Diwali is, indeed, one of the most awaited and thoroughly celebrated Hindu festivals amidst the umpteen festivals that crowd the festive calendar of the multicultural country of India. India is part of one of the oldest civilizations in the world and Hinduism is heralded as one of the most ancient religions in the world; thus, its customs, rituals and traditions are quite unique. Similarly, the festivals celebrated in India are part of its rich cultural heritage and each festival has a deep rooted significance attached to it. The festival of Diwali, which celebrates the triumph of light of knowledge over darkness of ignorance, is one such significant festival, celebrated across the length and breadth of India. The origins of this fabulous festival can be traced back to various interesting Hindu mythological legends. The most significant legends connected with Diwali are enlisted in the following lines.
Goddess Lakshmi’s Birth
On Diwali eve, Hindus worship Mahalakshmi with great devotion as she is believed to be the bestower of wealth and prosperity. As per Hindu mythology, it is said that on the day of the new moon when Diwali is celebrated, Goddess Lakshmi emerged from the ocean, during the process of churning by demons and deities. This endeavor was undertaken by them in order to obtain the amrit (the immortality elixir). This is the reason that Diwali is dedicated to the worship of Goddess Lakshmi, since the day is regarded as her birth anniversary. The legend further stipulates that on this day, the divine Goddess visits the earth and blesses her devotees with insurmountable riches. Lamps are illuminated in every household, so that the Goddess can easily find her way around and fireworks are lit to ward off the evil spirits.
Lord Rama’s Return
The most prominent legend attached to Diwali is that of Lord Rama. Based on the holy epic Ramayana, Hindus believe that the first Diwali was celebrated by the people of Ayodhya to welcome their beloved prince back to his kingdom. Legend has it that right before coronation, Ram was sentenced to an exile of 14 years to fulfill a promise that his father had given to his stepmother. Being a model son, Rama left the kingdom, accompanied by devoted wife Sita and loyal brother Laxman. During these 14 years, Ram faced many hardships and vanquished the mighty demon, King Ravana and when he returned to Ayodhya on the night of the new moon of Ashwin, his subjects lit diyas in every nook and corner of the kingdom to express their joy. The same tradition continues on the same day till date.
Lord Krishna’s Victory
This legend related to the origin of the festival of Diwali is usually prevalent in southern India. Mythology states that a mighty demon, named Narakasura, got vanquished at the hands of Lord Krishna and to commemorate this occasion, Diwali is celebrated. It is said that after obtaining boons from the gods, Narakasura became drunk with power and reeked havoc on earth. He made life miserable for the righteous and abducted innocent girls and enslaved them. Lord Krishna accompanied by his wife fought a bloody battle with the demon and killed him. The enslaved 16,000 women were freed and to save their honor, Lord Krishna accepted them as his wives. To mark this pious occasion, Diwali is celebrated.
King Bali’s Legend
This is another fascinating myth which explains the origin of the festival of lights. This legend narrates the tale of King Bali, who although was a kind king but was over ambitious. There came a time when he ruled the entire earth but dissatisfied with that, he set his eyes on the ruling heaven as well. The gods became insecure of his growing influence and went to Lord Vishnu for protection. Thus, Vishnu took the form of a dwarf priest and visited Bali’s court and asked for the boon of land that he could cover with his three strides. Once Bali promised, Lord began to increase his size and became so huge that in his two strides, he covered the earth as well as heaven and hence, for the third step, there was no place left. Therefore, to keep his word, Bali offered his head and when Lord placed his foot on Bali’s head, he was pushed in the darkness of the underground. However, touched by Bali’s commitment towards his promise, Lord Vishnu granted him a boon of the eternal lamp of knowledge and that once a year he could come on the surface of the earth and illuminate it with diyas.
Another interesting legend related to Diwali can be found in the greatest Hindu epic of ‘Mahabharata’. The five Pandavas - Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva lost all their earthly possessions in a game of dice at the hands of the cunning Kauravas. When they had nothing more to bet, they were punished with an exile of 13 years. During this time, the brothers lived through innumerable hardships and returned back to their kingdom on the day of ‘Kartik Amavasya’. Their loyal subjects were overjoyed by their return and lit numerous earthen lamps across the kingdom in order to welcome their beloved Kings.
King Vikramaditya’s Coronation
Some people believe that the first Diwali was not celebrated in some ancient time, but was celebrated during the reign of one of the greatest Hindu kings, Vikramaditya. It is said that on the eve of his coronation, the subjects of his vast kingdom lit earthen lamps to welcome the new king on throne and to show their heartfelt happiness. Since then, the tradition of lighting diyas on ‘Kartik Amavasya’ has been continued.