Friday, November 19, 2010


The sound of the firecrackers and the sparkling of the rockets assure me that I am not too late in writing something about Deepavali (This is actually a lie – As I post this, it is 2 weeks since the festivities). Every Indian festival in the past 2 years has presented me with an opportunity to wield the pen (the keyboard rather) explaining it, its origin et al. However, I have been consistent in my inconsistency. But, ‘Der Aaye Durust Aaye’; finally I have threatened myself with a ‘Now or Never’ clause and have come down to the real business. So, find below some information about this august festival celebrated usually in October or November, which more than anyone else fascinates children and students with the lure of sweets, crackers and above all, holidays!

 *I should actually have started with Ganesh Chaturthi. Just as any new venture is begun by invoking Lord Ganesh (the reasons for which are almost unknown, except for a boon he gains for Lord Brahma, I think), I should have been careful enough not to breach the protocol. Yet, by appeasing most of the other Gods, I hope to avoid any misfortune to the viewership of this post.

To understand anything, we should start with the term itself. Deepavali, also known as Diwali, literally means a row of lights, or lamps specifically. This term emerges from the celebration of Lord Ram’s return to Ayodhya, after his 14 years exile, by lighting of lamps and decoration with flowers and garlands. At least this is what I remember having been told in school. However, there is a lot more to Diwali than this. So much so that some of the ‘Brothers and Sisters’ from our school-time pledge celebrate this amazing festival for different reasons altogether. Let us explore the many aspects of Diwali and what we do about them…

Diwali is a 5 days festival, each of which is not celebrated by everyone. It starts on the 13th Lunar Day of the waning Moon (Krishna Paksha) in the month of Karthik (Sanskrit/Hindi) or Ippasi (Tamil), depending on which calendar one refers to (more on this discrepancy later).

a. Day 1 – Dhanteras or Dhantrayodashi meaning ‘Wealth – 13th day’ finds its roots in Lord Dhanvantri – the God of Wealth or Physician of the Gods – an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. During the Samudra Manthan (Ocean Churning), Lord Dhanvantri emerges (in the end) carrying a pot of nectar, which was a very important resultant of the process.

It is this emergence of the Lord that has translated into the celebration of this day. Contemporary practice, in West and North India, however prescribes that Gold & Jewelry be purchased on this day and that Goddess Lakshmi be worshipped for wealthy operation of business. It is interesting to note the correlation of Dhan with both Health and Wealth. Perhaps the ancient Indians were well aware of the adage ‘Health is Wealth’.

Another story relating to this day, in a more direct fashion, is that of a lady protecting her husband’s (presumably the young son of Mountain King Lord Hima) life. She blocked the entrance to their house with a pile of dazzling jewelry and lit up house with bright lamps, which repelled Lord Yama from entering and taking her husband’s life. This has supposedly led the day to also be known as ‘Yamadeepdaan’.

I also remember something related to King Kuber, the Lord of Wealth, to Dhanteras. But as I am not very certain about it, I better skip it.

b. Day 2 – Naraka Chaturdashi (Netherworld – 14th day) is one of the very few festivals named not after the vanquisher, but the vanquished.
It commemorates the killing of Naraka-Asura (Netherworld – Demon) at the hands of Satyabhama, consort of Lord Krishna. Narakasura, son of Bhoomi-Devi (Goddess Earth) had taken control over the three worlds and had imprisoned many (all?) women, including Goddess Earth herself. In accordance to a boon, he could be killed only by his mother. As explained in an earlier post, Satyabhama is the incarnation of Goddess Earth and hence Lord Krishna arranges the death of Narakasura at the hands of Satyabhama, who accompanies the Lord on his mount, Garuda, to attack the demon. Bhoomidevi, when freed, requests Lord Krishna to ensure that this day is remembered as the victory of Good upon Evil et al, owing to which we celebrate this day.

A chiefly South Indian festival, this day is observed by an early morning rise, followed by Ganga Snanam – Symbolic bathing in Ganga – and a visit to Krishna temples. The concept of bursting crackers in the morning is not original to this day. It is borrowed from the next phase of Diwali, the main one in West, North and East India.

c. Day 3 – Diwali and Lakshmi Puja, though technically different occasions, are celebrated almost hand in hand. The story behind one is quite straight forward, and the other almost unknown or mired in duplicity. Diwali, as explained earlier, is celebrated over the return of Lord Rama and Co. to Ayodhya. Rows of Lamps are lit, crackers are burst, and sweets are prepared & exchanged. Quite easy to understand and no confusion at all.

But why Lakshmi Puja? I don’t think it has much to do with Mother Sita, incarnation of Lakshmi Devi, accompanying Lord Ram and hence this is not linked to the Diwali we understand so well. My limited understanding reveals to me two possible reasons behind this celebration. One is again related to the Samudra Manthan we discussed a while ago. For some reason, Goddess Lakshmi got angry with everyone and hid herself in Sagara, the grand daddy of oceans. Now mind you, it is not that only Lord Vishnu or the Devas were concerned over her absence. The world plunged into darkness, as even the Asuras were distraught over Lakshmi’s departure. What??? Shouldn’t the Asuras have been delighted over the plight of the Devas? But how could that be, when they regarded Goddess Lakshmi as their own sister!!! An amazing twist isn’t it, but something not very difficult to comprehend.

Goddess Lakshmi symbolizes Wealth and Prosperity and hence was dear to one and all. And she too, though closest to Lord Vishnu, patronized anyone who regarded her with importance. The Asuras, dwelling beneath the Earth, were amassers of wealth and quite possessive of the Goddess. And hence, if I am not mistaken, the Asuras agreed to the Ocean Churning process to extract Goddess Lakshmi. Of course, they wanted the Nectar as well. But I think Goddess Lakshmi was the reason they partook in this exercise. The Devas on the other hand desperately were in need of the Nectar, to counter the Sanjeevani secret (by which the dead could be revived) possessed by the Asura preceptor, Shukracharya.

Nonetheless, during the churning, Goddess Lakshmi emerged from the Ocean in the form of Shree (contrary to the popular belief, Shree is not Lord Vishnu; the red herring being the salutation given to Gentlemen in Hindi) and she immediately identified Lord Vishnu as her consort. IT IS THIS EMERGENCE OF GODDESS LAKSHMI, WHICH IS CELEBRATED AS LAKSHMI PUJA. I really cannot cut the long story short, can I? But this is only a speculation, at least for me, as I know of one more reason behind this Puja.

Remember Onam, Maharaja Bali, Vamanavatar? Bali, after graciously losing his empire to Lord Vishnu, asked for a boon – that the Lord be his Door Keeper in the Nether World (not driven by revenge or any malicious feeling, but a pious request to be near the Lord always). The Lord had no option but to agree. So, he left Vaikuntha and was separated from Goddess Lakshmi. After some time the Goddess became restless and could no longer stay away from her and the world’s Lord. So, Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma agreed to help; they offered to take Lord Vishnu’s place as the Door Keeper(s) in Patala-Loka. So, upon Lord Vishnu’s return to Vaikuntha, Goddess Lakshmi was jubilant, ecstatic. To celebrate this day, Lakshmi Pooja is conducted.

Shops are decorated, Homes are beautified and new clothes are worn to invite Lakshmi Devi and with her luck, money and pleasure. In any case, one doesn’t need an occasion to celebrate wealth and prosperity.

d. Day 4 – Govardhana Pooja and Bali Pratipadya find their roots in stories from two incarnations of Lord Vishnu – Sri Krishna and Vamana Avatar.
Govardhana Pooja is directed towards Mount Govardhan, near the town of Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh. Indra, the Rain God, was extremely proud of his worship by the villagers of Vrindavan. Bala-Krishna knowing that his ego had to be subdued, urged the villagers to instead worship Mount Govardhan, who was helping the villagers more than Indra was. The villagers agreed to this, but only after Bala-Krishna promised to protect them from the inevitable wrath of Indra. As the new worship began, an incensed Indra threw thunderbolts and heavy shower down upon the villagers. Bala-Krishna immediately lifted Mount Govardhan with his little finger and saved the villagers. Indra was subjugated and his ego was leveled. Bala-Krishna was titled Govardhanagiridhari / Giridhari / Govardhanadhari after this incident.

This occasion is celebrated, mostly in places near Mathura and Vrindavan, through Milk-Bath of the deity and offerings of Garments and Jewels to the idol.

Bali Pratipadya is an interesting festival in the sense that it is celebrated twice in a year. The more famous one is Onam, which is celebrated for the same reason – Return of the King! The story is the same for Bali Pratipadya – King Bali, an Asura, though pious, has to be dethroned from his position as ruler of the three world; Lord Vishnu takes the form of a Young Brahmin and seeks 3 steps of Land; Bali agrees and has all his land covered in 2 steps; Lord Vishnu, upon Bali’s request, places his third step on his head pushing him into the Nether-world. In return, out of sheer gratitude, the Lord grants him one wish, to which the King requests one day every year with his subjects on earth. Thus Onam, thus Bali Pradipadya! But why two days – Well, I don’t know!

Additional Note - This day also marks the coronation of King Vikramaditya and Vikaram-Samvat was started from this day.

e. Day 5 – Bhai / Bhayya Dooj, the last festival under the umbrella of Diwali, is a festival quite similar to Rakshabandhan, in the sense that it reinforces the bond between a sister and a brother. However, the key differences are:

1. In Rakshabandhan, Brothers pledge safety and well being of their sisters. In Bhai Dooj, Sisters pray for the well being of their brothers.
2. In Rakhi, usually brothers gift their sisters. In Bhai-Dooj, the gifts are exchanged.

Now for the WHY!
Once again, we’re offered 2 possible reasons behind this festival.
Yamaraj once visited his Sister, after a long time. So glad was she to meet him (and find him safe) that she welcomed him, applying a Teeka (auspicious mark) on his forehead and praying for his well being forever. Hearing this, Yamaraj was ecstatic and promised to visit her every year. Thus you have Bhai-Dooj. Meanwhile, Yama’s sister is named Yami. Perhaps she was none other than the Goddess (and river) Yamuna!

After slaying Narakasura, Lord Krishna and Satyabhama returned to Dwaraka. The Lord was welcomed by his sister, Subhadra (in a manner similar to the above) and thus this also forms another basis for the Bhai Dooj practice.

Whoa! Wasn’t this supposed to be a tiny post??? Well, such is Diwali that condensing is not my cup of tea. So, the next time you wish to build your cultural portfolio (with parents, in-laws etc.), this will serve as ammunition. Until next time (hopefully the next festival), Good Day and Good Luck!


Dev Kumar said...

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E-Puja for Wealth and prosperity

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