Diwali, India’s annual “Festival of Lights,” is the biggest holiday of the year. Think of it as a combination of Fourth of July and Christmas – fireworks, exchange of gifts, decorative lights on homes, and joyous “Happy Diwali” greetings to friends and strangers.
The soul’s return to its true kingdom
Diwali celebrates Rama and Sita’s return to Ayodhya after fourteen years of exile, Sita’s abduction by Ravana, the demon king, and Rama’s triumph over Ravana. By decree, the roads of the kingdom were strewn with “rows of lights” to welcome Rama and Sita home.
Diwali symbolizes the conquest of good over evil, the ascendance of light in the midst of darkness and, on a deeper level, the return of the soul to its true kingdom in God from its “exile” in the land of the senses. It is one of the half-dozen times during the year we do the Ananda “Festival of Light” because it is absolutely perfect for the occasion. This afternoon’s service was sweet and powerful.
Performances of the Ramayana
Festivals (“melas”) are a regular feature of the Hindu calendar but autumn is their “high season.” Perhaps it’s because October marks the end of summer and the onset of cooler weather. Like Christmas in America, this is the season for exchanging gifts and shopping. Holiday dates vary from year to year according to the lunar calendar, but this year’s festivities began in early October with Navratri. As the name says, it lasts for nine nights and is a celebration of the Divine Mother. The celebration of Diwali begins on the tenth day.
Three of us went on the last night of Navratri to join hundreds of Indians from the neighborhood. The highlight of the evening was the Durga Puja. Three drummers established a loud, steady rhythm, accompanied by miscellaneous gongs, bells and clanging instruments. The audience kept rapt attention and surged forward to receive the light when the pujari offered it from his multiple lamps of camphor oil. I was much impressed by the concentration and inward focus of the pujari.
During the nine nights of Navratri, performances of the Ramayana are staged as a prelude to the coming of Diwali, which begins on the tenth day. At this time, large effigies of Ravana, the demon king, are erected and set afire, to symbolize the conquest of evil by good.
The story of Ravana
I have always liked the story of Ravana. Although evil in that lifetime, Ravana was supposed to be a reincarnation of a celestial doorkeeper named “Jaya.” Jaya and Vijaya guarded the doorway of Lord Vishnu in Vaikunta, his abode. Vishnu had instructed Jaya and Vijaya that he did not wish to be disturbed, but when they refused to let holy sages enter Vishnu’s abode, the sages cursed them.
Vishnu said that he could not revoke the curse but he would give Jaya and Vijaya a choice of being born as either great lovers of Vishnu for many incarnations or as great enemies of Vishnu for only a few. They chose the latter curse because they wanted to return as quickly as possible to Vishnu’s presence. Consequently, they took form as the evil King Ravana and his brother Kumbakarna and were killed (a great blessing) by Lord Rama, said to be an incarnation of Vishnu himself.