The many beginnings of Diwali
If over a billion people on the planet are going to be revelling in in festivities over the next three days, it is worth finding out the history behind this. And who better to help us understand the historical significance of Diwali, the festival of lights, than Manu Pillai, arguably the best Indian historian of today, especially when it comes to events of the past south of the Vindhyas. Pillai touches upon the nuanced differences in significance of the festival across different sects of the Hindu and Jain communities. But in general it refers to enlightenment or the elimination of darkness in various contexts such as the autumnal harvest signifying prosperity or the slaying of demons putting an end to evil. However, the best representation is captured in his concluding para: “In essence, though, celebrating the power of light in throwing off even the most forbidding cloaks of darkness remains the principal physical and philosophical motif for Diwali. The 13th century Jnaneshwari, in fact, compares the shine of Diwali’s festive lamps to the light of knowledge—an attractive metaphor, perhaps, for our own time, which seems to be seized by the creeping darkness of wilful ignorance. Those bearing today’s lamps may have to endure much like Mahavir did in his own day—but it is a quest worth its exactions, for even a single flickering flame is capable of keeping shadows at bay.”
“Through many an age, Diwali has endured as a festival of tremendous significance in India. Some see it as having evolved from an autumnal agrarian celebration: In the somewhat sniffy words of a colonial commentator, the festival marks the annual return of a time when “the granaries are full of corn, the tension of labour and anxiety about the harvest are…removed, the people are idle, and thus there is a natural tendency to outbreaks of eroticism and temporary relaxation of the laws of order”.
To orthodox Jains, though, this was not originally about mere rejoicing—as a day that marks the attainment of moksha (salvation) by Mahavir, it was at first spent in silence, with fasts and other austerities as experienced by the 24th Tirthankar. Over time, though, more cheerful elements made their way into the Jain Diwali too. With many Jains being prosperous merchants and purveyors of trade, they too welcomed the goddess of wealth to their homes on this day, paving Lakshmi’s way with light and decorative opulence.
….Whatever the chief tradition, though, lamps and illumination are key to Diwali—even the Jains who stayed silent and fasted brightened up the night, remembering that when Mahavir died, 18 kings came together and declared, “Since the light of intelligence is gone, let us make an illumination of material matter.””