This Wednesday, the Charles B. Wang Center and the Mattoo Center for India Studies co-hosted a presentation on the famous Diwali Festival of Lights. The festival is a combination of cultural and religious celebrations that happen every lunar year centered around India, although they have a presence around the world.
Diwali, sometimes spelled “Deepavali,” is a celebration that traditionally takes place over the course of 5 days; this year, it begins on Sunday, Oct. 27. It is held starting on the 13th day of the lunar month Karthik, which is a day for celebrating wealth and prosperity. Diwali is similar to Thanksgiving in a lot of ways, as it also tends to coincide with India’s own version of the end of the growing season; families tend to come together and celebrate the year’s harvest with a feast and offer food to the less fortunate.
S.N. Sridhar, who is a professor of Linguistics and India Studies at Stony Brook University, along with Professor Yelleshpur Dathatri, formerly of Farmingdale University, were the guides through a detailed explanation of the meanings and celebrations of Diwali.
Sridhar began with a request to the audience: “Let Diwali bring up the light in our hearts.” He then gave a brief lecture on the various days of Diwali and their meanings.
Dathatri performed a ritual “puja,” or invocation of a Hindu god. In the process, a portrait of Lakshmi with a small shrine built around it was blessed by the professor, who first cleansed himself with holy water before reciting the 100 names of the goddess.
Afterwards, the audience was welcomed up onto the stage one by one to offer prayers to the goddess. Each audience member was given flower petals and a candle (a plastic LED, as per regulations of the Wang Center) to offer and was gifted with sweets. The sweets are as important as anything else, and it is Indian tradition to give them out to guests, especially if they are children.
Dathatri claimed that he was particularly disappointed that a real flame could not be used for the ritual, as that is a key factor in all Diwali performances, hence the moniker “Festival of Lights.” However, he relented for the sake of the educational value he saw in it.
Diwali honors the gods Rama, Krishna, Vamana and — above all — Lakshmi. She is seen as the figure which offers blessings of prosperity through the darkest day of the year, and it is to her that most prayers are offered. Lakshmi is considered the bringer of affluence and prosperity, and it is no coincidence that the financial year in India begins with her most important day.
It is uniquely important because it is perhaps the only holiday that is celebrated across all of India; there are even celebrations of Diwali that exist outside Hinduism. Jains celebrate the festival but instead of honoring Lakshmi or the other gods, they celebrate the ascension of Mahavira from the cycle of moksha. Sikhs also used the festival for their own purpose: celebrating the freedom of the Sixth Guru from Mughal prisons.
All throughout the world, Lakshmi will be honored along with her fellow gods. Sweets and gifts will be exchanged and prayers given in celebration of the holiday.