About Deepavali

By Phalguni Freeman

Deepavali—“the Festival of Lights”—is one of the most significant, joyous and popular festivals of India. In Sanskrit, deepa means “lamp” and avali is “row.” Thus, the name Deepavali refers to the rows of small clay lamps, known in Hindi as diyas, that are lit in homes, temples, and streets during this festival.

Deepavali is also the generic name used to designate four consecutive celebrations spanning four days usually during the Indian calendar months of Ashvin and Kartik, which correspond to October and November in the Gregorian calendar. During this time, India is lush after the monsoon rains, flowering with mogra (jasmine), genda (marigold), and rajnigandha, (tuberose), evoking sweetness with their beauty and fragrance. The gentle air feels cool and crisp. As this beautiful weather sets in, people are enthusiastically gearing up to celebrate Deepavali. This year, 2021, Deepavali takes place from Monday, November 1, to Thursday, November 4, and concludes with Padva or “New Year” on Friday, November 5.

The overarching theme of Deepavali is the triumph of light over darkness, of knowledge over ignorance, of goodness over evil. According to the lunar calendar, the festival begins with Govatsa Dvadashi on the twelfth day of the Krishna Paksha, the dark fortnight of the waning moon. It is followed on the thirteenth day with Dhanteras, and with Narak Chaturdashi on the fourteenth day. The festival culminates on the fifteenth day with the New Moon or amavasya, which is itself the day of Deepavali. In many parts of India and all over the world in the Indian diaspora, on the day after Deepavali people celebrate the New Year, which is also called Bali Pratipada.

This day-by-day movement from dark to light celebrates the end of one year and the beginning of another. The first day of the year falls in Shukla Paksha, the bright fortnight of the moon. Deepavali and New Year are times of completion and new beginnings; times to offer gratitude, to honor and invoke prosperity, and to spread good will among people.

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When I was growing up in Maharashtra, my grandmother along with many of my cousins and aunts and uncles lived in the same house, as was typical in India. For Deepavali our home would be abuzz with all of the youngsters looking forward to buying new clothes and firecrackers, while our mothers were busy making sweets and savories in large quantities. I remember the huge containers with the typical delicious treats for the occasion: besan laddoos (sweet round balls made with chickpea flour), nariyal barfis (sweets made with coconut flour); chaklis and sev (savories made with rice flour and chickpea flour), and many more. Although my cousins and I were told not to eat these treats before the festival started, we would sneak up to the pantry and lay our hands on some of them, hoping not to be found out… Looking back on these indelible memories, I think Deepavali was one of my favorite and most anticipated celebrations, as it is for many people around the world, because it nourished my human desire to connect with others and to celebrate life in a lovely way. This festival so beautifully does this by bringing people together during those four days and the days preceding.

Throughout my life, I have learned about the meaning behind various aspects of Deepavali through books, plays, bhajans, and stories from the Ramayana, one of the great epics of all times. I also learned that Deepavali is a time to invoke prosperity by paying homage to Shri Mahalakshmi, the goddess of abundance in all its forms. Woven throughout this festival, there are many other threads, and each thread helps to create the fabric of Deepavali.

Let me share with you some of these threads in the forefront of everyone’s mind during these five days.

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शुचिता shuchita, “cleanliness,” holds great import as you prepare to welcome Mahalakshmi into your home and in your being. Before the festival begins, everyone makes a concerted effort to spotlessly clean their homes. This outward cleanliness is a metaphor for the cleansing of the inner spaces in your mind and heart as you let go of any animosity or hard feelings you may have toward others.

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सौहार्द sauhard, “camaraderie and goodwill,” is a major and recurring thread in the fabric of Deepavali. During the days of the festival, people traditionally give and receive the sweets and savories prepared at home, and exchange gifts. The spirit is to approach all with goodwill and good intent. The giving and receiving are ways to strengthen your connections with others.

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धर्म dharma, “righteous action,” is the quintessential virtue you can learn from Lord Rama’s victory over the adharmic and arrogant demon king Ravana. During the Deepavali festival, Lord Rama’s stories from the Ramayana are enacted and recounted in numerous ways; I always found these enthralling tales a reminder to uphold dharma and perform righteous action even in the face of adversity. They demonstrate that by fulfilling dharma, you can connect with your own divine Self, and that when you act from dharma, you spread the light of love around you.

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शुभ संकल्प shubha sankalpa, “auspicious intentions,” come naturally during Deepavali with its focus on establishing cleanliness, building goodwill, and following dharma. I have learned from studying the Siddha Yoga teachings that the attitudes I hold in my mind have the power to manifest in my life and that, therefore, it is important to have auspicious intentions in my mind and heart.

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बाहुल्य/श्री bahulya or Shri “abundance,” is the main characteristic of Deepavali. As you focus on both outer and inner cleanliness, you create space in your heart to hold goodwill that you share with others—and this opens you to receive the bahulya, the “abundance” represented by Shri, which is another name for Mahalakshmi. It is said that Shri dwells where the virtues abide.

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प्रकाश prakash, “light,” is embodied in Deepavali, and that is why it is called the Festival of Lights. On Deepavali you bring forth the light of the Self, the light that illumines all creation. On the Siddha Yoga path we can invoke the divine light by singing the hymn Jyota se Jyota Jagao as we pray to our Sadguru to light our inner light with hers and to, thus, remove the darkness of ignorance from our being.

Now, let me describe the significance of each of the four days of the Deepavali festival and the New Year.

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Govatsa Dvadashi

Monday, November 1, 2021

Including and acknowledging nature is an intrinsic part of the festivals of India. The first day of the Deepavali celebrations starts with Govatsa Dvadashi—the twelfth day, dvadashi, dedicated to venerating gau, “cows.” Cows are associated with sattva guna, the attribute of purity and goodness. Govatsa Dvadashi is the day when cows and their calves are worshipped. The origins of this festival are found in the churning of the Ocean of Milk, Samudra Manthana as narrated in sacred texts like the Puranas. As the story goes, the gods and the demons churned the vast ocean of milk to obtain amrit, the nectar of immortality. During this process, the divine cow Kamadhenu emerged from the ocean. Kamadhenu is associated with the blessings of motherhood, fertility, divinity, and sustenance.

Another Deepavali memory I hold dear is going to beautifully decorated cowsheds that had been thoroughly cleaned and adorned with marigold flowers and torans (festoons or garlands made of mango leaves and hung above entryways). As my family entered the cowsheds, we children immediately went to the cows and their calves to pet them and shower them with love. Then our parents and other elders would perform puja with turmeric, kumkum, rice, and flowers. They would offer arati to the cows and calves and, afterward, would feed them fresh grass, mung bean sprouts, and gram. It was always a delightful ceremony.

On this day, those who are not able to physically worship a cow offer instead puja to images of cows.

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Dhanteras

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Dhanteras—from dhana, “wealth,” and trayodashi, “thirteenth”—is the thirteenth day that celebrates prosperity and abundance. In my family this was a day of great activity and preparation. If there were any places in our home that still needed attention, these were now thoroughly cleaned, and we ensured that an abundance of sweets and savories were ready for the celebration. My sister and I would spend a good part of the morning sweeping and cleaning our driveway and making huge rangolis of various designs at the entrance of our home as we chanted our favorite namasankirtanas like Shree Ram Jay Ram, Jaya Jaya Ram, and Ramakrishna Hari Mukunda Murari.

Rangolis are patterns made with colored powder from rice, limestone, or marble; the patterns can be triangular, square, rectangular, circular, or a mix of these shapes. In South India this practice is known as kolam, which is a geometrical line drawing composed of straight lines, curves, and loops, drawn around a grid pattern of dots.

These lovely and impermanent drawings are created to welcome abundance, prosperity, and well-being into a physical space. Rangolis created in the circular shape of a mandala represent the cosmic power of the universe, while lotus patterns are known for their chaitanya, enlivened power.

On auspicious occasions, such as Deepavali, when guests cross the beautiful and colorful rangoli at the threshold, they bring into the house with them positive vibrations from this sacred design. A rangoli is also an auspicious way to welcome Mahalakshmi and other deities so they bring good luck and prosperity into homes.

In the evening of Dhanteras, it is a tradition to light thirteen lamps as it is the thirteenth day in the lunar calendar and to offer puja to Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Kubera. Lord Kubera is known as the treasurer of the gods and the lord of wealth. Shri Guru Gita teaches that the four goals of human life are dharma (righteousness), artha (wealth), kama (pleasure), and moksha (liberation)1. To achieve the goal of wealth, householders worship Lord Kubera and Goddess Lakshmi.

On Dhanteras, retail stores in India are bustling with people buying gold and other precious metals that represent abundance, wealth, and prosperity. Since this is considered a day to invoke abundance and to use one’s wealth for the highest purpose, it is traditional to offer gold to the Guru in the form of gold coins and also in the form of gold-colored fruits, flowers, and cloth. Siddha Yogis usually offer dakshina to the Guru as symbolic of their offering of gold.

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Narak Chaturdashi

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

On this day, the chaturdashi or “fourteenth,” everyone celebrates Lord Krishna’s victory over the demon Narakasura, who considered himself invincible. The scripture Shrimad Bhagavatam says that before his death, Narakasura regretted his behavior and prayed to Lord Krishna and Satyabhama, the Lord’s wife, to name a festival after him that would serve to remind people that arrogance, pride, and selfishness can make a person lose sight of the benefits of dharmic action. His wish was granted and Narak Chaturdashi was established as a celebration.

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Deepavali

Thursday, November 4, 2021

The culminating day of the festival is itself called Deepavali or Divali. The Ramayana describes Lord Rama’s return to his kingdom of Ayodhya after being in exile for fourteen years and achieving victory over the demon Ravana. When the overjoyed people of Ayodhya heard of their beloved king’s return on the dark night of the new moon, amavasya, they lit his path throughout the city with rows and rows of earthen lamps called diyas.

Deepavali celebrates the victory of light over darkness. In many ways this is the conflict that goes on within each one of us: positive goals vying with negative tendencies, good understanding with poor understanding, generous feelings with selfish inclinations. When you engage in the Siddha Yoga practices to purify the mind, you allow the light in your heart to shine forth and dissipate the negative energies. In doing so, you illumine your manas, “mind,”—and your heart as well!—by spreading light around yourself by kind words, acts of generosity, and expressions of gratitude.

According to another widespread tradition, on this day Mahalakshmi marries Lord Vishnu and, thus, a Lakshmi puja is performed during the evening hours. Every puja varies as per family tradition. In our home, the puja room was decorated with beautiful flowers, torans, and garlands. The checkbooks, jewelry, silver coins—all items that represent Mahalakshmi—were placed on a silver tray, and we offered puja to them. We would offer naivedya with fruits and all the delicacies prepared for the puja, then sing the Mahalakshmyashtakam Stotram and conclude with arati. As we sang, the puja room and the whole house was aglow with light and beauty. Even now, I can close my eyes and remember the brilliance of this night and the experience it gave me of the Divine.

On the Siddha Yoga path, we worship Shri Mahalakshmi as an aspect of the Kundalini Shakti, and we pray to the Goddess for both inner and outer prosperity so we can create a beautiful world.

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Happy New Year

Friday, November 5, 2021

In some parts of India—Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Karnataka—the day after Deepavali is celebrated as the New Year and is also known as Bali Pratipada. According to the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Bali was a brave, noble, and generous king, very devoted to Lord Vishnu. Over time, however, Bali’s generosity of heart became his pride, and he became quite conceited. Once, he was performing a yajna, a Vedic fire sacrifice, which would enable him to become more powerful than the gods in the celestial realms. Afraid of Bali, the gods entreated Lord Vishnu for help. The Lord agreed to the deities’ petition and incarnated as Vamana, a Brahmin boy of short stature, and presented himself at the yajna.

When Bali saw this Brahmin boy approach the yajna, he reverently welcomed him and asked what he could offer him. Vamana asked for as much land as could be covered with three of his footsteps. The king was surprised that the boy asked for such a small thing, but in the end conceded to Vamana’s request. Immediately, Vamana expanded and grew into his cosmic Self. With one step he covered the planet Earth, with the second step he covered the rest of the universe. Then, Vamana asked Bali where he could place his third step. Recognizing that he was in front of a divine being, Bali humbly offered his own head for Vamana to step on. With this, Vamana pushed Bali into the netherworld. However, because of his nobility in keeping his word to give what he was asked for and for his complete surrender to the Lord, Bali was granted the boon of returning to Earth to be worshipped. This day became known as Bali Pratipada, “Bali’s Step,” and the first day of a new year.

This day of New Year is filled with the vibrant energy of new beginnings, and it is considered one of the three-and-a-half most auspicious days of the year. The New Year is a time to formulate intentions and resolutions, to renew friendships, and to clear conflicts. People wear new clothes, exchange gifts and sweets, and ask for blessings from their elders. Businesspeople honor this new beginning by starting new ledger books. This clearing of the ledgers makes room for Mahalakshmi to enter.

It is traditional to spend this day doing the things one wishes to do for the rest of the year. On the Siddha Yoga path, we celebrate this New Year’s Day by making a resolution for our sadhana, engaging in the Siddha Yoga practices, and offering our gratitude to Shri Guru for her grace and her teachings. The Deepavali festival is a time to honor the supreme light within us and share that light with others. It is a time to invoke abundance and share that abundance with others.

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1 Shri Guru Gita prelude; The Nectar of Chanting (South Fallsburg, NY: SYDA Foundation, 1984) p. 7.