The quest for the inner light
The celebration of Diwali or Deepawali might vary from one religious sect to the other but the lighted diyas convey the message: Let us remove darkness and therefore ignorance from the face of earth\
Ashok Vohra

The Sanskrit word Deepawali means "an array of lights". It symbolises the triumph of brightness over darkness. Though the festival of Deepawali is primarily the festival of Vaishyas — farmers, cattle rearers, traders, merchants — it is celebrated all over India and by all varnas – classes and castes. Though the reasons for the celebration varies from one religious sect to the other.

The Hindus living in Northern India celebrate it to mark the return of Lord Rama, one of the 10 reincarnations of Lord Vishnu, after an exile of 14 years and his coronation as the king of Ayodhya. Deepawali also marks for them the return of Pandavas after 13 years of exile.

The Hindus living in southern parts of India celebrate it to mark the killing of the demon Narkasura by Satyabhama — the consort of Lord Krishna — another incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The killing of the despotic ruler led to freeing 16,000 women who were forcibly imprisoned by Narkasura. The women, so liberated celebrated their new-found freedom by lighting lamps. Narkasura’s mother also agreed that her son’s death is not an occasion to mourn but to celebrate. In many parts of the country, Deepawali is celebrated as Bali-Pratipada or as Balipadayami to commemorate the pushing of Bali into patala — the nether world, by Vishnu in his incarnation as vamana.

Diwali is celebrated by lighting diyas to banish ignorance and Celebrating with Fireworks.
Diwali is celebrated by lighting diyas to banish ignorance and Celebrating with Fireworks.

According to Skanda Purana, it was on Deepawali that Lord Shiva responded to Shakti’s 21-day-old penance to get right half of Shiva’s body and appeared in the form of Ardhanarishwara. The day is also celebrated as the birthday of goddess Lakshmi. According to the Puranas, Deepawali is the day when Lakshmi married Lord Vishnu soon after the legendary churning of the sea by the devtas and the asuras.

For Buddhists, Deepawali marks the anniversary of the day when King Ashoka embraced Buddhism and the Sangha way of life. Jainas celebrate Deepawali as the day on which Lord Mahavira gave his last sermon and attained the state of Nirvana. Sikhs celebrate Deepawali to commemorate the release from prison of Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru and 52 other princes in the year 1619. For the followers of Arya Samaj, Deepawali marks the day when its founder Swami Dayananda attained his final abode.

Banish ignorance

Whatever may be the reason for celebrations, Deepawali is celebrated across India by lighting diyas —lamps. It is because Deepawali is associated with the prayer of the Vedas which appeals to the Almighty God to lead us from darkness to light — Tamso ma jyotirgamaya. The lighted diyas convey the message: Let us remove darkness and therefore ignorance from the face of earth. The Vedic rishis realised that the removal of darkness or ignorance and diffusion of light or knowledge is a gigantic task. It cannot be accomplished by just an individual or a family but requires a collective effort by the whole of the mankind.

The diyas are lighted not just in palaces of the rich but in the humble hoes and grass huts of the poorest of the poor. The light of the diya, its penetration and glow is identical, irrespective of the economic status of the one who lights the lamp. This obliteration of high and low, rich and poor, haves and have-nots signifies the essential oneness of humankind. It illustrates the Upanishadic saying: Aham Brahmasmi, Tat, tyam asi — I am Brahman so are you. The lighted diya, therefore, conveys essential unity and equality of humankind.

Late Mughal, ca. 1730; San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego
Late Mughal, ca. 1730; San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego

The flame of the diyas, irrespective of its position, always points upwards. The light and heat of the flame of a diya is qualitatively the same as that of the sun, the moon or the fire. It signifies the essential unity in diversity. The lighting of the lamps and placing them in and outside, in the lawns, verandas, on the walls, the roof, at the gate and the path leading to the house signifies the spread of the "inner light" of the indwelling atman to the outside world. Deepawali is the celebration of this inner light. Swami Sivananda declares that, "All the lights of the world cannot be compared even to a ray of inner light of the self". The light of the soul is unique because it is eternal, it neither rises nor sets.

In the Brhadaranayaka Upanishad, sage Yajnavalkya in his reply to king Janaka’s query about "the real light of man," when the sun and moon have set and fire has gone out, and no sound is heard says, "The Self indeed is his light; for by the light of the Self man sits, moves about, does his work, and when his work is done rests". Discussing the nature of the Self, he says, "the light of the intellect is that Self". The upward-going flame of the diya cajoles us to search for the self which underlies, and is the source of all light and knowledge.

The fact that one lamp can light several others without any loss or reduction in its own luminosity, brightness and heat illustrates the nature of Brahman. The Brahman partakes in everyone yet remains the same. By becoming manifold, the light looses nothing. The light of a diya represents Brahman and his creation. The rows of diyas draw our attention to the underlying oneness of all the things and beings. It exhorts us to realise the nature of our inner self – the atman which verily is Brahman – the pure existence, the pure consciousness, and pure bliss.

One who realises Brahman, says Mundaka Upanishad III.ii,9, "becomes Brahman. He passes beyond sorrow. He overcomes evil. Freed from the fetters of ignorance, he becomes immortal". In his social behaviour, as the Shanti Parva 167.9 and Anushasana Parva 113.8 of the Mahabharata, follows the maxim " Treat others as thou wouldst thyself be treated" and "Do nothing to thy neighbour which hereafter thou wouldst not have thy neighbour thy neighbour do to thee." The Bible puts the same maxim as "Treat thy neighbour as thyself".

One consciousness

Once we realise that there is one consciousness, the one light which partakes in all creation, we see all beings and non-beings as an extension of our own self and their otherness vanishes. Consequently, we treat them with love and compassion. That is the real message, the true spirit of Deepawali.

Let us therefore, pray on the Deepawali day, "May we all attain full inner illumination! May the supreme light of lights enlighten our understanding! May we all attain the inexhaustible spiritual wealth of the Self! May we all prosper gloriously on the material as well as spiritual planes!" In the true spirit of the Indian tradition this prayer is a synthesis of our yearning for wealth, the instrument of achieving worldly goods and enjoying sensate pleasures – abhyudaya and our craving for spiritual emancipation – ni reyasa. The writer is Professor and Head, Department of Philosophy, Delhi University,