November 3 through 7 marks the celebration of one of the most important Indian holidays—Divali, or Deepavali, in Sanskrit—the Festival of Lights. Deepa means a lamp and avali means a row, so Deepavali literally means “a row of lamps.” Traditionally rows of small clay oil lamps are lit in houses to signify the triumph of Light over Darkness.
Divali celebrates the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya after their 14 years of exile and Rama’s defeat of the demon king Ravana. Rama and Sita are believed to be human incarnations of Vishnu and Lakshmi. During their 14 years of exile in the forest, Rama and Sita endure many trials and tribulations, most significantly Sita’s abduction by Ravana.
With the assistance of his devoted servant Hanuman, Rama is able to locate Sita and rescue her after killing Ravana. In every human incarnation there is darkness to overcome. Divali symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. Rama and sita represent Divine consciousness—the pure, infinite, eternal light within us known as the Atman. Ravana symbolizes the darkness of arrogance, greed, and lust that obscures this inner light. Hanuman personifies the perfect sadhaka—the ideal blend of the body, mind, and heart. He embodies the three vital essences of Prana, Tejas, and Ojas which provide energy, intelligence, strength, valor, endurance, and devotion. With Hanuman’s help we can defeat the powers of darkness and reawaken the light within us.
The most important of the Divali rituals is the Lakshmi Puja which is celebrated on the new moon in Ashwin (November 5th this year). This is the Lunar New Year and marks the end of the harvest season. Farmers give thanks for the bounty of the Earth and pray for a good harvest in the year to come. Businesses dependent upon the agrarian cycle, and many that are not, close their accounts on this day. Lakshmi symbolizes prosperity and her blessings are invoked for a good year ahead.
Houses are scrubbed clean (Lakshmi likes cleanliness), new clothes are purchased, gifts are exchanged, sweets are offered, and lamps are lit to welcome Lakshmi. Amidst the chanting of Vedic hymns, a blaze of light descends as the golden footed Lakshmi descends to Earth in all her celestial glory. The living luminescence of Universal Motherhood envelopes the entire world in that blessed moment and the sublime light of knowledge and devotion dawns upon humanity. It is believed that on this day Lakshmi walks the Earth and showers her blessings on humanity for abundance and prosperity.
Joseph Cambell once said that one thing that robs life of its potential richness is the lack of ritual. He went on to say that there is no inherent meaning in any ritual, that whatever meaning a ritual has is the meaning we bring to it. India is a country rich in rituals, a place where a lot of emphasis is placed on honoring the invisible energies that keep the Universe running smoothly. It is easy to curse the darkness. It takes a little more energy to light a lamp. The choice is ours.