The Meaning of Diwali

Submitted by Swami Chidanand Saraswati

The time of Diwali is one of the most festive and beautiful times of the year. Diwali literally means a "Row of Lights." It is a time filled with light and love; a time when Indians all over the world rejoice. Diwali is celebrated on the thirteenth/fourteenth day in the dark half of Kartik (October - November); it is also known as Krishna Chaturdashi. It is the darkest night of the darkest period, yet it is a celebration of light! Diwali is heralded as the triumph of good over evil.

The meanings of Diwali, its symbols and rituals, and the reasons for celebration are innumerable. Diwali celebrates Lord Rama's glorious and long-awaited return to his Kingdom of Ayodhya after his fourteen long years of exile in the forests. It commemorates Lord Krishna's victory over the demon Narakaasura who had kidnapped and terrorized the gopis of Vrindavan. When the evil Naraka was finally killed by Bhagwan Krishna and Satyabhaama, he begged pitifully for mercy; thus, upon his entreaties, it was declared that this day of his death would be celebrated with great joy and festivity. It is also celebrated as the day Bhagwan Vishnu married Maha Lakshmi.

Diwali is also associated with the story of the fall of Bali - a demon king who was conquered by Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu appeared to the demon king Bali in the form of a dwarf and requested only three steps of land. The evil and egotistic Bali granted the drawf's meager request of only three feet. Suddenly, Lord Vishnu took on His grand size and placed one foot on the Earth, another on the Heavens and His third on the head of the evil Bali.

In general, Diwali signifies the triumph of good over evil, of righteousness over treachery, of truth over falsehood, and of light over darkness.

Additionally, Diwali is the holy time in which we offer our prayers to Maha Lakshmi and we worship Her with piety and devotion. Maha Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and prosperity, bestowing these abundantly upon her devotees.

Diwali is a holiday of joy; it is the time when we gather with loved ones, celebrating our family, our friends and the prosperity God has bestowed upon us.

However it is also a holiday that is widely misunderstood and misrepresented, especially in the West. I have heard that in the West Diwali is referred to as "The Indians' Christmas" and that it is celebrated with frivolity and decadence. Let us talk about what Diwali really means, about why we celebrate it and about why we worship Goddess Lakshmi on this day.

Celebration of Light

There are three main aspects of this holiday called Diwali. The first is the celebration of light. We line our homes and streets with lanterns; we explode fireworks; children play with sparklers.

However, Diwali is not a festival of light in order that we may burn candles, fireworks and sparklers. Sure, these are wonderful ways of expressing our gaiety. But, they are not the only or true meaning of "light." Diwali is a festival of the light which dispels the darkness of our ignorance; it is a festival of the light which shows us the way on our journey through life. The purpose is not to glorify the light of the candle, or the light of the firecracker. The purpose is to glorify the light of God. It is He who bestows the real light, the everlasting light upon the darkness of this mundane world. A candle burns out. A firework is a momentary visual experience. But, the candle of a still mind and the fireworks of a heart filled with bhakti are divine and eternal; these are what we should be celebrating.

We decorate our homes with lanterns; but why? What is the symbolism behind that? Those lanterns signify God's light, penetrating through the ignorance and sin of our daily lives. They signify the divine light, shining its way through this mundane world. A home bathed in light is a home in which anger, pain, and ignorance are being dispelled; it is a home that is calling to God. However, too many people turn this into a domestic beauty contest, spending days and a great deal of money to purchase the newest dias, the most beautiful candles. "We had 75 candles burning last night," we gloat. This is only the light of glamour. It is not the light of God, and thus the true meaning of the holiday is lost.

The light of Diwali should be within us. It should symbolize the personal relationship between God and our families. It should not be so we attract attention from passing cars, or so we are the envy of the neighborhood. Let the light penetrate inward, for only there will it have lasting benefit. One piece of cotton soaked in ghee, lit with a pure heart, a conscious mind and an earnest desire to be free from ignorance is far "brighter" than 100 fashion deepaks, lit in simple unconscious revelry.

A Fresh Start

Diwali also marks the New Year. For some, the day of Diwali itself is the first day of the New Year, and for others the new year's day is the day following Diwali. But, for all this season is one of heralding in the New Year.

In the joyous mood of this season, we clean our homes, our offices, our rooms, letting the light of Diwali enter all the corners of our lives. We begin new checkbooks, diaries and calendars. It is a day of "starting fresh."

On this day we clean every room of the house; we dust every corner of the garage, we sweep behind bookshelves, vacuum under beds and empty out cabinets. But, what about our hearts? When was the last time we swept out our hearts? When did we last empty them of all the dirt and garbage that has accumulated throughout our lives?

That is the real cleaning we must do. That is the real meaning of "starting fresh." We must clean out our hearts, ridding them of darkness and bitterness; we must make them clean and sparkling places for God to live. We must be as thorough with ourselves as we are with our homes. Are there any dark corners in our hearts we have avoided for so long? Are we simply "sweeping all the dirt under the rug?" God sees all and knows all. He knows what is behind every wall of our hearts, what is swept into every corner, and what is hidden under every rug. Let us truly clean out our hearts; let us rid ourselves of the grudges, pain, and anger that clutter our ability to love freely. Let us empty out every nook and cranny, so that His divine light can shine throughout.

Additionally, on Diwali, we begin a new checkbook; we put last year's accounts to rest. But, what about our own balance sheets? When was the last time we assessed our minuses and plusses, our strengths and our weaknesses, our good deeds and selfish deeds? How many years' worth of grudges and bitterness and pain have we left unchecked?

A good businessman always checks his balance sheet: how much he spent, how much he earned. A good teacher always checks the progress of her students: how many are passing, how many are failing. And they assess themselves accordingly: "Am I a good businessman?" "Am I a good teacher?" In the same way we must assess the balance sheets of our lives. Look at the last year. Where do we stand? How many people did we hurt? How many did we heal? How many times did we lose our temper? How many times did we give more than we received? Then, just as we give our past checkbooks and the first check of our new one to God, let us give all our minus and plus points to Him. He is the one responsible for all our good deeds. And our bad ones are due only to ignorance. So, let us turn everything over to Him, putting our strengths, our weaknesses, our wins and our losses at His holy feet. And then, let us start afresh, with a new book, unadulterated by old grudges and bitterness.

Maha Lakshmi

The third, and perhaps most important, aspect of Diwali is the worship of Maha Lakshmi. Maha Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and prosperity, bestowing these abundantly upon her devotees. On Diwali we pray to her for prosperity; we ask her to lavish us with her blessings. However, what sort of prosperity are we praying for? All too often, we infer wealth to mean money, possessions, material pleasures. This is NOT the true wealth in life; this is not what makes us prosperous. There is almost no correlation between the amount of money we earn, the number of possessions we buy and our sense of inner bliss and prosperity.

It is only God's presence in our lives which makes us rich. Look at India. People in small villages, in holy towns, in ancient cities have very little in terms of material possessions. Most of them live below the Western standards of poverty. Yet, if you tell them they are poor, they won't believe you, for in their opinion they are not. This is because they have God at the center of their lives. Their homes may not have TV sets, but they all have small mandirs; the children may not know the words to the latest rock and roll song, but they know the words to Aarti; they may not have computers or fancy history text books, but they know the stories of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other holy scriptures; they may not begin their days with newspapers, but they begin with prayer.

If you go to these villages you may see what looks like poverty to you. But, if you look a little closer, you will see that these people have a light shining in their eyes, a glow on their faces and a song in their hearts that money cannot buy.

On Diwali, we must pray to Maha Lakshmi to bestow real prosperity upon us, the prosperity that brings light to our lives and sparkle to our eyes. We must pray for an abundance of faith, not money; we must pray for success in our spiritual lives, not a promotion at work; we must pray for the love of God, not the love of the beautiful girl (or boy) in our class.

There is another point about Maha Lakshmi that is important. We tend to worship only her most prominent of aspects - that of bestowing prosperity upon her devotees. However, she is a multi-faceted goddess, filled with symbols of great importance. As we worship her, let us look more deeply at her divine aspects. First, according to our scriptures, she is the divine partner of Lord Vishnu. In Hindu tradition, there is almost always a pair - a male and a female manifestation of the Divine, and they play interdependent roles. In this way it is said that Maha Lakshmi provides Lord Vishnu with the wealth necessary in order to sustain life. He sustains, but through the wealth she provides.

Therefore, in its highest meaning, Maha Lakshmi provides wealth for sustenance, not for indulgence. Our material wealth and prosperity should only sustain us, giving us that which is necessary to preserve our lives. All surplus should be used for humanitarian causes. She does not give wealth so that we may become fat and lazy; yet, that is what we tend to do with the wealth we receive. Let us remember that Maha Lakshmi's material wealth is meant for sustenance and preservation, not for luxury and decadence.

Additionally, we worship Maha Lakshmi who is the divine symbol of purity and chastity. Yet, in our celebration of her, we frequently indulge in frivolity and hedonism. How can we worship her while engaging in the opposite of what she represents? We must re-assess how we pay tribute to this holy Goddess!

The last point I want to mention is that she is typically portrayed wearing red. What does this mean? Red is the color of action, and she is the goddess of prosperity. This means that in order to obtain the true prosperity in life, we must engage in action. Most people think that in order to be spiritual, or to obtain "spiritual prosperity" one must be sitting in lotus posture in the Himalayas. This is not the only way. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna teaches about Karma Yoga, about serving God by doing your duty. We must engage ourselves in active, good service; that is truly the way to be with Him.

Let our inner world be filled with devotion to Him, and let our outer performance be filled with perfect work, perfect action. I once heard a story about a man who spent 40 years meditating so he could walk on water. He thought that if he could walk on water, then he had truly attained spiritual perfection. When I heard this story, I thought, "Why not spend 40 cents instead for a ride in the motorboat across the river, and spend the 40 years giving something to the world?" That is the real purpose of life.

So, on this holy day, let us fill our entire beings with the light of God. Let us clean out our minds and hearts, making a true "fresh start." Let us pray to Maha Lakshmi to bestow the divine gifts of faith, purity and devotion upon us. With those, we will always be always rich, always prosperous, and always fulfilled. Let us celebrate Diwali this year as a true "holy day," not only as another frivolous "holiday." May Maha Lakshmi bestow upon you all the true blessings of health, happiness, peace, prosperity and spiritual upliftment.