The hindu festival of Diwali this year is today i.e Oct 26th (almost all religious holidays in India are based on the lunar calendar, so the Julian Calendar dates move around each year). NPR did a little segment on Diwali this morning that filled me with nostalgia and a sudden urge to stuff myself with Indian sweets. And I thought why not write about it also while I am at it. Diwali means festival of lights and it is like 4th of July, christmas and thanksgiving rolled into one. The story behind it is immortalized in Ramayana, one of the two great epic hindu mythologies (many religious nuts of course consider these factually accurate), the other one is Mahabharata which is better known of the two outside India. The story centers around Rama, Vishnu’s (Vishnu is one part of the holy trinity of 3 major gods of hinduism: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) incarnation on earth. Rama is sent to exile for 14 years with his dutiful wife Sita (and she is very dutiful) but since he is so fabulous his step brother Laxmana tags along presumably for fun of the jungle. While enjoying their happy idyllic existence in the wilderness they come across the monkey-god Hanuman, who literally puts Rama and Sita on a pedestal. It was all going swimmingly for a while but what story is complete without a dark villain. Now the only people with a darker skin tone than the Indians in that part of the world are the Sri Lankans (wonderful buddhist island nation which I have not had the pleasure of visiting yet). So of course our villain in the story, Ravana, had to be from there. So the swarthy Ravana kidnapped Sita and took her to Sri Lanka with him. He sure did travel a long way to get her, however it’s not quite clear what he was doing so far from home. Anyway, the large monkey army commanded by Hanuman built a bridge on the sea separating India and Sri Lanka. It was named Rama Setu (setu means a bridge). White folk call it Adam’s bridge since Adam is responsible for everything in white christian view of the world. So the bridge gets built, Rama’s army crosses into Sri Lanka and after a long and fiery battle involving fancy chariots and futuristic missiles Ravana is killed. By sheer coincidence, fourteen years are almost up by this time and the exiles are finally eligible to re-enter their hometown. The town folk went wild in anticipation of this homecoming and they lit little clay lamps all over town to welcome their hero.
The celebratory tradition has survived thru the ages and it is one of the most fun holidays anywhere. People usually give their homes a makeover around Diwali. When I was growing up we used to re-paint our house before Diwali. Everybody gets dressed up in their “Diwali best” and multitudes of sweets and treats are exchanged. Every house is lit up like a christmas tree both with electrical lights and with traditional clay lamps and candles. The biggest bang literally is saved for the last when everybody creates their own personal fireworks show and the night ends in a thick cloud of smoke.
Aside from the material joys, this is also an occasion for spiritual renewal. I will not bore you with philosophy on this occassion other than to say that this year’s Diwali has an extra significance for me since I was finally able to conquer my demons and start my own renewal process. I wish the same for everyone else.