Diwali, India's festival of lights, is nearly upon us. In India, schools and many businesses will close. Families are busy cleaning their homes, decorating the entrances with rangoli (beautiful freehand chalk designs), setting out oil lamps, preparing sumptuous holiday meals, buying gifts and new clothes, and preparing to welcome friends and family for India's most widely celebrated holiday—like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one glorious, shiny package, complete with ear-splitting fireworks.
The commonly used name and spelling "Diwali" splits the difference among this holiday's very similar names in different Indian languages: Divali, Dipawali, Deepavali, Dipabali—all derived from the Sanskrit deepawali, which means a row or cluster of lights. Diwali and Deepawali are used pretty much interchangeably, with the simpler form becoming increasingly popular; however, you will find passionate champions for all variations.
While many communities join in celebrating the victory of light over darkness, Diwali's primary narrative comes from the Ramayana, Hinduism's great epic of the exile and return of Lord Rama. The story says that when Rama finally returned to his kingdom after fourteen years of wandering in the forest, battling demons, and rescuing his captive queen Sita, it was a dark night; but Rama's presence illuminated the darkness. The people ran into the streets rejoicing, carrying torches and lamps to light his way, and every house shone with gem-encrusted lamps.
The lotuses of mystic intuition and realization bloomed in the lakes, and the birds of joy, contentment, and discernment sang in the trees.
The sage Tulsidas adds that when Rama returned, the night of ignorance was dispelled, bringing sorrow to beings who thrive in darkness: thieves such as jealousy, pride, and arrogance could find no scope for their skills. The owls of sin hid themselves, and the nightwalkers of phenomenal existence, time, and individualism had nowhere to hide. The lotuses of mystic intuition and realization bloomed in the lakes, and the birds of joy, contentment, and discernment sang in the trees. When the sun of Rama's majesty rises in our hearts, says Tulsidas, the sattvic ("pure") qualities of joy, gratitude, and selflessness arise too, while all others fade away.
Another tradition says that Lakshmi—goddess of happiness, wealth, and good fortune—roams the earth on Diwali (accompanying Rama, no doubt!). She prefers only to enter homes that are pure, clean, and bright, leaving those that are dirty and neglected to her evil twin, Alakshmi, bringer of misfortune and discontent. Lakshmi and Alakshmi are always together, but we have a choice of which one we entertain; and if we become arrogant or selfish when Lakshmi blesses us, if we forget to practice gratitude, she will depart, leaving us with Alakshmi.
So this Diwali, why not make your heart and your surroundings bright, pure, and joyful? Let's welcome Rama, and Lakshmi, into our homes with gratitude and generosity to all our friends and family, none excluded.