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Happy Diwalis

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

Written by Ramesh Venkataraman | Updated: October 28, 2016 12:05:51 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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