Hinduism is one of the oldest religions practiced by more than 1.15 billion people across the globe, reports the World Population Review database.
Unlike other religions, Hinduism has no single founder.
The guiding principles of the Hindu way of life are enshrined in the Vedas. They include sacred hymns in Sanskrit presented in four collections: Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda.
Ancient saints and sages received these revelations over millennia. They preserved and passed on the knowledge of Vedas through chants in the Gurukul tradition, an education system built on a unique form of teacher/student bonding.
Yoga, Vedic astrology, astronomy, Ayurveda medicine, and India’s classical music and dance traditions are all gifts of the Vedas.
It is remarkable that even today, the ancient Gurukul tradition is followed for teaching the Vedas in India. Several festivals observed during various seasons in the year serve to reinforce the message of Vedas.
The inclusiveness in Diwali
One such festival is Diwali or Deepavali.
The festival spans over five days, from Nov 2 to Nov 6. The main festival is on Nov 4. It has become a national festival celebrated across India and the world, regardless of faith: Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs.
Jains mark Diwali, the day of nirvana or spiritual awakening of its founder Bhagvaan (Bhagwan) Mahavir, in 527 B.C.
Sikhs celebrate Diwali to observe Guru Hargobind Ji, the Sixth Sikh Guru, freed by the Moghuls from forced imprisonment.
The Hindu Diwali story has variations across India, with one common theme, the triumph of good over evil. In the Hindu scripture of Mahabharat, Diwali marks the day Krishna defeated Narakasura, a demonic king.
A teacher describes Diwali
Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, professor of religion, philosophy and Asian studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, said “Diwali” means an array of lights.
Diwali is celebrated on the darkest night of the year when the necessity and the beauty of lights can be especially appreciated. Given India’s rich regional and cultural diversity, it should not surprise us that many narratives and traditions are connected with Diwali.
“One of the most popular traditions associated with Diwali is taken from the Ramayana, one of Hinduism’s sacred texts, literally means ‘Rama’s journey,’” he said.
Diwali celebrates the return of Rama to his kingdom of Ayodhya after an exile of 14 years and after defeating the tyrannical Ravana. Citizens of Ayodhya greeted Rama, his queen Sita and brother Lakshman by decorating all streets and homes with lighted diyas or earthen lamps.
Rambachan described the story of Ram’s life, “revealing something of the nature of God’s relationship to us, humans.”
He explained, “My reflection is based on the reading of Ramayana as a theological narrative that instructs us about the divine in our world.”
But at the same time, he said, “a consistent feature of his mode of acting in the world … seeks our attention.”
“Rama continuously seeks human help to accomplish his purposes, small or great,” he said. “In fact, we may say that Rama’s life is a story of such partnerships.”
A critical observation Rambachan makes about Rama’s life is very meaningful in the current environment. He states, “A community does not come into being miraculously through divine intervention. It requires our active cooperation as co-creators every step of the way. Without our partnership, the birth of this community is not assured. This fact is a profound human responsibility, but also one that acknowledges our human freedom.”
Diwali, Rambachan said, “is an invitation to become active and responsible partners for the universal common good and of our freedom to accept or reject this divine call. We must choose.”
Five days of Diwali
The first day of Diwali, called Dhanteras, is celebrated by cleaning homes and businesses. It’s considered good luck to purchase gold, silver, and new kitchen utensils.
On the second day of Diwali, people decorate their homes with diyas or clay lamps and ornate Rangoli floor decorations.
The third day of Diwali is the main day of the festival. Families celebrate Diwali by lighting clay lamps and flowers. This is when families gather together for Lakshmi puja, a prayer to the goddess.
The Lakshmi puja is actually a celebration of three deities: Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity; Ganesh, the god of wisdom; and Kuber, the lord of wealth. Businesses close their old accounting books and start the new financial year on Diwali.
The prayer is followed by music, feasts, festivities, and sharing of sweets.
The fourth day of Diwali, called Padwa, is the first day of the new year. On this day, friends and relatives visit with gifts and best wishes for the season. On this day, devotees also worship the holy Govardhan Hill and celebrate the Annakoot festival by preparing and offering a large variety of vegetarian food to Krishna as a mark of gratitude.
The fifth and last day of Diwali, called Bhaidooj, honors brother and sister’s pious bond.
America celebrates Diwali
Until recently, it was observed by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and other immigrant communities around the U.S. Diwali celebrations have been happening in places ranging from Disneyland to Times Square in New York City in the past 10 years. Diwali is now starting to light up mainstream America.
As reported in the Business Standard, Americans across the country are observing October as the Hindu Heritage Month, with more than 20 of the 50 states and over 40 cities issuing proclamations about it.
Among the states that have issued these notifications are Texas, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida, Minnesota, Virginia, Nevada, Mississippi, Delaware, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Missouri, Indiana, and Michigan.
Editor’s note: Vijay Dixit is chairman of the Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit advocating distraction-free driving. He is also a board member of Eden Prairie Local News, as well as a contributor.