Below is an amended (and somewhat extended) blog that I wrote for my staff newsletter at work
The five-day festival of Diwali is perhaps the biggest and most well-known festival in the Hindu calendar. It’s celebrated with great fervour throughout the world: not only in India, but also in countries with sizeable Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist minorities. Celebrations are characterised by light, colour, food and fireworks.
Many stories are associated with the festival and each of its days, the most popular of which is the return of the deity Rama to his kingdom with his wife Sita, following a fourteen-year exile (it really is a long story — Wikipedia tells it well). However, central to all of these myths is the victory of good. The triumph of that which allows humans to live in peace, and support one another. But on a more philosophical level, the triumph of that which shatters our delusions about the world, expands our minds, and thus enables us to grow.
It’s pretty well known that light is a key theme of Diwali — the name of the festival is a shortened form of the word “Deepavali”, which literally means “row of lights”. On the night of Diwali, much of India turns into a sparkling fairyland — households traditionally light earthen lamps (“diyas”) with cotton wicks and ghee. The popular origin of this is said to be from when the people of Rama’s kingdom lit diyas to welcome him home. Of course nowadays, electricity has added a whole other dimension to the light theme.
However, a question not often asked is: what does this light represent? The motif of light and dark is a recurring one in Hinduism. It’s often a metaphor for knowledge or enlightenment, which dispels the darkness of ignorance and delusion. Knowledge of what? Of the world and humanity, that which expands the limits of our minds, that which allows us to develop empathy and appreciate realities beyond our own. Ultimately, knowledge that enables us to outgrow ignorance and realise our true selves.
It’s possible that Diwali’s origins lie in a harvest festival. It falls at the start of winter, one of the last harvests of the year, which was significant given that India was traditionally an agricultural economy. It was thus a time to reap the fruit of hard toil over the year gone by, and store it up for the winter months.
This gives rise to the other key theme of Diwali: wealth, or abundance. Indeed, the second day of the Diwali festival, Dhanteras, is traditionally considered a very auspicious time to purchase assets, particularly gold. Homes are meticulously cleaned and decorated, to invite in wealth and auspice. Households venerate their stores of physical assets (such as jewellery and precious metal) and their account books, to give their thanks for prosperity received so far and to pray for continued material wealth in the year ahead.
Coming back to the theme of light, knowledge is also welcomed with wealth — so that while we invite prosperity, we can also realise that it isn’t the be all and end all of our lives. So that we realise that the true value of wealth lies in helping us to do some good in the world, and ultimately grow as individuals.
This is embodied in worship during Diwali. Alongside the goddess Lakshmi — who embodies wealth and prosperity — the goddess Saraswati — who embodies knowledge and spiritual growth — is also welcomed. Only with the two together can we move towards realising our true selves.
So Diwali is a big deal for many across the world, and the British Indian community is no exception. The festival is marked by gatherings with family and friends, gifts, fireworks and food. However, Diwali was always, and still is, a much quieter festival for me. I don’t have much extended family in the UK, and my parents didn’t have deep connections in the Indian community. So celebrations in our household were always a bit more basic, and on a much smaller scale.
For me, Diwali also marked what I call an identity crisis “flash point”. As a second generation immigrant, it was one of those times in the year where I questioned whether I truly belonged in either part of my cultural identity. I’d be missing out on huge celebrations in India, and, aside from the big gatherings in the British Indian community, the festival would barely pass with a whimper in the UK. It could be quite sad at times — feeling neither here nor there, always on the periphery. This is actually a huge part of growing up as a second generation immigrant, and probably one to explore in other blog!
Because of this, Diwali became an increasingly introspective time for me. I always linked it back to discovering my place in the world, and figuring out what my religion meant to me. So I read about Diwali a lot when it came around. I became determined to feel more of a part of it, so I started forming my own little traditions around the festival. The most notable of these is that I’m the only one in my household who draws a rangoli on Diwali — geometric patterns outside the house, to welcome the goddess Lakshmi into our home. Mine isn’t anything to brag about (I have the artistic abilities of a three-year old), but keeping up the tradition is my own small way of marking Diwali, and making it mine.
That’s what I’ve come to associate Diwali with — a time that you can get back to basics, and re-connect with yourself, the world around you, and the divine. A time to give thanks, and spread auspice and good vibes. Cultural wranglings aside, I found, and still find, something immensely peaceful and comforting about the festival. The nights are drawing in, and winter is coming — so it’s the perfect time to celebrate with warmth, light and joy. For me, it’s the perfect time to step back, and connect to something bigger than my day-to-day life.
To all those celebrating, wishing you a happy Diwali!