The Festival of Light: Dīpāvalī

[shareaholic app=”share_buttons” id=”25567871″] This lesson is part of our series on basic practices and traditions for the traditional New Year. Please note that there are tremendous regional and historic variations in terms of how these holidays get celebrated. What we are sharing here is what most of the Northern and Western regions practice, and each community and even family has its own personalized rituals and traditions.

The common theme through the holiday season is offering gratitude for the abundance in our lives, and choosing light over darkness. Śrī Mahālakṣmī is the primary deity of this time, and each day we welcome and honor her in different forms.

As with all of these traditions, you are welcome to practice as much or as little as you are able. Remember that the outer ritual helps us to connect with the spirit of the holiday inside, so maintaining that connection and cultivating wisdom will yield greater fruit than just trying to do every ritual perfectly!

About Dīpāvali:

Dīpāvali is also called Divāli (known as Diwali in English). Diwali is “the festival of lights” – dīpa refers to small oil lamps. It is the most well-known holiday of this tradition, celebrated by a billion people around the world! As with Christmas, there are many regional variations, and a time for families and communities to come together in love and gratitude. People wish each other Śubh Dīpāvalī (or more commonly, in modern Hindi you will hear people say, “Śubh Divali” or even “Diwali Mubarak!”, which comes from the Arabic word for blessing – “barak”).

The primary spiritual tradition for Diwali is doing pūjā in the evening for Mahālakṣmī, inviting her cosmic golden presence and abundant power into our homes, our lives, and our hearts. As part of this invitation to her, we wash and clean our thresholds and mark them with her footprints made out of kuṃkuṃ, as well as draw the ancient and holy svastika symbol, which represents the wheel of life, prosperity, and dharma.

People also make beautiful raṅgolīs in front of the house, which are beautiful patterns and designs made out of colored sand or even chalk. The threshold stands as our doorway to the world, where inner meets outer, and we want it to be welcoming, auspicious, and a pure space for connection. [Scroll down for instructions on how to do a basic threshold pūjā].

Another hallmark of Diwali is all the food! People cook all kinds of delicious, fresh food, and it is a day for feasting. Two highly unhealthy and delicious Diwali staples are traditional Diwali snacks, which are usually fried, spicy, savory treats.

There’s also very rich miṭhaī, which are sweets made from milk, ghee, sugar, nuts, cardamom, saffron, etc. Some of these are also fried, like jalebi – which are crispy noodles dripping in hot sugar syrup. Because it is a day of abundance, people go all out with food, and for this one day there’s freedom to splurge a little bit. 🙂

Another common practice is to light oil or ghee lamps and place them all over the home. Diwali is the day that Śrī Rāma, the embodiment of dharma, returned to his kingdom of Āyodhyā, and was installed as the righteous king – in other words, the day that dharma prevailed and was restored to its proper place of glory and majesty (the return of light). The cosmic form of Mahālakṣmī is Śhrī, who is described as pure golden light or golden shining, which is another reason we let this golden light fill our homes.

Nowadays, people also put up strings of electric lights. However, we recommend using the traditional flame lamps if possible. If you are unable to get small oil lamps, simply lighting candles or tea lights all over your home is also fine (be careful of potential fire hazards, however)! This is because fire has a particular life, warmth, and dynamism to it that can only be mimicked by electric light.

If you’re actually in India, there’s also a tradition of fireworks – so many in fact, that it actually almost sounds like a war zone with bombs bursting! However, it’s all part of the celebratory environment. If you do choose to burst fireworks, please make sure you do safely, especially if young children are present.

Lastly, in the spirit of abundance and sharing light, Diwali is also a time to feed and care for the poor and those who are less fortunate than us. Do you have any clothes or food you can share with the needy?

As part of the evening pūjā, many people, especially merchant communities, hold a special pūjā in their offices or place of work called “copḍā pūjā”. This is where we begin the new fiscal year by doing the first “bookkeeping” of the year. However, this special accounting report is actually a prayer to the divine, asking for a year of prosperity and abundance in our work. Bosses and employees pray together for a prosperous year, and there’s a tradition of giving a Diwali bonus to all the employees. Afterwards, everyone in the office shares a meal together and exchanges sweets.

Depending on professions, there are also different pūjās that take place. For example, brahmins and teachers all bless their books, since their career focus is not geared towards making tons of money. In fact, most people, regardless of profession, do some sort of abundance and blessing ritual at their place of work on the evening of Diwali. In India, even the guy who runs the corner lemonade cart will adorn it with fresh flowers and small candles. It is not about how much you have – it is about inviting abundance to whatever you have. If you are at home, or retired, you can still pray for a year of prosperity and abundance and do Lakṣmī pūjā.

Finally, it’s traditional for all generations to ask for the blessings of their elders. Kids bow to their parents and grandparents, parents bow to the grandparents, etc, and there is a lot of hugging and sweetness all around. Families try to visit with each other and exchange gifts and food.

How to Do a Threshold Pūjā:

1) Wash and clean the threshold to your home. Sweep the surrounding areas. You may want to use a scrub brush or rags if need be.

2) Draw three svastika symbols for three great powers of creation, sustenance, and destruction. Be sure that the wheel is clockwise (the middle line going to the top should point to the right) if you are standing outside facing towards the home. Also place four dots in each of the four spaces made by the svastika. This symbolizes fullness (no empty space).

3) Optionally, you can also draw the goddess’ footprints, signifying her entrance into your home. A curve with five dots is enough to signify feet, as depicted in the raṅgolī in the title image of this lesson.

4) In the center of each svastika, make a dot of turmeric and, if possible, sandalwood paste as well. You can also offer a few grains of rice, and flowers.

5) On a tray, place a small ghee or oil lamp with some kuṃkuṃ, turmeric, and rice. Add a flower or two if can. Wave the flame in a clockwise circle three times, honoring inner and outer light, and the presence of the divine.

6) As you do this, pray that all the deities and divine powers, all your ancestors, all the natural elements and powers, all the gurus and enlightened teachers, all the virtues, wisdom and compassion, and every good thing to come to your house. Ask for their blessings and welcome them into your home and your heart with great love and sweetness.

7) Many people also invite their loved ones and family members – especially those that are far away – to be present in the home in spirit.

8) Try to avoid stepping directly on your threshold if possible. When leaving your house, it’s traditional to take a moment to say a mantra or mentally pause to honor the divine, and leave or enter the house with your right foot first. The threshold is the link between your private life and worldly one – so let it be a sacred and beautiful one!

9) Traditionally, it is your responsibility to feed any beings who cross over your threshold, recognizing them as divine and bringing you blessings. Especially on Diwali, it’s the householder’s sacred duty to make sure that everyone who enters your home is nourished – even if it’s just some refreshing juice or a bite of something sweet.

Diwali has many, many beautiful traditions, and we hope you have learned enough here to get you started. Any one of these practices is enough to start.

Remember, our main purpose here is choosing light over darkness; abundance over lack; joy over misery. Let the cosmic effulgence of Śhrī fill your heart and home.

We pray that your Diwali celebration is full of light, beauty, prosperity, and joy! Śubh Dīpāvali!

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