Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

The Hindu festival of lights

by Holly Hartman
Diwali, the festival of lights, at night

Diwali, "the festival of lights"

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Hindu Dieties

Diwali, the Hindu "festival of lights," is the best known of Hindu festivals and certainly the brightest. Amid the dark skies of autumn, lights illumine homes throughout India and its diaspora, while families celebrate with visits, gifts, and feasts.

Diwali generally lasts for five days, beginning on the 14th day of the dark half of the Hindu calendar month of Asvina. (Every Hindu month is divided into a light half, when the moon waxes, and a dark half, when it wanes.) By the Gregorian calendar, Diwali falls in October or November; in 2016, it begins on October 30.

Bright Beauty

Diwali’s name comes from the Sanskrit deepavali, "row of lights." According to tradition, Diwali celebrates the joyous homecoming of Lord Rama, hero of the epic poem the Ramayana, after 14 years of exile. When Lord Rama and his wife Sita returned to rule their country, their people lit the way with small oil lamps called diye.

During Diwali, these lamps shine in rows along homes and temples—adorning windowsills, staircases, and parapets—or glow from little boats that float down rivers. Colorful candles are lit alongside diye, while fireworks light up the night sky.

Feasts and Festivities

Fresh flowers and freshly cleaned homes welcome the days of Diwali. Many families draw a colorful rangoli, a decorative pattern made in rice flour, at the entrance of the home. Friends, family, and neighbors visit to share feasts and festivities as well as little treats such as khil (rice puffs) and patashe (sugar disks). Puja, worship of deities, takes place at home and at temples with prayers and other offerings.

Diwali also marks the beginning of a new financial year. Households and businesses begin new accounting in new ledgers, which are often decorated with images of Lakshmi. The goddess of fortune, she is the main deity honored during Diwali.

Diverse Traditions

Like other aspects of Hinduism—the world’s oldest religion—the origins of Diwali are remote. The celebration probably has its roots in ancient harvest festivals. And like Hinduism, observance of Diwali is richly varied among the faith’s 800 million adherents.

Although the Rama tradition is widespread, in some parts of India Diwali honors the marriage of the goddess Lakshmi and the god Vishnu; in others it remembers the triumph of Lord Krishna over the demon Naraka. While for most Hindus the worship of Lakshmi is a focus of Diwali, Hindus in Bengal honor the fearsome goddess Kali. Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of wisdom, is also widely honored, as are other gods and goddesses.

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