Deepavali, the Festival of Lights
Deepavali is familiar to most Malaysians as an Indian celebration. However, not everyone knows what it is actually celebrating, with many confusing it with Thaipusam, the Indian New Year. With that in mind, let’s look deeper into it to understand what exactly is Deepavali and how it relates to everyone.
Deepavali or Diwali?
You might come across the term “Diwali” being used outside of Malaysia, Singapore and South India, but it’s actually referring to the same celebration as Deepavali. India has close to sixty different languages spoken across the country, so while South Indians use the term deepavali—which comes from Sanskrit and means “row of lights”—North Indians use diwali instead, which is a modified form of the original Sanskrit.
Reason for the Season
Depending on who you ask, the reason for celebrating Deepavali is different depending on whether you’re a Hindu or Sikh, and depending on which part of India you might be from. For some Hindus, it is the celebration of the return of Prince Rama to his kingdom after he had slain the demon king Ravana and his evil army; some would say it is in celebration of the time Krishna defeated Narakasura; in western India, it is to commemorate the day the demon king Bali was sent by Vamana into the Hindu netherworld, Patala.
Hindus in Malaysia tend to cite the first story as the reason for celebrating Deepavali. This is also reflected in the local Chinese translation of the holiday, 屠妖节, which means “demon-slaying season” as the Chinese translation of Deepavali in other Chinese-speaking communities include variations on the term “festival of lights” such as 万灯节 (season of many lights), 印度灯节 (Indian season of lights), 光明节 (season of brightness), or even 排灯节 (season of row of lights).
For Sikhs, instead of Deepavali, the celebration that coincides with it is to commemorate the day the Sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind Ji, was released from imprisonment by Emperor Jahangir. Sikhs call this day Bandi Chhor Divas, the Day of Liberation.
How it’s Celebrated
In India, Deepavali is a five-day celebration.
Deepavali begins with Dhanteras, which means “Wealth 13” and refers to the 13th day of the Hindu month of Kartik. On this day, homes and business premises will be cleaned, and oil lamps will be lit over the next five days.
The following day is known as Naraka Chaturdashi or Chhoti Diwali, which means “Hell 14” and “Little Deepavali” respectively. This refers to rituals for liberating souls in Hindu hell, Naraka, and some tie this to the story of the defeat of Narakasura by Krishna. Hindu worship rituals are performed with oil, flowers and sandalwood. Additionally, festive foods, especially sweets, would be purchased on this day.
On the third day called Lakshmi Pujan, which is “worship of Lakshmi”, family members gather at dusk to worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.
The fourth day of Deepavali is called Balipratipada, and means “occasion of Bali”. This refers to the return of Bali to earth where, following his defeat at the hands of Vishnu, he was allowed to return to earth once a year to be remembered and worshipped. In other traditions, this day references the legend of Parvati beating her husband Shiva at a game, thus it also celebrates the bond between husband and wife, and in some Hindu communities, the husband will provide gifts to their wives on this day. Traditional Indian businessmen would close their old ledgers and open new ones on this day.
Bhai Dooj, also known as Yama Dwitiya in southern India, marks the fifth and last day of Deepavali and means “Brother’s Day” and “Yama on the second day after the new moon” respectively. On this day, brothers go to visit their married sisters, and in turn, their sisters are supposed to welcome them with a meal. This references one of two Hindu legends, the first of which is when Krishna went to visit his sister Subhadra after defeating Narakasura, and the other legend refers to Yama, the god of death, visiting his sister Yamuna. The significance of this celebration is to serve as a reminder of the brother’s duty to protect their sisters and the sister’s blessings for the brother.
In Malaysia and Singapore, however, Deepavali is just celebrated over the course of one single day.
One issue in Malaysia, however, is that many have the wrong notion that Deepavali is an Indian celebration in the same vein as Chinese New Year, so many non-Indians would go around wishing all Indians regardless of their religion “Happy Deepavali” even when they don’t actually celebrate the Hindu celebration. Even more so if they are a Sikh because they have a different celebration altogether as mentioned earlier.
Regardless of the reason, region or religion, the important point about Deepavali is the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and the importance of family. Thus, let us all be encouraged with this hope and be a blessing to everyone!
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