"Why do we celebrate Diwali?" This is a question that many Hindu-Americans are asked during this time of year. Diwali, or Deepavali, literally means "row of lights," and most people do know of Diwali as the festival of lights. What they often don't understand is the symbolism behind the oil lamps, the fireworks, and the beautiful Rangoli sand art, all of which are hard to miss in most Hindu households on Diwali night.
The succinct answer to this question is, "We celebrate Diwali to commemorate the day when Lord Rama returned to his kingdom, the city of Ayodhya." Why all of the lights? Diwali, like the day Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya, is a new moon, a moonless night. In order to light his path in the pitch black, the residents of Ayodhya lit diyas (small oil lamps) lighting up the city in divine splendor. Tulasidas, the famous Hindu saint, describes:
The shining pinnacles [of white palaces] put to shame the effulgence of the sun and the moon. Latticed windows made of diverse precious stones shone here and there; while every house was lit up with jewels that served as lamps.
If you look at satellite images of India on Diwali night, you'll see his words hold true even today. But who was Rama? Why was he away from Ayodhya in the first place? And why the fanfare over his return?
Sri Rama was the eldest son of Dashrath, King of Ayodhya. He was also the most beloved of the city, especially of his father, and was set to take the throne. Kaikeyi, Rama's step-mother, loved Rama more than even her own son Bharat, but her maid Manthara twisted her mind against him, filling her with fear that if Rama were to become king she and her son would be forgotten.
Swayed by these insidious lies, Kaikeyi's mind was consumed by the idea of making Bharata king and sending Rama away to the forest, so that her son would hold onto the throne securely. Upon hearing Kaikeyi's demands, Dashratha was appalled; his grief knew no bounds. But he was sworn to give in -- for he had promised Kaikeyi whatever she wished in exchange for having saved his life on the battlefield many years ago. As Rama leaves for the forest, his heart is broken at seeing his beloved son banished and he passes away.
In the modern world, the lessons from this kaand of the Ramayan can be seen in families coming together to celebrate Diwali, just as Lakshmana -- Rama's brother -- and Sita, his wife, accompanied him into the forest of their own accord because they felt a sense of duty as family. During Diwali, I would often make rangolis -- a form of sand art -- with my mother and sister (much to my dismay, they were both always better!). On Diwali, we eat together, we pray together, and we excitedly launch rockets in the streets together -- and when they accidentally go into neighbor's homes, we even apologize together.
Another Diwali tradition is distributing sweets amongst friends. So it's safe to say that on Diwali, friends and family strive to recreate the spirit of togetherness embodied by not only Rama's return to Ayodhya but also the love shown by Lakshmana and Sita as they accompany Rama to the forest.
Skipping ahead a little bit in the story, we come to the character of Ravana -- the villain of the Ramayana. Ravana is perhaps the most learned and accomplished being in the Ramayana, but his one flaw triumphs all else -- his ego leads him to tyranny over his subjects. People are under his firm control out of fear of his awesome might; no one is free. Eventually, Ravana's ego takes full control of him and he resolves to challenge Sri Rama himself by kidnapping his beautiful wife Sita, bringing her back to Lanka.
Rama and Lakshmana gather an army of vaanars, or apes, to lead them into the island of Lanka so they can find Sita. After much battle, Ravana is finally slain. But even as his torso falls to the ground, in Tulasidas's Ramcharitamanas, he says, "Where is Rama, that I may challenge and slay him in battle?" Despite being on the threshold of death, Ravana's ego has so completely taken over him that he remains obsessed with beating his opponent and hatred for Ram, instead of remorse for his actions, occupies his heart.
In this way, the Ramayan epic -- a battle between Ravana and Rama -- can be thought of as a battle between our egos, our urges for control and manipulation, on the one hand; and humility, virtue, and love on the other. At the same time, it is no secret that the Ramayan epic has been a vehicle for external social change as well. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it seems appropriate to continue to search for ways to help others and come together as a community.
And that brings us full circle back to where we started -- Rama returns to Ayodhya from Lanka with Sita and Lakshamana by his side. he residents of Ayodhya, joyously celebrate the return of the rightful heir to the throne after 14 years. This explains, as I mentioned before, the Diwali tradition of lighting oil lamps and launching fireworks.
Diwali for me has always been something empowering: a time to reflect on all of the positives within our lives -- our loving friends and family, our good health, and prosperity -- and realize what it is truly important. For example, last year, hurtling toward the midterm in my reputedly impossible Mathematical Analysis class, going home to see my family on Diwali instantly took away my stress and reinvigorated me. As Diwali approaches, never lose faith in the fact that the Ramayana narrative will continue to play itself out -- that the good and virtuous shall always triumph over the evil and spiteful. That within each ourselves, our best, virtuous self will defeat the impulses of ego and tyranny. And for each Diwali that passes by, that in the loud noises and flashy lights, that we never forget why we celebrate this festival in the first place.
Happy Diwali! How are you celebrating Diwali this year? Share your story with us. Email your photos and reflections to us at email@example.com. Text submissions should be 300-400 words in length. We will accept them until Nov. 15, 2012. Check out our Diwali liveblog.