[dropcap]D[/dropcap]ipawali, arguably the most popular of all Hindu festivals, is also the festival of lights and is traditionally celebrated on the new moon night of the lunisolar month of Kartika. On this day, people decorate their homes with colorful rangolis, light diyas and lamps, burst crackers at night, and distribute sweets among themselves to celebrate the festive occasion. Let’s look at some of the mythological stories associated with Diwali.
In many parts of north India, it is believed that on this day Lord Rāma, the protagonist of the earliest Sanskrit epic Ramayana, returned to his kingdom of Ayodhya along with Sitā and Lakshmana after having defeated Rāvana and his army. The residents of Ayodhya, who were eagerly waiting for Rama’s return, had lit the whole city with lighted clay lamps signifying the triumph of good and auspiciousness over evil. That is how the tradition of lighting diyas came into existence.
The night before the new moon of Diwali is known as Naraka Chaturdasi, and herein lies a mythological story, too. The story starts at an ancient time when the mighty Varaha avatara had incarnated to rescue the earth from the primordial waters into which the demon Hiranyakashya had hid her. After rescuing the earth, Bhudevi, Varaha fathered a son with her named Naraka, who defeated the last danava — a class of Titanic beings — king and established the kingdom of Pragjyotishpura, or Assam. The legend of Naraka finds much importance in the Kamarupa (Kamrup today) area of Assam near the famous Kamakhya temple. It is believed that eventually Narakasura became a powerful tyrant, blessed as he was by the Varaha avatara himself, and soon he established and reigned around the temple of Kamakhya and acquired innumerable supernatural abilities. Intoxicated by his own invincibility, Naraka had also captured 16,000 women and kept them as captives. The gods led by Indra approached Vishnu for help, who promised that Naraka will meet his end when Vishnu’s eighth incarnation appeared on earth. Finally during the Dwapara Yuga, Krshna appeared, and circumstances led to a clash between them.
A furious battle was fought between Naraka with his army of 11 akshauhini and Lord Krshna. The latter however destroyed Naraka’s army with ease, slaughtered his general named Mura, thus gaining the epithet Murari, and eventually cut off Narakasura’s head with his Sudarshana chakra.
Before his death, however, Naraka managed to sneak a boon from Krshna — that his death will be remembered across the earth and celebrated by all. This thus became known to posterity as Naraka Chaturdasi — the night before Diwali — and thus became associated with the festivities of Diwali.
[stextbox id=”info”]An akshauhini is described in the Mahabharata as a battle formation consisting of 21,870 chariots (Sanskrit ratha); 21,870 elephants; 65,610 cavalry and 109,350 infantry as per the Mahabharata (Adi Parva 2.15-23). The ratio is 1 chariot : 1 elephant : 3 cavalry : 5 infantry soldiers. In each of these large number groups (65,610, etc.), the digits add up to 18.[/stextbox]
On the day of Diwali it is customary across India to worship the lord of new beginnings, Ganesha, and the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi. It is not sure how this tradition started, but some opine that it may have something to do with the marking of a new beginning, as all pratipada (the first day in each half of the lunar month) tithis potentially do — in this case more so as the confluence of the sun and moon happen in the zodiac sign of Tula (Libra) which is, in astrological terms, ruled by the graha Shukra who, apart from being a Guru, also represents Goddess Lakshmi.
However, in Bengal, Assam and parts of Bihar, the new moon night is celebrated as the night to worship that extreme form of the Mother Goddess known as Kali.
Some scholars are of the opinion that at an ancient time there existed a tradition of worship parallel to the Brahminical, Upanishadic traditions. This tradition was shamanistic in character, worshiping ancestor spirits, trees, natural forces, often involving the use of things considered outside of the pale of mainstream religion like using objects collected from charnel grounds, alcohol, meat, sacrifices etc.
The chief deity of this tradition was known as Shyama, who was known as the primordial force of the Universe. Shyama eventually branched out into Chandi, Kali, Tara and rest of the Mahavidya goddesses. Kali Puja became a popular and mass celebration, as opposed to being a secluded practice of sadhakas as it used to be, from the time of Raja Krshnachandra of Navadwip. The poet-seeker Ramprasad was a contemporary of Krshnachandra and member of his court.
Eventually, of course, with the advent of Ramakrshna, Kali became an easily accessible name in Bengali households.
[stextbox id=”info”]Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.[/stextbox]
Though the iconography of Kali may appear terrifying to an untrained eye, it is replete with exquisite nuances. She is depicted with three eyes, naked, wearing a garland of skulls, stepping on a supine Shiva, Her tongue lolling-out, and Her hair falling in a cascade, holding a scimitar in one hand, a severed head in another, and displaying the signs of granting fearlessness and boons. In the most popular Tantric interpretation — after all, She is a primary deity of the Tantras — the number of skulls that go into her mundamala is 51, representing the total number of Sanskrit alphabets. In other words, this was a way of representing Her unmatched control over anything that can be captured in human language. Wittgenstein had famously remarked that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”. The Tantric practitioners knew this dictum well; not only that, they applied it to practicalities of sadhana and, therefore, referred to the goddess as Matrikarupini — of the form of letters.
Her unclothed body was referred to as digambara — or sky clad. Her unkempt hair was considered a representation of Her infinite energy percolating into the very fabric of the world as we know it. This is better understood when compared to some depictions of the goddess whose hair is tied in a knot, like Ekajata Tara. A tied hair represents a marshalling of single-pointed concentration for Yogic uplift; an unkempt hair represents a free flowing of energy into manifestation. The lelihana mudra is used to depict Kali’s lolling, blood-dripping tongue, which stands as a symbol of a Tantrica purification process known as rakta-shuddhi.
Rakta, the Sanskrit word for blood, also means attached, and from the similar root comes the word virakta, dispassion. In Sanskrit, no word is ever randomly chosen. It is believed that blood carries the maximum amount of prana in the human mind-body complex. Thus, rakta or blood, when impure in a yogic sense, which would be the case for most human beings, is also considered the cause of undue attachments and desires. Rakta-shuddi is the process by which the goddess purifies the blood of attachment and frees the awareness of the seeker. On a superficial level, it also indicates one who can accept an offering of blood. There is no reason to be grossed out by this, for Hinduism in its entirety leaves out no aspect of the divine, however macabre or terrifying it may sound. In fact, the very Vaishnava Lord Krshna form of Vishwarupa was neither happy nor pleasant to Arjuna. That death is a constant reality is something which only the Hindus have been able to assimilate into their worldview in a most sublime fashion.
There are, of course, many forms of Kali with iconographic differences as well as ritualistic differences in their manner of worship, but that would be beyond the scope of this article.
The actual worship of Kali starts after sunset on the new moon night of Diwali and ends before next day sunrise. In Tantra, this night is specially referred to as kalaratri and considered among the four most potent nights, apt for certain kinds of spiritual practices. It is not a coincidence that the ancient pagan ritual of Halloween is never far from the date of Kalaratri — for both deal with a period of the year when it is believed that the veil between the world of the seen and the unseen becomes thin and easily breakable.
Dipawali is undoubtedly the most popular pan-India festival. Whether one looks at it as an opportunity for new auspicious beginnings starting with the worship of Ganesha and Lakshmi, or remembers the story of Krshna slaying Naraka, or Rama returning to Ayodhya, or one chooses to meditate over the terrifying image of Goddess Kali, there is always a reason to be happy and feel blessed on this festival of lights.