Diwali is one of the biggest festivals in India, similar in importance to Christmas in the U.S. It is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains in India and around the world. It is observed by religious and nonreligious. Other religious communities also mark Diwali as joyous season in secular way. An official holiday in India, it is observed on the 15th day of the Katrina Month in the Hindu calendar. This year Diwali was observed this past Sunday, with Monday serving as the start of the new year in the Hindu and Jain calendar. Diwali means “Festival of Lights.” Each religion has its own story related to Diwali.
Hinduism is one of the major Indian religions in the world. According to Hindu tradition, about 900,000 years ago Shri Rama, who was about to become a king, was sent away to the forest so his brother could become king. His wife, Seta, and brother, Layman, followed him. During this time his wife was abducted by the demon Ravan. Shri Rama won the battle with Ravan and returned to Ayodhya after 14 years with Seta. The people of Ayodhya welcomed him by decorating their homes. At night they lit lamps and set off firecrackers. They also distributed sweets and bought gold ornaments to observe their happiness. Since then, Diwali has been observed by Hindus at this time of year.
About 2 percent of Indians practice Sikhism. The sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind Sahib, along with 52 kings, was released from prison on Diwali by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. When Guru Hargobind Sahib arrived at the Golden temple in Amritsar, his devotees lit lamps to celebrate his release.
Jainism is one of the minority religions in India, practiced by about 0.4 percent of the Indian population. Some 2,539 years ago, Lord Mahavir, the 24th Tirthankar, who established the rituals of Jainism as practiced today, attained Moksha. It is liberation from the endless cycle of life and death. There is no more birth to experience; one enjoys bliss forever in Siddhalok, the place at the top of the universe. Jains celebrate this day by lighting lamps to dispel inner darkness. They also observe a fast from sunrise to next day’s sunrise. Jains drink only boiled water from sunrise to sunset during their fast; they don’t take any solid or liquid food. Jains do not light firecrackers because they will kill many insects and could take the lives of birds or other creatures. (Jains believe in nonviolence.)
Diwali is a joyous moment for everyone. People buy gold and gold jewelry as signs of prosperity and to welcome Laxmi, the goddess of money, at their homes. Bonuses and sweets are distributed by businesses. Banks, government offices and schools observe longer holidays. The day after Diwali begins a new calendar year for Hindus and Jains. For Hindus, the new calendar year will be Vikram Samvat 2070, the calendar established by emperor Vikramaditya. For Jains, the new calendar year will be Veer Samvat 2540, based on the Nirvana anniversary of the Lord Mahavir.
Feel free to go over to your Indian neighbor’s home and wish them “Happy Diwali.” They will appreciate your sincerity and you will be treated with delicious Indian snacks and sweets. “Happy Diwali.”
Kirit C. Daftary is a resident of Waco and practices Jainism. He is a trustee of the Council of Parliament of World Religions and a board member of the Greater Waco Interfaith Council. There are about 150,000 Jains in North America and about 65 Jain temples in North America.