Festival of Lights transcends time and religion

Nitin Kumar 

Historical evidences reveal that the earliest celebrations that the semi-civilised man organised were held around light and fire, maybe for protection against wild animals that the fire frightened, and the light alerted against emergent dangers.

Out of this cult people, perhaps those from early civilisations, developed their own festivals of light, independent ones discovering the glory of light, as the Indian festival of Diwali, or those associated with some religious events such as the Christmas and the New Year in the Christian world, or the Shab-i-Barat, in the Islamic world.

Theological Context

Whatever the theological contexts attached, the primary thrust of these festivals, in whichever degree, is the victory of light over darkness.

The origin of the festival of Diwali, when or how it began or who initiated it, is not known.

The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, has made brilliant efforts in its volume XXVI to trace the origin of Diwali celebrations but even such efforts could take back its origin only up to the beginning of the Christian era, not beyond.

Hindu Tradition

The Hindu tradition relates Diwali celebrations with the event of Rama’s return to Ayodhya after his victory over Ravana but the Ramayana does not allude to any such celebrations.

Massive arrangements were made to welcome Lord Rama at Nandigram and every inch of land between Nandigram and Ayodhya was leveled, sprinkled and beautified, flags were posted on every house and all inhabitants of Ayodhya were out on streets to welcome him with folded hands but it all takes place during the early part of the day.

In this sub-canto, perhaps only once allusion to lamps or light is made.

As Shatrughan commanded, servants of the State rushed with oil lamps, beds and cushions to the palace where Sugriva stayed. It seems that by the time of Valmiki, auspices were carried out only during the day and there was not perhaps the tradition of holding corresponding celebrations during the night.

Vatsyayana recommendation

The so far known earliest text that alludes to celebrating a night with multitudinous lights – a kind of the festival of light, is the Kama-Sutra by sage Vatsyayana, dated to the Third- Second Century BC to the Frist-Second Century AD.

Most significant among the nights that Vatsyayana recommends for celebration is the night of Yakshas or the Yaksha-Night.

Vatsyayana ordains that on the Yaksha Night the houses should be illuminated with the light of tiny earthen lamps placed in rows close to each wall and window ledges, and the gardens should have bonfires.

Yakshas were celestial beings fundamentally inclining to enjoyment.

Thus, Yaksha Night was the festival of light and merriment.

Gambling approved

At another place in the text that Vatsyayana recommends gambling as the sport for the Yaksha night. Thus, Vatsyayana’s Yaksha Night was celebrated with light, merriment and gambling, something that continues ever since as part of Deepawali celebrations.

The term ‘Diwali’ comprises two syllables – ‘Dipa’ and ‘Awali’, one meaning ‘lamp’ and other ‘row.’ That is, row of lamps, exactly with what Vatsyayana ordains Diwali celebrations.

In their commentaries on the Kama-Sutra the Jain Acharyas Hem Chandra and Yashodhara, too, have identified the Festival of Yaksha Night as an early form of Diwali.

Kala Ratri – the Deadly Night, Maha Ratri – impenetrable night, Mohkam Ratri – night of initiation are other names by which the Puranas have addressed the Festival.

Festival of Lamps

In his play ‘Nava-Nand’, King Harsh, who had a long tenure from 606 AD to 648 AD, talks of Dipotsava – Festival of Lamps. The Dipotsava of King Harsh is similar to the modern Diwali.

Nilamata Purana of the Kashmiri origin, composed between 500 AD to 800 A D, gives an elaborate account of Dipa-Mala Festival. All round illuminations, decorations, especially by hoisting up festoons, feasting Brahmins and relatives, gambling, music, passing nights in company of ladies, wearing rich apparel and jewels and making presents of new garments to friends, relatives.

In his Yashastilakachampoo (AD 959), Someshvarasuri makes special mention of decorating houses on Diwali. According to him, the houses were whitewashed and their tops were decorated with rows of bright lights.

Another identical account

In his Tahkik-i-Hind, the known traveler Alberuni, who was in India in AD 1030, gives an identical account of Diwali celebrations. In addition, he talks of people visiting temples, giving alms, exchanging betel leaves and areca nuts.

He also talks of gambling and some Diwali-related legends. He said that it was considered as the day for trying one’s luck, and it was on this day that Goddess Lakshmi was liberated from Bali’s clutches.

In his memoirs, Italian traveller Nicoloi Conti gives an elaborate picture of how Indians celebrated Diwali. In about 1420-1421, Conti was in Vijayanagara and recorded how in temples the lamps were kept lit day and night, and on house-tops, the whole night.

In his Ain-i-Akbari, Abul Fazl circumscribes Diwali as the festival of Vaisyas – the trading community, but such was its popularity and attraction that Akbar himself participated in its celebrations.

Nitin Kumar is Executive Editor of Exotic India, an online resource on Indian festivals, traditions, and religious observances. Website: www.exoticindia.com


Photo Caption:

  1. Diwali lanterns before Dhanteras in Maharashtra
  2. The Rangoli has been around for thousands of years
  3. The Diyas personify Diwali or Deepawali

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