By Swami Harshananda
Dipāvali literally means ‘row of lighted lamps’.
In some works Dipāvali has been referred as ‘Kaumudi Utsava,’ a festival in which people find delight on this earth among themselves. It is believed to be a well-known festival from the time of the Bhavisyottara Purāna which is said to be composed before CE 1000.
Being a festival of lights, decorative illuminations and fireworks, Dipāvali is the most popular of all the festivals. It signifies not only the expression of one’s joy but also the destruction of evils personified by demons like Narakāsura.
During Dīpāvalī festival, the sky is rent asunder by the terrific sounds and lights of bursting crackers. It is celebrated widely throughout the country and also abroad to some extent.
Dipāvali originally is a festival of three days but with the addition of dvitīyā, it is spread over four days. It normally falls during the last part of October and the first part of November. Dipāvali days are:
Each day has a different significance and different stories describing what that day commemorates.
The first day falls on Āśvayuja kṛṣṇa caturdaśī which is also called as ‘Narakacaturdaśi. Initially, the celebration of this day was aimed at escaping from naraka or hell by propitiating Yama, the god of death and hell. But later, it was associated with Kṛṣṇa’s killing of the demon Narakāsura, the king of Prāgjyotiṣapura (modern Assam). It is celebrated as follows:
- On this day one is advised to take an oil-bath at dawn, pray for the destruction of one’s sins, offer tarpaṇa to Yama and light a lamp to Naraka
- After a sumptuous feast with fourteen kinds of vegetables, since the festival starts from the 14th day, rows of lamps should be lighted in the evening illuminating all the parts of one’s house
- Temples and public places too should be illuminated in the same way
- Some religious texts suggest that the day should be spent in fasting and food can be taken only at night
This day is said to be the darkest day of the year and is celebrated variously in different parts of the country.
The rituals observed on this day includes:
- Worship of Lakṣmī, the goddess of wealth and prosperity
- Offerings to the pitṛs or departed manes
- Feeding of brāhmaṇas
- Fasting whole day
The celebrations on this day includes:
- Lighting of lamps and public place illumination should continue as on the previous day
- Since this is a day specially dedicated to Lakṣmī and as there is every chance of Alakṣmī peeping in to ruin one’s prosperity, women of the town or village are asked to create a terrible noise by beating drums and winnowing baskets around midnight
Celebration in Bengal
Celebration As Traders' Day
In other parts of the country, it is called as traders’ day. They celebrate this day by:
- Worshiping Lakṣmi
- Worshiping their account books
- Opening the new account books
- Inviting friends, customers and other traders and give them tāmbula (betel leaf with betel nuts) and sweets
Third day, Kārttīka śukla pratipad, is also known as ‘Balipratipadā’ or ‘Bali-pāḍyami. It is one of the three days which are considered as the most auspicious days in the religious almanacs. The first two are Cāndramāna Yugādi and Vijayadaśamī. Though there is unanimity in assigning great auspiciousness to the first two days, there are differences in the opinions regarding the third one. Some give that privilege to Balipratipadā while others give it to Aksayyatrtīyā. People celebrate this day :
By Worshiping Bali
Worship of Bali at night, especially by the king, is the most important rite of this day. One should also be awake the whole night and spend that time in seeing religious dramas. Gifts distributed on this day bring inexhaustible fruits.
Balipratipadā is also called ‘Dyuta- pratipadā’. ‘Dyuta’ means gambling. There is a queer direction in the Brahmapurāna to gamble on this day. It is believed that on this day Pārvatī defeated Śaṅkara in a game of dice. It is a belief that those who win in the game of gambling on this day will be happy throughout the year.
This day people also celebrate by:
- Worshiping cows - On this day cows are decorated and worshiped. They are fed properly. Cows are not milked this day
- Worshiping bulls - On this day bulls are decorated and worshiped. They are fed properly. Bulls are not made to work on this day
- Worshiping the Govardhana hill - The ‘hill’ is either prepared of cow-dung or of anna (cooked rice) and other cooked food. Worship of hill of anna is called as ‘Annakuta’. An image or a picture of Bālagopāla (boy Kṛṣṇa) is kept with it and worship is offered with 16 upacāras. The mantras used refer to the protection that Bālakṛṣṇa gave to the people by lifting up the Govardhana hill and sheltering them beneath it
- Tying of Mārgapālī - Mārgapālī means the ‘protector of the road’. It is a rope of kuśa grass which is tied to a pole on one side and a tree on the other, in the afternoon. All people including the king and the brāhmaṇas bow down before it and pass under it. It is perhaps the ‘goddess of the road,’ whose grace is needed to keep the town safe and also for the safety during journeys. This is then followed by a tug of war between the men of the royal families and the common folk. If the common folk win, it is believed to be good omen for the king and the country. This is a symbolic way of expressing the simple truth that the ruler can be successful and the country well-ruled only when the people have a say in the affairs of the State
According to an ancient legend, Yama, the god of death and hell, and the river goddess Yamunā were brother and sister. On this day of Kārttīka śukla dvitīyā, goddess Yamunā invited her brother Yama to her house for dinner and honored him. Hence, this day has become a day of reunion of brothers and sisters. Commonly people celebrate it as 'Bhaiduj'. They celebrate it as:
- Sisters invite brothers to their houses and feed them sumptuously. Brothers give presents to their sisters. Since sisters are separated from their brothers after their marriage, they may not meet for a long time. This festival provides an opportunity for a get-together
- Sometimes, sisters worship god Yama and pray to him for the longevity of their brothers
- People living on the banks of the Yamunā river, bathe in it on this day
- In some places there is a melā (fair) on the banks of the river
- Tarpaṇa is the satiation with handful of water mixed with sesame.
- Alakṣmī is recounted as the inauspicious goddess, the opposite of Lakṣmī.
- Bali is the powerful king of the asuras who was vanquished and pushed into the pātāla or the nether world by Viṣṇu as the incarnation Vāmana.
- After Pārvatī's victory she was very happy and god Śaṅkara was very sad. This scene has been shown in the Ellora cave number 21.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore