Across the world, hundreds of millions of homes are lighting up today to celebrate Diwali. Also known as Deepavali, or the Festival of Lights, the holiday is celebrated by not only Hindus, but Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains alike. Diwali connects followers of multiple religions in celebrations of the victory of good over evil through the lighting of deeps or diyas (lamps) and each religion adds their own color to the Festival of Lights.
In Jainism, Diwali commemorates the anniversary of Lord Mahavir's attainment of moksha, or freedom from the cycle of reincarnation, in 527 B.C.E. Lord Mahavir was the 24th and last Thirtankar of Jainism and revitalized the religion as it is today. First referred to in Jain scriptures as dipalikaya, or light leaving the body, it is said that the earth and the heavens were illuminated with lamps to mark the occasion of Lord Mahavir's enlightenment.
For Jains, Diwali is a celebration of Lord Mahavir's teachings and his contributions not only to the religion but to greater humanity. His teachings promote compassion and justice through ahimsa (nonviolence), advocating the importance of all living beings as well as social, political and economic equity. He emphasized aparigraha (non-possessiveness) in order to protect biodiversity from our greed. Most importantly, he taught the concept of anekantvada (multiplicity of views or pluralism) and encouraged individuals to overcome superstition and blind faith and to pursue reason through their own efforts.
Each year Jains light lamps on Diwali to symbolize keeping the light of Lord Mahavir's knowledge alive and sweets are distributed in celebration of his contributions. Many Jains celebrate Diwali by fasting, singing hymns and chanting mantras to honor Lord Mahavir, while others participate in charity and philanthropy. The day after Diwali marks the Jain New Year, celebrating new beginnings and members of the Jain community greet each other with "Saal Mubarak" or Happy New Year.
In my house, Diwali is always celebrated as a mix of traditions. My family not only remembers and honors Lord Mahavir's salvation each year but also participates in Hindu traditions, such as praying to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity, to bless us in the new year and celebrating the return of Lord Rama after defeating the demon king Ravana.
As a child, Diwali mainly meant new clothes, my mother's delicious homemade sweets and a chance to stay up to "party" on what more often than not was a school night or, on the rare and lucky occasion, to miss school. Growing up as an Indian in America had its benefits.
Over the years the holiday has taken on a different meaning. Diwali is not just about good food and nice clothes; it is about celebrating the victory of good over evil in each and every capacity whether small or large. Each year Diwali is a testament of Lord Mahavir's teachings of pluralism and harmony in action. In India, Diwali brings together people of mixed faiths celebrating for different reasons and in unique manners. The festival is embraced by everyone, regardless of background.
In my own experience as an Indo-American, Diwali is both a reminder and a chance to practice Lord Mahavir's teachings. The lighting of the lamps denotes knowledge or the removal of ignorance. Whereas most of my elementary school classmates had never heard of and had no idea why I was so excited to celebrate Diwali, through the efforts of many South Asian Americans both awareness and acceptance of our traditions has increased and continues to do so with each year. Co-workers no longer think of Diwali as that time of year our India offices shut down, rather they recognize our customs and actively choose to dress up in traditional attire and partake in the festivities.
Whether by blending together different faith traditions or mixing cultures to celebrate in a unique Indo-Western style, we can all find ways to apply Lord Mahavir's teachings of respect, generosity, peace and unity this Diwali. As you prepare for new beginnings, I wish you all a year of reflection and celebrating light through knowledge.
Happy Diwali and Saal Mubarak!