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Diwali: Celebrating The Festival Of Lights

The five-day Hindu festival Diwali, honors the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi. Vasudha Narayanan, director of the Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions at the University of Florida, discusses the rituals and significance of the festival.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Today marks the beginning of the Hindu festival of Diwali. It's a five-day celebration honoring the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi. Known as the festival of lights, the holiday is marked by lighting lamps, setting off fireworks, gathering with family and friends to eat good food, dance and exchange gifts. And it's about the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil. We all need a Diwali.

Vasudha Narayanan, a professor of religion at the University of Florida, describes it as Christmas on steroids. We want to hear from people who celebrate this holiday. What's your favorite tradition? 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Vasu Narayanan joins us now from a studio at the University of Florida. Welcome to the program, and happy Diwali to you.

VASUDHA NARAYANAN: Thank you, Jacki. Namaste, and happy Deepavali to you too.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: And you called it exactly - would you repeat the name of the holiday for me?

NARAYANAN: It's traditionally called Deepavali. Deepa meaning light and vali meaning a necklace of light or a row of lamps. Today, most people call it Diwali, but the original name is Deepavali and that's how it's known in most parts of India.

LYDEN: So in - so I should be saying Diwali?

NARAYANAN: You could say either one, and you'd still be right because it's a time of fun and festivities, time for fireworks and good food.

LYDEN: I understand - thank you for being so generous, and it seems like a great season for doing that. I understand that you just got back from India. What preparation...

NARAYANAN: Just early this morning actually.

LYDEN: Oh, my goodness. I didn't realize it was that quick. Well, we really, really thank you for coming on today. I'm sorry you couldn't stay home for the holiday. But what was under way? What preparations?

NARAYANAN: Well, all over the place, there were preparations going on. Cleaning of the house, buying gifts for everyone, and everyone was in a frenzy, absolute frenzy. It's really like a little bit like Passover, too, in having to clean your house up before the festival, and then buying gifts for everyone like Christmas. So you have special gifts for all kinds of people, just about everyone you know, including the milkman, the newspaperman and so on. And so people were driving me nuts, trying to get me to do the work before I left.

(LAUGHTER)

NARAYANAN: So my mother had been very ill...

LYDEN: I'm sorry.

NARAYANAN: ...and I knew she was very much better when she was telling me how many gifts to get and how I was not packing things right.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Tell us, would you please, what is this triumph of light over darkness? What's the story that accompanies that?

NARAYANAN: Well, first of all, the way we celebrate it is to light lamps all over the house and public spaces. And in addition to that, we have light going off and fireworks very early in the morning. Oh, I'm talking about two or three in the morning. So if you're not getting up, the sound will get you up, wake you up. So while it's called a festival of light, it's more a festival of sound and smells of - the smells of fireworks. And every house has a lot of fireworks. And it's literally, well, as an adult looking on it, it's like - it seems to be like money going up in smoke. But we used to love buying as many fireworks as possible growing up.

As is traditional with the Hindu traditions, we celebrate Deepavali for many reasons. There's no single reason why anyone celebrates a festival. The trope, of course, is light over darkness and good over evil. And that, of course, the theme for just about every religious holiday in India.

In south India, the story goes that Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and his wife Satyabhama were having a battle over the demon of hell, Narakasura. And early in the morning, just as dawn was about to break and the light was conquering the darkness of night, they won the battle. And to emulate the sound of the battle, you have fireworks going off now.

And light, traditionally, is associated in Hindu philosophy with reality and with immortality. And so the traditional prayer from a 6th Century text says, lead me from what is not real to what is real. Lead me from darkness to light. Lead me from death to immortality. And so it's this sense of immortality, which is underlying the festival. But, of course, we think about it in terms of the food and the fireworks.

LYDEN: I love those stories. Let's take a few calls here. But before we do, we also got this tweet from TwiitAditya: A segment on hunting game right before a segment on Diwali? Seriously? Listen, thanks for that tweet, but it's certainly wasn't our intention to be insensitive here. Let's go to Suresh, who's calling Vasu, from Alameda, California. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Suresh.

SURESH: Well, thank you. I enjoy your program. Wondering - I want to say one thing that in our part of India, which is Maharashtra, we have one day out of Diwali for our brother and sister. That we, as a brother, give some gift to the sister and sister cooks a nice dinner for him.

LYDEN: Well, that sounds like a nice tradition.

SURESH: Yeah. It's like a very good bonding between brother and sister. That in one...

LYDEN: Just for brother and sisters.

SURESH: I don't know if your guest knows about that.

NARAYANAN: Yes. Bhai Dooj.

SURESH: In Maharashtra, that's the custom of Diwali.

NARAYANAN: Yes. That's the - pretty much the last day of Deepavali. And the traditions - the local traditions in India are quite distinctive and well-known in that area. But now, of course, with the mass media, we get to have a more homogenous Deepavali with everyone celebrating each other's customs. And so the celebration, which is really five days long and involves many stories - the one that I just recounted to you a few minutes back was just one of them. The other major story is that it's the time when Lord Rama, and not the incarnation of Vishnu, returned to the city of Ayodhya. And in celebration, the city of Ayodhya had light up lamps for him and Sita.

So that's another reason, but there are at least four different incarnations of Vishnu connected with the story of Deepavali and the celebration, which makes it more fun, of course. And it's not jut the Hindu festival. I would like to add that it's most definitely a festival that's celebrated by Sikhs and Jains in India for different reasons.

LYDEN: Well, thanks for pointing that out. And we did ask you precisely where in India you're from, Vasu. Where is it?

NARAYANAN: I'm originally from Tamil Nadu, a Tamil-speaking person. And so this - and a traditional greeting in South India is (foreign language spoken): have you had your bath in the River Ganges or River Ganga? The sacred river for Hindus is supposed to be present - the water from that is supposed to be present in all the waters of the world that day. And so when you wake up early in the morning and have what is called an oil bath in fragrant oil in South India - and again, that's a local tradition - you're supposed to be bathing in the River Ganges or Ganga, and she is ritually purifying you, of course.

So our local traditions were that my grandmother would take fireworks, new clothes because they're giving clothes to everyone and you're receiving new clothes, and keep it in the family altar along with the sweets. And we just couldn't wait for the day to begin. I mean - and I can't imagine now waking up at two or three in the morning to do it, but it was so much fun.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's take another call here from another celebrant. We're speaking with Shruti(ph) who is calling from Fremont, California. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SHRUTI: Hi.

LYDEN: Hi. Happy Diwali.

SHRUTI: Happy Diwali to you. So I was actually listening to your guest, and there's one tradition that me and my family back in India and even here we try to maintain, and that's something that, you know, we - the day of Diwali, we get up early in the morning, and our entire family has to have an oil bath. And we actually have a proper bath all before sunrise. And legend has it that if you do this on the day of Diwali you're guaranteed a spot in heaven. It's supposed to, you know, wash away all your sins.

And your guest might be familiar (unintelligible) means hell. I don't know. I mean, we've just - it's - over the years, generations together in my family have woken up early and had a bath, hoping we all go to heaven.

(LAUGHTER)

SHRUTI: That's our tradition that we try to keep even here. The kids have had an early morning, and I'm sure they'll go to bed early tonight.

LYDEN: Thank you, Shruti. That's a lovely experience. Let's take another call here. Rachel is calling from Denver, Colorado. And Happy Diwali. I'm now going to call it Diwali.

RACHEL: Happy Diwali. I - my husband and I adopted a little girl from India about 10 year ago now and had to start learning about all the holidays. And Diwali has turned into our family's very favorite holiday of all. My favorite part is making the mango leaf. I just finished doing that, as a matter of fact.

LYDEN: And what is that?

RACHEL: It's a painting outside your door, traditionally rice flower. I didn't happen to use that this time. But - and it invites the Goddess Lakshmi to come into your house and bless you with a prosperous new year. And then I also, at dark, well, put the lights out. My daughter and I will light them outside. And it's just become a very special holiday for the three of us and...

LYDEN: Well, thanks so much for sharing that, Rachel.

RACHEL: Well, I have to tell you that my daughter's favorite part is the cashew fudge, though.

LYDEN: Cashew fudge. Do you have any - that sounds delicious. Any special treats in your family, Vasu?

NARAYANAN: Oh, yeah. In South India, apart from the treats, there's this particular dish called Deepavali legiyam. It's really supposed to be a medicinal sweet, which is supposed to be a digestive one. And this particular sweet - or you should say (unintelligible) treat it was - is made only in this time of the year, and the ingredients for it are sold by herbal companies in south India. And I wish I could - I really wanted to get a little bit of that coming here, but it's a specialized treat that's only made in Tamil Nadu and the people in Karnataka in Bangalore, there are not too many places selling it.

I must say that most of the sweets are made at home when I was growing up, but they've outsourced it to the different companies now. And so we go out and buy large packages of them. In North India, they give packets of dry sweets, dry fruits and nuts too - and corporations order hundreds of these boxes to be given out as gifts to executives too. So it's a time of gift giving of sweets, of dry fruits, of many clothes to friends and family.

It's also a time when some people in India, in Gujarat celebrate new year, and that comes the day after Deepavali itself. As I said, it's a progressive festival, starting with the 13th day of the reigning moon and the culmination is on Deepavali, the new moon day, today. And then it goes on for a couple of days in other parts of India.

LYDEN: Well, you've given us something else to celebrate. And since you've been away, I bet you have a lot to do at home in Florida.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: So, Vasu Narayanan, really, Happy Diwali, and it's wonderful to have you with us. Vasu Narayanan is a distinguished professor of religion at the University of Florida, and she joined us from a studio there. Thank you so much for being with us today.

NARAYANAN: Thank you so much, Jacki. And may your life be filled with light.

LYDEN: And may yours as well. May it glow.

NARAYANAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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