Holy days are a common occurrence in India, since nearly every day is considered holy somewhere in the country. Some holy days are limited to a particular region, others are pan-Indian, while a few also connect the multiple religious traditions that have their origins in the land -- Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikkhism. The most known and most popular of the latter is Diwali. It brings together a variety of disparate religious and cultural traditions and beliefs, as well as historical events. Commonly referred to in English as the "Festival of Lights," it is not only celebrated all over India, but it has been carried to all the lands where Indians have migrated as well.
Because of the close association of the day with Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth, she is typically integrated into all the Hindu Diwali festivities. Nevertheless, among the many reasons Hindus give for the day's significance, one of the most popular comes from the Ramayana, arguably the most read Hindu scripture in all of north India today. It relates the earthly life of the divine as Lord Rama.
In the story, just as Rama is about to be crowned king, his father is tricked into exiling him to the forest for 14 years. He is accompanied there by his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana. Near the end of the exile, the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, kidnaps Sita and imprisons her on his island. Rama, his brother, and his army of monkeys and bears build a bridge and cross over to Lanka, where a 10-day war is waged. On the 10th day of the combat, Rama kills the demon and cuts off his 10 heads. This battle is remembered in the nine day period of fasting known as Navaratri, followed by a celebration on the 10th day known as Dussehra (also "Dasara"). The first day of Navaratri is on the new moon of the month of Ashwin. Diwali is celebrated the following new moon to commemorate the return of Rama and Sita to their kingdom in Ayodhya after the defeat of the demon. Hindu householders typically prepare for the day by thoroughly cleaning their homes. New bedding may be bought and new clothing worn, while rows of lighted oil lamps or candles decorate homes, rooftops or courtyards to welcome back Rama and Sita. In the case of the latter, she is welcomed both as Rama's wife but also as a form of Lakshmi. Boxes of sweets are given to family, friends and neighbors.
Ascetics of the Ramananda Sampraday, the largest order of Hindu monks and devotees of Lord Rama, see it more as a time of prayer and reflection, and many begin their commemoration from the first day of Navaratri. Some will undertake a fast or food restriction for the entire month (from Navaratri to Diwali). Others will begin a fast on Rama Ekadashi, which occurs four days prior to Diwali. It is a day on which many Hindu householders fast as well. On the day preceding Diwali, Ramanandis commemorate the birth of Hanuman, the divine in the form of a monkey who represents selfless devotion, with prayers and chants. Again, many will fast in his honor. Like with householders, monks will clean their temples or abodes in preparation for Diwali, and they spend the day itself chanting prayers and singing religious songs.
On one level, the holiday represents the return of Rama and Sita to the kingdom of Ayodhya, and some of their chants recall this. On a deeper level for them, it symbolizes the reawakening of truth and righteousness (Rama) and of light (Sita) that have gone dormant in those who have become too attached to the material world. Unlike the Abrahamic religious traditions, Hindus believe that our essence and original nature is marked by purity, not sin. Thus, the removal of ignorance and unrighteousness in our lives is simply a return to our natural and inherent state. Since Diwali occurs when the darkened moon is about to once again reflect light, it is a sacred moment to recall this reawakening. Significantly, the following day is another holy day known as Anakut. On this day, some temples will make 52 different kinds of food to offer to the divine, and then to feed the poor as a way of acknowledging the blessings of Lakshmi.
Many Hindus also celebrate Diwali to celebrate Lord Krishna's killing of Narakasura and setting free 16,000 maidens the demon had imprisoned. In Bengal, special rituals and prayers are offered to the Goddess Kali, the destroyer of the demons of ignorance.
Jains believe that Lord Mahavira, the traditional founder of their religion, gained final liberation on that day, and they light oil lamps or candles in honor of the light and wisdom he brought to the world.
Buddhists commemorate Emperor Ashoka's conversion to Buddhism on this day, and adorn temples with oil lamps and other decorations.
For Sikhs, the day recalls the release from prison of Guru Hargobind, the sixth of the 10 original religious leaders in their tradition, and of 52 Hindu kings who had also been jailed by the Muslim ruler, Jahangir.
Diwali, then, has many reasons to be celebrated, but what they have in common is the belief that the day, in one way or another, commemorates freedom from ignorance, darkness and evil, and an awakening, or reawakening, of light, goodness and wisdom.