In 2013, Diwali, the festival of lights, will be celebrated on Nov. 3 by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. The word Diwali comes from the Sanskrit deepavali, which means a row of lights. For many Hindus, Diwali is also New Year’s Eve.
While Diwali is popularly known as the “festival of lights”, the most significant spiritual meaning is “the awareness of the inner light”. Central to Hindu philosophy is the assertion that there is something beyond the physical body and mind which is pure, infinite, and eternal, called the Atman. The celebration of Diwali as the “victory of good over evil”, refers to the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance, the ignorance that masks one’s true nature, not as the body, but as the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality. With this awakening comes compassion and the awareness of the oneness of all things (higher knowledge). This brings anand (joy or peace). Just as we celebrate the birth of our physical being, Diwali is the celebration of this Inner Light.
The “row of lights” for which the festival is named are lit on the new-moon night to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. But in Bengal, it is the goddess Kali who is so honored, and in North India the festival also celebrates the return of Gods and Godesses Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, and Hanuman to the city of Ayodhya, where Rama’s rule of righteousness was inaugurated. Diwali is celebrated with a variety of rituals, which depend in large part on one’s location, but they center on the lighting of candles, electric lights and fireworks. Throughout the five-day festival, small earthenware lamps filled with oil are lighted and placed in rows along the tops of temples and houses and set adrift on rivers and streams.
The Diwali season is also significant to Sikhs. During the festival time in 1620, the sixth Guru, Hargobind Singh, gained the release of 52 Hindu princes who had been falsely imprisoned in Gwallior Fort by the rulers of the area, the Mughals. The Golden Temple of Amritsar was lit with many lights to welcome the release of Guru Hargobind; Sikhs have continued the tradition.
Jains also celebrate Diwali, as a celebration of the establishment of the dharma by Lord Mahavira. The festival’s lights symbolizes the light of holy knowledge that was extinguished with Mahavira’s passing.