On Sunday, November 3, Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs worldwide marked the beginning of the five-day-long celebration of light known as Diwali or Deepavali. As Diwali approaches, many Hindu families buy new clothing and clean and decorate their homes to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth (both material and spiritual). Westerners might think of Diwali as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Hanukkah all rolled into one sparkling week of feasts, prayers, fireworks, decorations, and gifting.
The festival of Diwali stretches back to the ancient Ramayana epic. When the exiled ruler Ram returned to his kingdom after destroying the demon Ravana and rescuing Sita, he was welcomed with rows of burning lamps. Over the centuries, this festival also became associated with harvest and abundance, a time of giving thanks, and it spread to all regions of India and to non-Hindus, who associated the holiday with significant events from their own traditions. Today, Diwali is celebrated in many countries throughout world, including Great Britain and the U.S.
I’ve met many yoga students who prefer not to be reminded of yoga’s cultural roots or who are generally uncomfortable with spiritual references, but the deepest meaning of Diwali is universally understood. At its heart, Diwali celebrates the triumph of light (goodness, wisdom, hope) over darkness (evil, ignorance, despair). The image most strongly associated with Diwali is the deepa (a clay lamp), lit and arranged in rows (awali), a symbol of the light within each of us.
As yogis, our aim is to “lighten up,” purifying the body through asana, pranayama, and other practices. As the veil of ignorance lifts, we see the bright light within—the true self or Atman. This is the light we acknowledge when we greet each other by saying “Namaste.” We might save the candles and gifts for a holiday more familiar to our own family traditions, such as Kwanzaa or Christmas, but as we enter the darker months of winter, we welcome light and warmth into our lives. Similarly, when we experience darkness in our lives, we seek the light of clarity and wisdom—that’s a universal message for all seasonal celebrations.
How are you celebrating this time of year?