By Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya
While Americans blow out the candles on their birthday, Indians pay reverence to the symbolism of the flame. Over 10,000 years, when dark nights seemed to bring the darkness of energy, spirit, and action, the flame was the symbol of hope, faith, and of perseverance. It is funny that westerners casually blow out the very flame that dispels darkness.
Many thousand years ago, soldiers returned from war, often traveling through the night to get home faster or to arrive before the weather turned unfavorable. Such was the dark night of the no-moon or new moon known as Amavasya in the month of Kartika, just around the autumn equinox. Rama was returning from Sri Lanka with his wife back to the land of his birth, Ayodhya. The war represents the symbolic fight of good over evil, with Rama defeating king Ravana to win back his captured wife. There are several versions of the story of the journey – ‘ayana’ of Rama, called the Ramayana.
Rama and Sita represent the union of the divine masculine and divine feminine, which together maintain the balance of all energies in the universe. Ravana is the darkness that erupts when the ego grows, and Ayodhya is that safe sanctuary deep within us that is beyond all threats of challenges. Deepavali is the symbolic aura and glow of health, wealth, and wisdom when the masculine and feminine energies within each of us return to each other. On this night, we should feel ‘found’, as we return to the innate wisdom inside where the majestic realm of wholeness and foundness reminds us who we truly are.
East of Rama’s route, the same night is also celebrated for Kaali. Just over 120 years ago, from Benaras to Burma, and from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the entire region was known as Bengal. Unknown to many is the fact that the night of Deepavali was also the night that the ancient energies of Shiva and his female divine side, Kali appeared and were united.
Kaali represents complete darkness from which there is no return, just as there is no return from the time of the past. Time is compassionate in that it includes everyone regardless of stature or state. It takes our material selves forward regardless of our mentality. Kaali is thus compassionate to vagabonds and kings, thieves and servicemen, and all beings. The annual Kaali midnight puja in Bengali houses is a meditation on the most disturbed and the most serene, with rituals devoted to remembering that we are all slaves of Time.
Today, the celebration of the journey of Rama in the central regions of India does not culminate in a pensive reverent dark holy night of lighting ghee in cotton wicks placed in earthen lamps called Diya or Deepa, to produce auras of protection and celebration.
Traditionally, six Ayurvedic rituals frame these 5 days of the waning moon leading to the dark moon night of the month of Kartika, known as Deepavali, which has devolved into the sloppy pronunciation of Diwali. Done with understanding, the true importance of Deepavali in its spirit and meaning can be known and reawakened in our future descendants.
A key element of this multi-day festival is Dhanteras, two days before the Amavasya of Diwali. Dhanteras occurs on the thirteenth day of the kṛṣṇa paksha, which is the waning phase of the moon. Dhanteras is also known as Dhanwantari Triodasi or Dhantrayodashi. Two days before Diwali, people remember and honor the healing energy inside them.
Dhanvantari is the lead energy of Ayurveda and was the first divine energy to impart the wisdom of healing to humans. He appeared on this day. The shastras whisper, “one who remembers the name of Dhanvantari can be released from all disease.”
This refers to our innate ability to heal if we can remember that we hold the wisdom of self-healing inside of us. Dhanvantari is worshipped as the God of Medicine. Throughout India, there are stories of physicians named Dhanvantari who embodied this ability to heal and taught Ayurveda to the sages during the Vedic age.
Clean your house
The first ritual on Dhanteras is to buy a reed broom called a jharu. Symbolically, by cleaning our home, we clean our mind of accumulated dirt of the shad-ripus: kama, krodha, moha, mada, matsarya, and lobha.
Buy or bring in something new made of precious metal
During Dhanteras day, we should buy something symbolic of the strongest aspect of our body, which is dhatu, or metal. Dhatu also symbolizes strength and permanence. Symbolically, by bringing in a metal item, we ground our bodily home sthana for our mind to have a safe space and a sanctuary from where we can generate hope and acquire new positive thoughts.
Share and eat grounding foods
During the days before and on Deepavali, we share things that ground the body with strength. Rice, milk, wheat, ghee, pulses, fruits, and fruit-nuts are the most strengthening foods for the human body, so we gift and share them. We visit the homes of our neighbors, loved ones, and those who share our lives and bring sweets to ground their lives, particularly those recently ill or downtrodden.
Do Lakshmi Puja
On Dhanteras day, we pray for the deepening of our spiritual wealth. As strong health is the strongest wealth, the rituals of Dhanteras also celebrate Goddess MahaLakshmi, who was also born on the same day. We offer her healthy sweet foods and the best from our garden.
The government of India declared Dhanvantari Jayanti as National Ayurveda Day, so ayurvedic vaidyas also spend some of the days studying the wisdom of Ayurveda or making medicines.
Light a Diya pointing N-NE
At dusk, during the five days leading to Deepavali but especially during Dhanteras muhurta – 48 minutes after the sun sets, a lamp pointing toward North by North-East is lit at the doorstep of the house to welcome Lord Dhanvantari for health and happiness in life. As we light the lamp, let us remember the gift of knowledge and spread it.
Make some noise
On Deepavali, as Rama is the symbol of virtue and is returning with his family home, as he arrives near our door, we hope he will enter. The spiritual vibration of virtue and goodness, kindness and compassion coming into our home blesses it with warmth and protects it from the darkness. To remind him where we are, we send sounds into the ether in the form of music, bells, horns, and now in modern times, firecrackers. The modern symbolism is to see the firecracker as our ego. As we burst our ego, we bring peace to the world around us.
We also chant, “tamaso maa jyotirgamaya” – lead me from the anarchy of darkness into the light, from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.3.28).
Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya