Happy Diwalis

Diverse myths around the festival underpin Hinduism’s openness, pluralism and historically tolerant ‘live and let live’ ethos

Written by Ramesh Venkataraman | Published:October 28, 2016 12:05 am
diwali Illustration by C R Sasikumar

Rather than outraging Malayalees of all stripes by offering Twitter and Facebook greetings for “Vamana Jayanti” on the eve of Onam, BJP President Amit Shah might have done well to stay closer to home and focused on Diwali. Because Diwali (or more precisely the day after the Diwali new moon) like Onam, also marks the once-in-a-year return to earth of Bali, the Daitya King, banished to the underworld after being vanquished by Vishnu in his avatar of Vamana, the Brahmin boy — at least as per the Bhavishyottara Purana and the Brahma Vaivarta Purana.

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But how does the puranic link to Vamana and Mahabali square with the predominantly north Indian belief that the festival of light marks the return of Rama to Ayodhya after his defeat of Ravana? The answer goes to the very heart of Hinduism. Diwali, like the rest of the Hindu tradition, does not have a singular, unchanging meaning — its significance varies widely across India’s regions and communities and has evolved dramatically over time.

The multi-faceted (and often, frustratingly inconsistent) nature of Hindu beliefs, rituals, and festivals is the direct result of it being a decentralised tradition without a gospel, authorised canon, dogma or pope. But it is precisely Hinduism’s “broad church” that underpins its openness, pluralism and historically tolerant “live and let live” ethos. Amit Shah and other Hindutva adherents, however, don’t see it this way. They insist — despite the scriptures and history clearly showing otherwise — that the “sanatana dharma” is a seamless, unbroken tradition in direct line from the Vedas with a single, incontrovertible set of beliefs and practices valid for all Hindus. But let us return to the story of Diwali.

Al-Biruni, who accompanied Mahmud Ghazni on his invasion of India in 1030 AD, gave an account of “Dibali” celebrations in his Tarikh Al-Hind that accords with the Puranas: “In the night they light a great number of lamps in every place so that the air is perfectly clear. The cause of this festival is that Lakshmi, the wife of Vasudeva, once a year on this day liberates Bali, who is a prisoner in the seventh earth, and allows him to go out into the world. Therefore the festival is called Balirajya.”

But lest Mr Shah rush to tweet Balirajya greetings on Diwali eve, there are other divine associations that he may want to also consider (what follows draws on the three essays on the history of Diwali by the cultural historian P.K. Gode published in the mid-1940s and P.V. Kane’s exposition in volume five of his magisterial History of Dharma Sastra).

The earliest known textual reference to Diwali is in Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra, generally dated to between the third century BC and the second century AD. Vatsyayana alludes to the festival of “Yaksha Ratri”, the Night of the Yakshas, celebrated with rows of illuminated lamps on houses and walls, bonfires in gardens, general merriment and gambling, which medieval commentators had already equated to Diwali.

Indeed, Yakshas, the benevolent nature-spirits of Indian mythology, are indirectly linked via their leader Kubera to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. And it is Lakshmi who is at the centre of the Diwali ritual in the Nilamata Purana, composed in Kashmir between 500 AD and 800 AD, which describes a festival called “Sukhasuptika” or “Dipamala” celebrated on the same autumnal new moon day as Diwali is today. The Nilamata says that after sunset on this day, Lakshmi should be worshipped and lamps should be placed in various prominent places after which people should dine in the company of their friends and family.

The Aditya Purana (which may precede the Nilamata) not only has a virtually identical description of the same festival but also refers to the story of Sankar (Lord Siva) losing at dice play to his consort Parvati on the morning of the day after — an episode charmingly depicted in several sculptural reliefs at Ellora and almost definitely the basis for the still-popular tradition of Diwali gambling. Meanwhile, Harsha’s seventh century CE play Nagananda, spotlights the practice of in-laws giving gifts to newly married couples on “Dipotsava” — festival of lamps — echoed in the current Tamilian tradition of “Thalai Diwali”.

And then, of course, there is Yama, the God of death, whose visit to his twin sister Yami two days after Diwali is the occasion for Yamadvitya. This occasion, now popularly observed as Bhai Dhooj or Bhai Bheej in north India and Gujarat, is recounted, for instance, in the Bhavishyottara Purana.

Thus, Diwali celebrations are linked to the Yakshas, Lakshmi, Bali, Siva and Yama — but that’s not all. On the day commemorating Bali, Govardhan Puja is celebrated in parts of north India to mark the lifting of the Govardhan hill by Krishna to protect his kinsmen and cattle from Indra’s wrathful rain — a ritual first codified by medieval Hindu law commentaries.

But the other Krishna-ite legend that is the basis for the predominant Diwali narrative in South India — commemorating the killing of Narakasura by Satyabhama, Krishna’s consort, on Naraka Chaturdasi, the day before the full moon of Diwali — may well be the result of a deliberate sleight of hand. By apparently confusing naraka, or “hell”, with the mythical Narakasura, and Krishna, meaning “dark” as applied to the waning phase of the moon, with Lord Krishna, ascendant Vaishnavites in medieval south India appear to have recast what was a sort of Hindu All Souls Day on Naraka Chaturdasi, when the spirits of the departed roamed about on earth, into a Krishna-ite festival.

Indeed, another Diwali tradition which continues to this day in the South — that of the early morning oil bath on the “dark 14th” — likely springs from the Bhavishyottara’s thesis that this would hold off Yama.

Likewise, Vaishnavites in late medieval north India are also probably behind the link between Lord Rama and Diwali, which is not mentioned in any of the multiple versions of the Ramayana. Conflating three different sources — the narrative from the Bengali Ramayana of Krittibas which mentions that Rama left for Lanka after conducting Durga puja, the popular Ramlila depictions of the Lanka battle during Navratri, and the Padma Purana’s account of celebrations involving “rows of lighted lamps” in Ayodhya on the day of Rama’s triumphant return after vanquishing Ravana — apparently resulted, by chronological subterfuge, in the Diwali Rama story.

Thus, the two most prevalent current Diwali narratives appear to be relatively recent “inventions of tradition”.

Two important points about Hinduism emerge from this brief survey of Diwali’s history. First, Hinduism is not “eternal”. It has evolved over time — with new beliefs and rituals emerging even as old ones are forgotten or morphed. In other words, the Hindu tradition has a history and without studying this history one cannot begin to understand why the tradition is what it is today.

Second, Hinduism is hugely diverse because the tradition has evolved in different ways in different parts of India, in the absence of centralising diktats from a Hindu Vatican or a Hindu Caliphate. These multiple strands of the Hindu tradition have equal integrity and validity and the very diversity that they exemplify is the foundation for Hinduism’s open-endedness and catholic outlook.

All this, of course, flies in the face of the simplistic, unschooled pieties of the Hindutva creed which wishes to impose a uniform set of “unchanged” beliefs and practices — whether regarding food or festive observances — across all Hindus.

Meanwhile, unless Mr Shah wishes to invoke virtually the entire Hindu pantheon in his Diwali greetings — and we haven’t even addressed the significance that Diwali has for the Jains and Sikhs, the numerous folk traditions, the Bengali tradition of Kali Puja, or how Diwali came to mark the beginning of the New Year for Gujaratis — he should stick to the simple, tried and tested formulation: Happy Diwali!

 

The writer is a private equity investor and on the board of governors of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. Views expressed are personal

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  1. S
    Skanda
    Oct 29, 2016 at 1:30 am
    There is no reason why malayalees of all hues should be upset with Vamana Jayanti wishes. Vamana is very much integral to onam celebrations just as Bali is. The very openness of Hinduism should allow Amit Shah to wish malalayalees Vamana Jayanti. The author's surface skimming of Hindu myths to make a case against Amit Shah probably is just revealing that the Oxford center for Hindu studies is slowly shifting its political position via a vis Hindu nationalism.
    Reply
    1. S
      sree
      Oct 28, 2016 at 4:30 am
      i see nothing but the visceral hatred against BJP in the author. When Amit Shah offered Twitter and Facebook greetings for “Vamana Jayanti” on the eve of Onam, he was addressing to a different section of Hindus. Why should Malayalese be outraged because of that. Should they also not appreciate the diversity of Hinduism where the same festival is celebrated with a different context and background.
      Reply
      1. K
        K SHESHU
        Oct 28, 2016 at 3:57 pm
        Let us light a candle for the children who manufactured firecrackers with their tiny hands
        Reply
        1. A
          Arun Shankar S
          Oct 28, 2016 at 6:44 am
          Amit Shah's Vamana Jayanti wish was nothing short of an attempt to portray Onam as a Hindu-only festival, while the fact of the matter is that Onam is celebrated by Malayalees cutting across religion and caste -needless to say, much to the dismay of the BJP.
          Reply
          1. A
            aryama
            Oct 28, 2016 at 1:33 pm
            In the million plus years since the Ramayana many joyous events happened on these days that can be commemorated as we wish. Open your heart! Hinduism is eternal - Sathya, Dharma, Santhi, Prema are eternal values for mankind.
            Reply
            1. A
              Aseem
              Oct 28, 2016 at 4:40 am
              Isn't the start of article ironic and there the author's stand itself against the gist of what he wants to say. Diwali has myriad flavours, and delightfully so represents diversity in Hinduism. Why then is the same courtesy of inclusiveness extended to Amit Shah's highlighting of 'Vamana Jayanti'. He didn't create the festival out of nowhere. For that matter, if he did we could still have celebrated it as addition to diversity.
              Reply
              1. A
                Aseem
                Oct 28, 2016 at 5:00 am
                Otherwise a nice compendium of different beliefs and rituals ociated with the festival.
                Reply
                1. M
                  mark
                  Oct 28, 2016 at 9:23 am
                  This is the clic trope of RSS walas. Pick up some om quote of the doyens of western thinkers - where they did not have expertise on Hinduism or they have borne scholarship, and use such inane quotes to glorify and justify Hinduism. On the other hand, any westerner who does critical work on Hinduism is hounded out.
                  Reply
                  1. B
                    bitterhoney
                    Oct 28, 2016 at 2:15 pm
                    Everything seems to be whimsical in Hinduism, nothing concrete.
                    Reply
                    1. d
                      dk1s
                      Oct 28, 2016 at 6:21 am
                      Meaningless article. I never saw anybody deny Hinduism's apparent diversity but how does that necessarily disprove its underlying unity. I think he is barking up the wrong tree.
                      Reply
                      1. I
                        Ishan Ishan
                        Oct 28, 2016 at 8:20 pm
                        Another article that bullies Hindus for their faith. What about using the term “belief” instead of myth? It is literally disgusting to see central characters of religious scriptures being politicised and given new idenies to suit a particular leftist political ideology.
                        Reply
                        1. B
                          BharatK
                          Oct 28, 2016 at 8:46 am
                          Ravan was not a worshiper of Shri Ram, but he used Ram name more than any being on earth. Thus, he achived moksha. A good word like Ram, Krishna, impacts the person who uses.
                          Reply
                          1. M
                            M. Kapil
                            Oct 28, 2016 at 6:33 am
                            The author at every step invokes Amit Shah's name, while writing glowingly about Hinduism's rich traditions. Sitting in Oxford, he may not be knowing that Hinduism's enemies are not Hindutwadis but the commies. I do not know how old the author is, but I can tell him a bit about how Diwali and other Hindu festivals were being degraded and denigrated in the 1970s and 80s. A systematic campaign was launched in the south against Deepavali. The same Indian Express, which was then not anti-Hindu, as it is now, unearthed the facts and found out that the campaign was being funded and organised by a Christian organisation called the Beaudes. The rise of the BJP in the 1990s was synonymous with Hindu ertion. The author now has to even write an article in the guise of praising of Hinduism, while taking potshots at Amit Shah. Such is the state of affairs now. In the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, he could written an article calling Diwali barbaric and nobody would have protested. Perhaps he should have lived in those nostalgic times.
                            Reply
                            1. M
                              Murthy
                              Oct 29, 2016 at 1:29 am
                              Don't you think that "celebration of life' during Deepavali ( Theevali or Diwali, different ways of pronouncing the original Sanskrit Deepa Avali - signify the same event in any case ) involves a foundation of spirituality ? I suggest the Vedic Moola Vakya - "Thamasor ma Jyothir Gamaya" as a start ???
                              Reply
                              1. M
                                Murthy
                                Oct 29, 2016 at 1:31 am
                                For plenty of concrete, exploding metals and body parts, you need to go to Syria and Iraq. Read S. RadhaKrishnan, "Hindu Way of Life" or any book on Hinduism.
                                Reply
                                1. M
                                  Murthy
                                  Oct 29, 2016 at 1:21 am
                                  Ramesh should stick to his good research and avoid being a wannabe politician. Why bring in Amit Shah here? That too, in such an unconvincing and contrived manner?? What is wrong with "Happy Vamana Day" ? Why should Keralites be upset with that greeting ?? Maharaja Bali was given an exalted status as a Devotee of Vishnu. Amit Shah and serious Hindutva proponents accept the variety in Hinduism that his author is talking about. He is wrong to suggest that they are against the variety that is Hinduism. No one is seeking to impose anything on Hindus. The author is confused.
                                  Reply
                                  1. L
                                    Lakshmi
                                    Oct 28, 2016 at 2:03 pm
                                    Learned man but can't differentiate between core belief (Sanatana Dharma) and ritualistic practices that do indeed vary and morph. In fact it is a sad fact that the vast majority adhere to ritual practices and ignore or ignorant of the spirituality of Hinduism and Vedas something that even one if the Archbishops of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie, declared as most spiritual of religious thoughts.
                                    Reply
                                    1. M
                                      mohan
                                      Oct 28, 2016 at 5:00 pm
                                      For your information when onam is celebrated in Kerala it also happens to be vamana jayanti. Also Vamana was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and if you carefully read the purana it glorifies the commitment made by King Bali.
                                      Reply
                                      1. M
                                        mohan
                                        Oct 28, 2016 at 4:58 pm
                                        There was nothing wrong in Amit Shahs greetings on vamana jayanti. Every festival in india is celebrated for various causes and hence there is no need to be outraged if some one does not know your way of celebrating a festival! If the same greeting was given by a congi or a 10 janpath clan there would have been no furore!
                                        Reply
                                        1. O
                                          OP Gupta
                                          Oct 28, 2016 at 12:56 pm
                                          Vedas are taken by all Hindus to be their supreme scripture and it is the central unifying force.
                                          Reply
                                          1. P
                                            pankaj
                                            Oct 28, 2016 at 12:17 am
                                            Another guy with tiny ability to read or research, forget about any sophisticated analysis and lot of ability for om writing. Dear tidbit writer, did you do any reaserch about time and content of bhavishya puts a.. It talks about Islam Christianity and Sikhism, do you get tiny idea on how old it can be? It is not even 800 year old and has lot of inconsistency... And you have to use such a text in comparison to 3000 year old globally. Consistent tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata available in stones in ankorwat or Java. That shows your failure to understand even ABC of what you wanted to write, diversity of Hindu mythology. Mythology is not being created now, for Hinduism that has such a long and great past, the creation of mythology was already over before any other religion of common era even started its first thought...
                                            Reply
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