What Is Diwali? Meaning of the Hindu Festival of Lights

diwali oil lamp

Diwali is the "festival of lights" and is the major holiday in the Hindu religion dating back more than 2,000 years. Today, Diwali is not only celebrated in India, but also across the Indian diaspora. Learn about the origins of this five-day colorful and festive holiday and the meaning of Diwali.

Meaning of Diwali

The word Diwali comes from Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language. The word is derived from the Sanskrit word Dipavali; dip means "light" and avali means "rows." In effect, Diwali means rows of lights, the prevalent way the holiday is commemorated. Hindus decorate their homes with rows of colorful clay oil lamps.

Decorated Diwali lights

Core tenets of Hinduism are learning and doing good to others. As such, Diwali represents the victory of knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and light over darkness. Therefore, regardless of your religious affiliation, you can celebrate the holiday in order to honor these themes. In fact, Diwali is such a large holiday in India that non-Hindus partake in the celebrations, much like how non-Christians in the US often have a Christmas tree in their homes.

Religious Significance of Diwali

Diwali is the most significant holiday in India. Different regions in India have their own version of the story about how Diwali originated. In the north of India, Hindus believe that Lord Rama (an incarnation of the Hindu protector god Vishnu) rescued his wife Sita who had been kidnapped by the evil Sri Lankan king Ravana. People then welcomed Rama and Sita by lighting their path so they could find their way home.

In the southern part of India, Hindus believe that Krishna (another incarnation of Vishnu) freed a group of girls and women from another evil king. In the western Indian states, such as Gujrat, their New Year transpires alongside Diwali. Therefore, they mostly associate the holiday with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. And in the eastern part of India, Hindus associate Diwali with the goddess Kali who symbolizes the victory of good over evil.

Hindu goddess Lakshmi

Five Festive Days

The festival of Diwali begins somewhere between the middle of October and the middle of November and lasts for five days. It is kicked-off during the darkest day of the year according to the Indian calendar. It is also a way of marking the end of the fall harvest and the start of the winter months, hence the oil lamps for lighting and warmth.

Day 1: Dhanteras

The first day of the festival consists of the ritual cleaning of the home and decorating parts of the home with rangoli designs made from flowers and colored sand and rice. Indians clean and decorate their homes and keep the windows and doors open as a way to welcome the goddess Lakshmi for wealth and prosperity. As such, Dhan means wealth and teras means thirteenth, marking the thirteenth day of the darkest fortnight and the first day of Diwali. Therefore, it is also customary on this day to purchase small items of gold.

rangoli design

Day 2: Naraka Chaturdashi

This day celebrates Lord Krishna's destruction of the demon Narakasura and freeing 16,000 girls and women he imprisoned. This is also a day during which Hindus pray to their ancestors. Also on Naraka Chaturdashi, people purchase or make festive sweets, visit family and friends, and exchange gifts.

Krishna Statue Against Blue Sky

Day 3: Lakshmi Puja

This is the most significant and official day of Diwali, and is an official holiday in India. This is the day on which people decorate their homes with lit divas, or clay lamps filled with oil. Today, electric lights like Christmas lights are also used. Celebrants wear new, or their best, clothes and jewelry in preparation for puja, or ritual, performed in honor of the goddess Lakshmi. It is also customary on this day for younger members of the family to visit their grandparents and other elder members of the community.

family making floral rangoli for Diwali celebration

Day 4: Govardhan Puja

This day is also known as Padwa and is New Year's Day on the Indian calendar. Traditionally, the bond between wife and husband is celebrated on this day. In some regions, husbands will give their wives gifts and in other regions, families will invite newlyweds to their homes and treat them with gifts and a festive meal.

In various regions of India, Hindus honor Lord Krishna saving farmlands from flooding. He is believed to accomplish this by lifting the Govardhan mountain with just his pinky finger, hence the day also being named Govardhan Puja.

Day 5: Bhai Duj

Bhai Duj literally means "brother's day." It celebrates the brother and sister bond. Some interpret the significance of this day as Lord Krishna visiting his sister Subhadra after defeating the demon Narakasura. On this day brothers usually travel to visit their sisters and their families. Sisters perform the ritual of feeding their brothers by hand a couple of bites of food and receive gifts from their brothers in return.

Festival of Food

In addition to being a festival of lights, Diwali is also very much a festival of various tasty foods. Usually, celebrants eat sweet and savory snacks during the day and then in the evening, a full meal.

Diwali food

Snacks

Some common sweets enjoyed during Diwali include:

  • Karanji - a coconut fritter made by rolling out flour dough in a small circle, putting a coconut mixture down the middle, folding it over into the shape of a half moon and finally, frying in oil
  • Laddu - made with semolina, sugar and milk solids and rolled and pressed into balls
  • Barfi - made from nuts such as cashews or pistachios and shaped into diamond bars that are often covered with incredibly thin layers of silver and gold
  • Shrikhand - made from milk and flavored with cardamum and saffron, it has a pudding-like texture
  • Kheer - rice pudding or pudding made from very thin and small semolina noodles, also flavored with cardamum and saffron
  • Gulab jamun - fried dumplings scented with cardamum and served in a rose- and saffron-flavored syrup

A few common savory snacks include:

  • Batata vada - fried potato fritters served with spicy mint chutney
  • Samosa - fried potato fritters that are seasoned a bit differently and shaped in triangles
  • Chokoli - made from a dough of lentil flour, pressed out into a spiral shape and fried
Person with platter of Diwali sweets

The Diwali Meal

The traditional Diwali meal varies from region to region in India. In the western state of Maharashtra, a typical meal consists of:

  • Puri - small round pieces of fried bread
  • Biryani - spicy vegetable rice
  • Batata bhaji - a potato curry
  • Papad - thin sheets of lentil that are fried

For dessert, shrikhand, gulab jamun or kheer is served. However, these sweets are served along with the other dishes, not at the end of the meal as in many other cultures.

Light the Way

Life is not easy for anyone, and festive celebrations provide fun and comfort during the colder months. Light can also represent hope amidst the darkness, so elongate your holiday season by celebrating Diwali and adding a "festival of lights" to your home.

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What Is Diwali? Meaning of the Hindu Festival of Lights