Deepavali: How well do we know it?

Deepavali/Diwali is all about puja, festivities including light and sweets – and crackers. No, not the 1000-wala ladis that have become false status symbols, and vulgar displays of wealth giving a reason for clampdowns like #crackerban — but of light and sparkle. When we were children, Deepavali was heralded by a small cracker burst by Father in the wee hours of the morning, just as other elders in other households woke their families with similar cracker-bursts.

Today, it has become a ‘secularised’ festival at best and reduced to heated discussions of crackers and pollution, and other perceived ills it supposedly spawns, at worst. Thanks to rampant Hinduphobia in the media and among the intelligentsia, this beautiful festival has been shorn of its colourful puranic and itihaasic connections and spiritual connotations. There are preposterous claims that it is not a
religious festival at all ignorant as they are, of its pan-Indian nature and dharmic importance. Others are being sillier and saying that the diyas are more polluting than even crackers! What harm all this is doing in terms of its consumption and internalization by a whole generation can only be imagined.

With the decibels against Hindu festivals growing exponentially with every passing year, just as festival-shaming of Hindus has almost become normalised, I felt compelled to share the glorious traditions associated with it. Well, not all, because there are so many hidden cultural traditions connected to every festival in our vast land and we will have to spend a lifetime researching and unearthing them all.

The first thing I want to stress here about Hindu festivals is that they are all celebrations. Our festivals–every one of them–celebrates the victory of dharma over adharma or marks a joyous event in our dharmic calendar or celebrate the jayantis of our Deities and saints with feasting, singing and dancing. While they entail external cleaning and purification, they also encourage introspection for inner cleansing, aided by fasting and satsang.

Hindu festivals never mourn any event as the Abrahamic religions do. For instance, we don’t mourn the exile of Rama but celebrate His return to Ayodhya. Likewise, we celebrate Krishna’s birth and His various leelas, but don’t mark His departure from the world. Hindus consider these events as part of human life, which apply even to Avatars when they take human forms.

The bedrock of Sanatana Dharma is a healthy inquiring mind that seeks the Truth. Mere cynicism and rationalism without this spirit of inquiry speak of a closed mind that looks superficially at traditions and customs and mocks them. This is Hinduphobia, at its most elemental form. These cynics should at least try and understand what they are rejecting, instead of just rejecting for the sake of it or ‘standing’ with a certain viewpoint or person on social media to make their point.

This post is a small attempt to showcase the festival of Deepavali in all its cultural and religious grandeur. It is not exhaustive by any means, for reasons I have recounted above. I have also not covered the ‘secular’ topics of sweets, crackers and lamps, as enough has been written and continue to be written about them!

Deepavali is….
 the worship of Goddess Lakshmi. Trader communities start their new year by opening new account books on Deepavali.
 the celebration of the return of Sri Rama to Ayodhya from his exile after 14 years.
 the celebration of the killing of Naraskasura by Sri Krishna/Ma Kali.
 the day of liberation for Sikhs — Bandi Chor Divas — when Guru Gobind Singhji and the 52 princes with him were released from prison by Jahangir.
 the day Lord Mahavira attained nirvana. Jains celebrate it as Deva Diwali.

Deepavali is celebrated over five days in most parts of the country. In some places including Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the festivities go on till the full moon following Deepavali, with Bhishma Panchak , Chhat Puja and Tulsi Vivah among other festivals falling in between, culminating in Dev Diwali. It is also known as Dev uthani/PrabodhiniEkadashi/Devothhan Ekadashi or the day when the Gods wake up. Dev Diwali is celebrated grandly in Varanasi as Ganga Mahotsav.

In some parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the festival begins three days before Diwali, that is on Dwadashi, the 12th day of the waning moon. It is celebrated as Govatsa Dwadashi, with cows and calves being worshipped.

Dhanteras/Dhantrayodasi/ Asweyuja Bahula Thrayodasi comes next and is celebrated all over India under various names given above. It is believed that if one buys gold or some household item on this day, prosperity will follow all year round. Tamilians offer prayers and puja to Lakshmi and Kubera on this day. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and Kubera is her celestial treasurer.

Naraka Chaturdashi is variously known as Kali Chaudas, Choti Diwali, Roop Chaturdashi or Roop Chaudas. It is the main festival of Deepavali in the southern states including Maharashtra. Naraka Chaturdashi is the celebration of the killing of Narakasura by Sri Krishna and his consort Satyabhama. In Bengal it is a celebration Goddess Kali slaying Narakasura.

Puranas sometimes have different versions, but the followers of the dharma are perfectly comfortable with the multiculturalism and plurality of their Dharma. Take the killing of Narakasura, for instance, in the above para. The asura is the same, the deities slaying him are different. No matter, because ultimately is the victory of dharma over adharma. That is the beauty of Santana Dharma!

In the South, the celebrations are a little different. They get up well before dawn on Naraka Chaturdashi and apply sesame oil to their heads and bodies before having a bath. If there are elderly women in the family, it is they who apply the oil on the face, head and feet of each member of the family, singing the auspicious refrain sung during weddings, so auspicious the custom is considered!

Applying sesame oil is symbolic because Goddess Lakshmi is believed to be present in it. Likewise, Ganga is believed to be present in all waters on the day of Deepavali. This signifies the spiritual cleansing of the mind as well as physical cleansing of the body. Even today it is customary for Tamilians to greet each other on Deepavali morning by asking, ‘Ganga snanam aaccha?’ (Have you had Ganga snan (bath)?) Taking the blessings of elders, not just in the family, but also in the neighbourhood, is also part of the celebrations.

Maharashtrians celebrate the killing of Narakasura by symbolically crushing a small bitter vegetable called Kareet under their foot. This act also signifies the expunging of any bitterness from inside us to begin life anew.

Didn’t I say that our festivals are replete with symbolism? How beautiful they are if only we took the time and effort to learn about them!

The new moon day is when Lakshmi is worshipped in homes and businesses. For many, this is the biggest festival of them all, the Badi Diwali. Even those who don’t celebrate other festivals go the whole hog with Lakshmi Pujan, which begins days before, with the cleaning of the entire house. The puja ghar gets a special makeover and decoration and the entire family does the puja and arti of Lakshmi.

The day after Deepavali – the first day after the new moon – is celebrated as Govardhan Puja or Annakoot in the north – the day when Lord Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain to save the people of Dwarka from the deluge that threatened to drown it and also fed everyone. (Annakoot, literally means a mountain of food). The day is also observed as Bali Pratipada or Bali Padyami in Karnataka. It is believed that Raja Bali comes to visit his subjects from Patal Lok, where he had been pushed by Sri Mahavishnu in his Vamana Avatar.

The second day after Deepavali is Bhai dooj or Bhaiyya dooj or Bhau Beej – as it is variously called. It is the day that sisters fete their brothers as they do during Rakshabandhan. And then there is the  Chhath Puja , which is celebrated on the sixth day from Deepavali. It is celebrated in Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Nepal in a grand manner, but in recent years it has become a pan-Indian celebration with devotees offering prayers to the Suryadev and his celestial wife Usha, on riverbanks or banks of other waterbodies.

Thus, all the days following have various dharmic significance till the full moon day when Dev Diwali is celebrated as the culmination to the festivities. In addition to being the day when the Devas wake up, it is also celebrated as Tripurari Purnima as Lord Shiva had killed Tripurasura on this day.

My niece Gayathri, who lives in Arizona had added a beautiful note on the economic and environmental impact of our festivals and how they are so inclusive and positive in nature.

Living far away from the homeland, we see our traditions being watered down to simplistic phrases in order to make it easier to understand for our children, neighbors and friends of other faiths and cultures.

The true way of celebrating many Hindu festivals include the following:
spiritual growth, the advancement of society and respect for nature. The festivals always include ceremonies that respect and honour a particular profession or trade like the farmers (Pongal/Baisakhi), the craftsmen (Dusshera/Golu), the tradesmen, machines and workers (Ayudha Puja) to name a few.

These festivals help the people practicing their trades by giving them a boost to their economic situation and they may depend on the income from these festivals for their sustenance throughout the year. By finding a balanced approach to the festivals – giving priority to spiritual growth while
understanding that these celebrations have a positive economic impact on the various strata of society and respect nature while adhering to these traditions, we will see the true intent shine through and help our children understand the complete sentiment of these festivals.  

Also, as Gayathri points out, traders and artisans’ lives are linked to our festivals which are seasonal. By taking all these away and reducing it to just a ‘festival of lights’ to curtail its significance and secularize it, is the greatest injustice to all the observers of the festival in its various facets.  

It is quite evident that our ancient culture and civilization are inextricably entwined with Deepavali, which is the biggest festival for Hindus. Far from not being a religiou festival, it is deeply rooted in it as I have detailed above.

Modify traditions by all means, to suit the times. But hold your peace at least till you understand their significance and symbolism in their entirety. Above all, don’t convert such a culturally rich festival with deep dharmic significance into a commercial and ‘secular’ festival of lights. For, while Deepavali signifies light, it certainly is not the only thing that marks this elaborate festival that lasts for several weeks.
A version of this post was originally published on

Zephyr a.k.a. Thangamani is an award-winning blogger and writer, who blogs on social issues, culture, spirituality and family at  

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