Column: Diwali – Here’s what to know about Hindu festival of lights

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Due to COVID-19, a few large Diwali festivals were canceled this year. Kalyani Rao, the author of this article, ended up celebrating Diwali inside her house. She created this small portable altar for Lakshmi puja, using a tea light, varieties of garden flowers, a pear and grains of basmati rice as prashadam, aka an offering, for the goddess Lakshmi. The gathering also includes incense sticks and coins. A picture of Lakshmi sitting on her lotus flower rests in front of the offering plate, decorated with flowers at the base. (Kalyani Rao)

Hindus, Jains and Sikhs around the world celebrated Diwali together this past Thursday, Nov. 4.

Diwali, or Dipawali, is a festival of lights and one of the major festivals celebrated by Hindus. Arguably the most important Hindu festival, comparable to the value of Christmas for Christians, Diwali represents the spiritual triumph of good over evil, light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.

One of Kalyani Rao’s grandmother’s deities, Goddess Lakshmi, is pictured wearing an elaborate handmade dress and strings of pearls. Her grandmother dresses and adorns all of her deities daily. She also visits her temple very early in the morning to perform daily puja and help dress the deities there. (Kalyani Rao)

The festival usually lasts five days and is celebrated during the Hindu lunisolar month Kartika.

Diwali gets its name from the practice of lighting many small lamps or decorated tea lights (deepa) in a path to the home to symbolize the inner light that protects from spiritual darkness. This practice comes from the most popular story associated with Diwali, the story of Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya after a 14-year exile and beating the evil King Ravana. He returned after killing the evil king Ravana.  The people of Ayodhya were so ecstatic on the arrival of Lord Rama, who ruled over Ayodhya, that they lit up the entire city with earthen lamps.

During Diwali, families gift each other new clothes, gold jewelry, eat sweets and food together, and light fireworks.

The third day of Diwali is the most important day, when people perform Lakshmi puja (worship of the goddess Lakshmi) to welcome the goddess of wealth and success, Lakshmi, into their homes. It is believed that those who perform Lakshmi puja will be blessed with good health, prosperity, abundance, and wealth by Lakshmi. The god Ganesh, also called Ganapati, is the elephant-headed Hindu god of new beginnings and destroyer of obstacles. He is worshiped alongside Lakshmi.

In the days leading up to the Lakshmi puja, it is important to clean your home and get ready for a “new beginning”, mentally and physically. Orange marigold garlands are typically hung around the house, as well as Ashoka leaves. Lamps or tea lights are placed on the windowsills and doorsteps, and rangoli designs are created by the women in the household.

Deities Kaliya Krsna, Udupi Krsna and Laddu Gopal from Kalyani Rao’s grandmother’s puja room are pictured. They are dressed in special outfits for Diwali. It is believed that those who perform Lakshmi puja will be blessed with good health, prosperity, abundance and wealth by Lakshmi. (Kalyani Rao)

Rangoli is an Indian art form where patterns are created on the floor or a tabletop using materials such as powdered lime stone, dry rice flour, colored sand, quartz powder, flower petals, and colored rocks. It is thought to bring good luck, prosperity on the house and in the family, and to welcome guests, especially on festivals like Diwali.

Diwali is similar to Thanksgiving — food and sweets are always prepared in the days leading up to the puja. Some Indian sweets that are enjoyed are rasgulla, rasmalai, laddu, gulabjamun and kulfi, also known as “Indian ice cream”. Rasgulla and rasmalai are delicious and made with simple ingredients — rasgulla only requires chenna (curdled milk), rosewater, sugar water and cardamom.

Some popular Indian savory snacks that can be eaten during Diwali are samosas (stuffed pastries), purans (spiced or sugary flatbread) and pakoras (savory deep fried stuffed snacks).

Jains and Sikhs have different reasons than Hindus to celebrate Diwali. According to National Geographic, to Jains, Diwali marks the nirvana, or spiritual awakening, of Lord Mahavira on October 15, 527 B.C. In Sikhism, it honors the day that Guru Hargobind Ji, the Sixth Sikh Guru, was freed from imprisonment.