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Celebrating the Festival of Lights

Lighting oil candles spread out on a piece of newspaper for Diwali, the festival of lights
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This week, the Hindu population in India and around the world celebrated Diwali, the festival of lights. On Wednesday, the Indian city of Ayodhya lit over 300,000 clay oil lamps in celebration, setting a world record in the process.

According to the Society for the Confluence of Festival of India, Diwali “is the day when King Rama's coronation was celebrated in Ayodhya after his epic war with Ravana, the demon king of Lanka.” In honor of this triumph of light over darkness, every year communities around the world light lamps on the third day of the festival.

Diwali, which is also known as Deepavali, is actually the third day in a five day festival. The days may be referred to by different names depending on which region of India you are in, and may be celebrated differently as well, but in general, the five days are:

  • 1) Dhanteras: "Here Dhan refers to richness, wealth and teras has been used to refer to the 13th day of the lunar fortnight as established by the Hindu calendar." Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity.
  • 2) Naraka Chaturdasi or Choti Diwali: "On this day Narakasura demon was believed to have been destroyed by Lord Krishna and Goddess Kali. As a part the celebration, in Goa an effigy of the demon is burned." Meanwhile, in Punjab, they worship Lord Rama, and in Bengal, they celebrate the goddess of strength Kali.
  • 3) Diwali, Amavasya, or Lakshmi Puja: "This day is considered as the darkest day of the month and is considered as the most significant days in the entire time span of Diwali all through the country. A special kind of Puja is performed on this day where Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped. In parts of the country including Odisha, Assam and West Bengal, Puja of Goddess Kali is also performed." In South India, Diwali is celebrated on the second day of the festival.
  • 4) Govardhana Puja or Annakut: "People across the country celebrate this festival for a variety of reasons and beliefs. Govardhan Puja is celebrated in North India as the day when Lord Krishna with his velour defeated Indra who is believed to be the God of rain and thunder. While in Gujarat the day is celebrated as the beginning of yet another year, in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, the day is celebrated as the day when Lord Vishnu has believed to have killed demon king Bali." Annakut means "mountain of food," and after daily worship the deities are offered bhog, specifically various sweets in this case.
  • 5) Bhai Duj: "This day is particularly a celebration of brothers and sisters same as the celebration of Raksha Bandhan. Brothers and sister worship together, share gifts with each other, eat together and vow to help each other in every sphere of life on this day."

In the Indian state of Gujarat, Diwali also coincides with the Hindu New Year, which they celebrate on the fourth day. This day is referred to Bestu Varas and depends on the lunar cycle of the Hindu calendar. This and the other celebrations extend beyond the borders of India and reach across the diaspora: in Singapore, "the Singapore Gujarati Society organizes a get-together for its members," and the Society's president explained that, "The morning starts early with the young taking blessings from their elders for the year ahead. After a refreshing shower to usher in the new year, we first buy salt. This has been the practice for at least four generations. Close friends and family usually then go visiting."

The practice of lighting oil lamps and shooting off fireworks has caused concern in recent years, as it has been linked to increased air pollution in cities that already suffer from poor air quality. The Indian Supreme Court has tried to restrict the use of fireworks during the celebrations, but critics maintain that fireworks are not the only contributing factor to the pollution and that one night of fireworks is unlikely to cause any more lasting damage than other factors such as construction, vehicle exhaust, and crop burning. However, a study that examined air quality after Diwali from 2013 through 2017 estimated that "Diwali leads to a small, but statistically significant increase in air pollution" across different areas of the city during the festival. Because Diwali falls on a different date every year, the study notes that factors such as crop burning cannot always be considered as a major factor in the pollution's increase.

Nevertheless, the celebration of Diwali is revered across the country and around the world, and the exchange of gifts and time spent with loved ones makes the five day festival a important annual event in the Hindu household and community. If you are interested in learning more about Diwali, seek out celebrations happening in your own community. Often times, student groups at universities will host their own festival, not only to celebrate for themselves but to educate the broader community about their culture and faith. Attending an event like this will not only teach you more about the holiday, but also help you to meet and connect with others who hold different backgrounds and beliefs. There is no better way to build your cross-cultural competence than by taking part in and respecting another's cultural practices.


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