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Also known as the Festival of Lights, Diwali is one of the biggest and most important holidays in India. On this day, people light clay lamps outside their houses, which represents the light that guides and protects their spirit.
But why exactly is Diwali important and how has it evolved over the years? What are the different symbols that people use to represent this holiday? Read on to answer these common questions.
History of Diwali
The colorful history of Diwali goes as far back as 2,500 years ago. Celebrated in October or November of each year, this huge holiday is very important in Hindu culture. There isn’t just one single reason why it is celebrated every year. Historians believe that it is linked to various stories in different religious texts, making it almost impossible to say which came first and what led to the inception of Diwali.
A lot of the stories surrounding this holiday revolve around a central theme – the fight between good and evil. In the northern part of India, Diwali is usually associated with the story of King Rama, which was believed to be one of the many incarnations of Vishnu.
Legend has it that King Rama established an army of monkeys when an evil Sri Lankan king kidnapped his wife Sita. His army built a bridge from India to Sri Lanka, which allowed them to invade the country and set Sita free. As she returned to the north with King Rama, it is said that millions of lights appeared across the city to guide them back home and welcome them.
The south of India has a different story about Diwali though. They link it to the story of the Hindu god Krishna who managed to free thousands of women from another evil king. In Gujarat, a state located on the western coast of India, New Year celebrations usually coincide with Diwali and are associated with praying to goddess Lakshmi for wealth and prosperity in the upcoming year. This could be why Hindus usually exchange gifts with their loved ones during Diwali.
Symbols of Diwali
Since Diwali is a very important national event, people who celebrate it have come to share various signs and symbols that aim to capture the essence of the occasion. Here are some of the most popular symbols used to mark this joyful holiday.
Considered one of the most popular Hindu deities, Ganesha plays a very important part in Diwali customs and traditions. He is usually depicted with a human body and an elephant head, with the latter representing wisdom, power, and the strength of God.
Legend has it that Ganesha received this head from his mother, the goddess Shakti, and he used it to replace the human head that his father Shiva severed because of a misunderstanding between them. His father then appointed him as the leader of all beings and to be revered and worshipped before any other deity.
Since Hindus believe that Ganesha is the god of beginnings, they usually pray to him before partaking in any activity. During Diwali, they pray to him first and request a great start to their celebration. Indian businesses also mark the start of the calendar year during Diwali by offering special prayers to both Ganesha and Lakshmi so they can succeed in the coming year.
2- Aum (Om)
Aum (Om) is also an important symbol of Diwali and the Hindu culture itself. This sacred symbol is a sound that signifies the essence of the Ultimate Reality and is usually chanted independently or before a prayer.
It is broken into three parts, with each part depicting an aspect of the divine. A stands for akaar, which is the vibration manifesting the universe, and U represents ukaar, which is the energy that sustains all creation. Finally, M stands for makaar, which represents the destructive power that can dissolve the universe and bring it back to the Infinite Spirit.
3- Bindi or Pottu
Known by people from northern India as bindi and people from southern India as pottu, this red dot is worn by married women on their foreheads. It is placed directly over the ajna point, a chakra in the human body that represents people’s spiritual eye.
Women wear the bindi or pottu to protect themselves from the evil eye. Guests and tourists visiting during Diwali are often welcomed with this red dot or saffron powder as well.
4- Lotus Flower
The pink lotus flower is a very popular icon not only in the Hindu religion but also in Buddhist and Jain teachings. People have come to associate it with deities because they were believed to sit on lotus thrones while holding the flower. Lotus blooms are meant to symbolize how it remains untouched by the bed of mud underneath it, remaining in a pristine state as it floats on top of the water.
This flower is also an important symbol of Diwali because it is closely associated with Lakshmi. Since it’s her favorite flower, Hindus believe that it’s one of the most special offerings that you can prepare for the goddess.
Colorful floor art known as rangoli is also a distinct symbol of Diwali. It is usually made with flour, dyed rice, and flowers that are shaped into various designs. While its main purpose is to feed birds and other animals, it is said that this floor art also welcomes Lakshmi into people’s homes. This is why more floor art is seen on the entrances of temples and homes during Diwali.
6- Oil Lamps
The lighting of rows of oil lamps is the highlight of this festive celebration. In southern India, people believe that this tradition started when the god Krishna banished Narakasura, ruler of the Bhauma dynasty of Pragjyotisha. Some say that his final wish was for people to commemorate his death by lighting oil lamps. This contradicts what people from the north believe. They think that the lights are meant to celebrate King Rama and his wife’s return.
7- Peacock Feathers
During Diwali, peacock feathers also take center stage as decorations. This stems from Indian culture, particularly from the Hindu epic known as Mahabharata. Legend has it that the peacocks were so happy with the tune that Krishna played from his flute and that the peacock king himself plucked his own feather and offered it as a gift. Krishna gladly accepted it and wore it on his crown since then, so he was often depicted with a peacock feather on top of his crown.
How Is Diwali Celebrated?
While Diwali is a very important holiday to the Hindus, non-Hindi communities also celebrate it. For example, in Sikhism, it is meant to commemorate the day that Guru Hargobind Ji, revered as the sixth guru of the Sikh religion, was freed after spending two years in prison under Mughal rule. In Jainism, Diwali is also an important event because it stands for the day that Lord Mahavira, known for giving up all his worldly possessions, first experienced a spiritual awakening.
This national holiday is celebrated over five days. On day one, people start cleaning their homes to prepare for the festivities. They also flock to the market, shopping for kitchen utensils or gold to attract good luck. On the second day, people usually start decorating their homes with rows of clay lamps, also known as deepa. They also create colorful patterns on the floor using sand or powder.
The third day of the festival is considered the main event. Families gather in prayer. They recite the Lakshmi puja, a prayer which is offered to the goddess Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu and goddess of wealth and prosperity. After their worship, they light up fireworks and feast on scrumptious traditional food like spicy samosas and savory masala peanuts.
On the fourth day of Diwali, people usually visit their friends and family to give them gifts and offer them best wishes for the year to come. Finally, they wrap up the festival on day five, with brothers coming to visit their married sisters and enjoying a lavish meal with them.
These are only some of the most popular symbols that are often associated with Diwali. Whether you’re thinking of joining the celebrations or you were simply curious about Hindu customs and traditions, understanding the history and significance of this noteworthy national event is surely a step in the right direction.