Friday, November 13, 2020

Deepawali: The heavenly path of light

Author: Mohan Raghavan

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It's the festival of lights, Deepawali. It's that time of the year when the entire country is in a festive mood. Deepawali is not just a single festival but a cluster of festivals, rituals and celebrations spread out over four or five days starting from the thirteenth day of Krishna paksha in the month of Ashwayuja; Dhanteras/Dhanvantari Jayanthi, Naraka chaturdashi, Amavasya-Lakshmi Puja, Govardhan pooja/ Bali padyami, Bhai dooj /Bhagini dvitiya /Yama dvitiya. Lighting of lamps, bursting of crackers, sweets, gifts and other material riches are associated with this festival almost universally. The festivities are preceded by a frenzied cleaning up of houses in anticipation of the impending arrival of goddess Lakshmi. In northern India, Dhanteras is the time to acquire material riches, be it a new car, home or jewellery. A traditional ritual oil bath early morning is a popular observance in southern India. Lakshmi pooja as heralding the traditional new financial year is the centrepiece for traders and communities involved in business. Govardhan pooja is popular with the Vaishnava sampradayas of northern India. While Naraka chaturdashi commemorating defeat of Narakasura by Krishna is synonymous with Deepawali in Tamil Nadu, Balipadyami celebrating Bali and Vamana-Trivikrama avatara is popular in Karnataka and the telugu states. The last day of the festivities - the second day of the Shukla paksha of Kartika is celebrated as the festival of brothers and sisters, but goes by different names; Bhai dooj in the north, bhau beej in Maharashtra and bhagini dvitiya or Yama dvitiya in the southern parts of our country. Several other traditional observances are fast becoming extinct amidst the onslaught of our busy lives and changing lifestyles. For instance, the Go-triratra vrata involving the worship of cows culminating in amavasya is not very well known today (except in some villages). Traditional tall lamp posts with a central flame and eight others heralding the directions can only be found today in the traditional scriptures. The observances like creating an idol of Mahabali, worship with golden flowers too are to be seen only in a few houses devoted to preserving traditional practices. 

Pleasant moments of enjoyment, feasting, celebration and fun are always welcome. All cultures have over the years evolved occasions to celebrate. And so it is often theorized that deepawali is primarily meant to be a festivity of fun, lights and enjoyments - one that lifts our mood from the dreary daily routines. The several Puranic tales - Krishna-Narakasura, Bali-Trivikrama, Govardhana-Krishna are presented as conjured excuses to lend some meaning to the occasion. The rituals are treated at most as a natural expression of our preference for lights, brightness and the good things in life over darkness, dullness and evil where the definitions of good-evil can be quite flexible enough to suit a person's ideologies. There is a trend towards emphasizing the most common denominator in our observances and to dismiss the larger contexts, rituals and religiosity surrounding the festival of Deepawali. While popularization of our festivals is welcome, it must not occur at the expense of its moorings in our spiritual culture. Sriranga Mahaguru emphasized that our ritual actions - karmas must be observed, but along with an understanding of the marma (secret lore) behind the karma. This way, we demystify our culture rather than dilute its essence. We must make the spirit behind the festivals, accessible to people rather than dumb down the festivities themselves. We thus provide here a short summary of the significance of the various aspects of Deepawali and its profound significance to our lives. We do not seek to manufacture anything new, rather it will be our endeavour to present the thought process of our Rishis as attested in the words of the shastras and enlightened Yogis.

Human existence was conceived of by our Rishis as having a two-fold purpose. A plentiful, bountiful material life and a peaceful, blissful inner life. Balancing these goals is a delicate matter. As one goes about acquiring material prosperity and joy (artha and kama), it is important  not to lose sight of the eventual path of our liberation (moksha). The frame of mind that enables such a balanced manner of working is called Dharma. Every action that we perform either keeps us on track to our eventual liberation or takes us astray into the woods in varying degrees. These two types of actions are popularly known as 'Punya karma' and 'Paapa karma' respectively. A person gone astray in the woods, must first be brought out of the woods and then exhorted to go along the right path to his home. Thus, if we are to attain eventually,  the elevated state of Moksha, we must nullify the effects of our 'paapa karma' and also perform more 'punya karma'. Our Rishis observed that this particular time of the year is most suitable for cleansing us of the effect of our Paapa karmas and lead them along the path of righteous action towards the abode of light - Moksha. 'Deepa' 'Aawali' literally means a row of lamps as if a path of light is spread out in front of us leading us to the Divi - literally light, colloquially sky or heaven. Deepawali, teaches us to rid ourselves of our old baggage - our paapa karmas. At the same time it also teaches the art of enjoying the best of material bounty while keeping our mind steadfast on the path of dharma. These twin themes of 'nullifying our paapa karmas' and 'enjoying material plenty according to dharma' both converge at a single theme - Lights, lamps and effulgence. Therein lies the genesis of Deepawali !

Moksha padam, Parama padam or the ultimate state  is described as one of effulgence and light. This liberation from birth and death is often thought of as something to aspire for after this life. However, a brahma-jnani who is capable of ascending the state of samadhi at will may be considered to be a Jeevan-mukta - liberated even while in this world. Such people are, as Sriranga Mahaguru says, at the threshold of that parama padam. They are at once in this world, but free from it. Sriranga Mahaguru describes that experience as being in the presence of a crore suns, nay even multiplied further by a crore. However it is cool and soothing like moonbeams, unlike the physical sun that burns. It is described as the most desirable, effulgent light, the light behind all other lights, beyond the realms of darkness. This effulgent light which is the essence of the Vedas is also realized by Jnanis and Rishis as a flame of a lamp in the region of the heart and leads one to the ultimate yogic experience, the jyoti of the heavens. Srimad Bhagavatham says that Devaki was fortunate to have this vision of the infant Krishna as being verily the Vishnu, the deepa seen within. The lamp-deepa that we light in our homes reminds us of this inner deepa. This Deepa is the centre piece of Deepawali. One who is led by the inner Deepa-flame and follows it will no doubt be on the path towards moksha even when surrounded by riches. His mind is automatically dissuaded from going astray into the woods of paapa karma. This is the essence of Deepawali.

However it remains to be seen how the various rituals and symbols that are a part of the Deepawali festivities are intricately connected to the twin themes of cleansing paapa and facilitating material enjoyment in accordance with Dharma. This will be seen in the next part of this article.


This article is based on Amaravani  - the published lectures of Sriranga Mahaguru and 'Bharateeyara habba haridinagalu', a magnum opus on Indian festivals by Sri SriRangapriya Sri Srih.



1. तत् सवितु: वरेण्यं भर्ग:  (ऋग्वेद: 3.62.10)

2.  ज्योतिषामपि तज्ज्योतिः तमस: परमुच्यते  (श्रीमद्भगवद्गीता 13.18 )

3.  हृदयकमलमध्ये दीपवत् वेदसारं (गुरुगीता, स्कान्दपुराणम् )

4.  अंतर्ज्योति: किमपियमिनां अंजनं योगदृष्टे: (भगवद्ध्यानसोपानं )

5.  सुवर्न: ज्योती:  (तैत्तिरीय उपनिषत् 3.4.10)

6.  रूपं यत् तत् प्राहुरव्यक्तमाद्यं

   ब्रह्म ज्योतिर्निर्गुणं निर्विकारम् ।

    सत्तामात्रं निर्विशेषं निरीहं

   स त्वं साक्षाद्विष्णुरध्यात्मदीप: (श्रीमद्भागवतम् 10.3.24)