin for worship on the Amavasya day, and also meet their relatives and friends and exchange wishes, because it’s also the New Year in the community, apart from being a day of religious significance.
The second day of Diwali is held as Bhai Beej by the Jains. Processions with the idol of Lord Mahavira would be brought out everywhere with a significant Jain population.
Looking at the way, the followers of Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism celebrate Diwali along with those from Hinduism, it seems that Diwali is almost a pan-religious festival!