Diwali: The Gold Standard of a Festival

By Bal Ram Singh, PhD 

Festivals come with flavors depending on the region, and sometimes in the same region, those flavors are different for different families. These even include the beginning of their calendars. Diwali is one of those festivals that serves many purposes, especially with its five-day line up of the event, starting with Dhanateraus, going through Naraka Chaturdashi, Diwali, Gobardhan Puja, and ending with Yama Dwitiya.

Interestingly, Diwali celebrations start with Dhanteras (13th day of dark night or krishna paksha), is celebrated for the god of life, that is Lord Dhavantari, and these end with the Yam Dwitiya, for the god of death, the Lord Yamaraj. So, Diwali in essence is part of the celebrations of the life and death, and all that comes in between –  the fear, the fun, and the fondness in life.

Everything starts with the beginning of life, the life that has healthy body and mind. A healthy person has a better bet riding over rough spots on the way. And that may include overcoming even Yama at the end, after all. Therefore, let’s begin with the understanding of Dharteras of Dhanvatari.

  • The word dhanus is only indicative, and denotes the science of surgery. The one who has seen the end (anta) of it is Dhanvantari.

  • The word dhanvan means desert. (Compare RigVeda [V.36.1] dhanvachara meaning, he who moves in a desert). There is a mantra in the Veda: dhanvan iva prapaasi (O Lord! You are like the place where water is distributed to travellers in a desert.)

  • Thus Dhanvantari, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, with a pot of nectar in his hand is like prapaa (oasis) in the desert of worldly existence.

Ayurveda is an integrated science that comes along with the nectar of life that comes only upon churning by the negative and positive forces. Ayurveda apparently created before the creation of mankind, and something that is believed to appear with Lord Dhavantari after the ocean churning by devas and asuras. Devas were able to consume the Amrit or the nectar to achieve the immortality, and the Ayurveda is still available to mankind to live a healthy life. Dhanteras provides a perfect occasion to renew our interest in healthy life through Ayurveda and appreciate Lord Dhanvatari and his knowledge.

The true meaning of dhan is only life, as when the life ends, it is usually referred to as nidhan when someone dies. In Bhagvasgita, it is said that,

Swadharme Nidhanam Shreyash Pardharmo Bhayawaha (BG 3.35)

Meaning – it is better to die following one’s dharma, as following someone else’s dharma is scary. Dharma here means something natural, which would the prakrit-dosha of Ayurveda that is someone is born with. When there is a deviates from the prakriti, then it is referred to as vikriti or the diseased state.

The day after Dhanteras is the Narakachaturdashi, referring to the 14th day of the dark-nights of the Kartika month, and it is believed that on this day a demon by the name Narka was slayed by Krishna, Kali, and Satyabhama, and in that process Narka realized the truth about life at the end of his life. Thus, this is celebrated to appreciate the end of bad things in us by realizing the truth when the end of the bad things come.

On the day of Kartik amawashya or the dark-night, Diwali is celebrated for the victory of good over evils. The strings of diyas (or lamps), referred to as Diwali, represent overcoming of the darkness of ignorance with the light of wisdom.

The celebration of Diwali has many stories behind it, but the most common one is the return of Bhagwan Ram after his exile for 14 years, during which time he killed the demon king Ravana. It is also celebrated for the appearance of Lakshmi during the Samudra Manthan. Therefore, Lakshmi puja is an essential element of Diwali celebration at least in Hindu households.

Most Indian festivals have seasonal flavor, and are around harvest seasons. India’s climate being the most benevolent on this earth, hosting six seasons, with generally at least three crops a year. This provides a perfect backdrop for many seasonal and harvest inspired festivals.

In the United States, and also in Europe, the season is generally divided into winter and non-winter, although the non-winter season is called spring and fall, which is equivalent to sowing/planting and harvesting. Thus, fall season is a traditional time of harvest and festival, which matches perfectly with Diwali season in India. 

In India, Diwali celebrations traditionally are carried out in individual households, but together by the entire community in villages, towns, cities, in fact, the entire country. However, in the United States the Indian community generally celebrates it together, as a community, although individual households may perform their Diwali puja individually. Some among the Indian diaspora actually put up their lights at Diwali and keep them through Christmas till Makar Sankranti in January.

Diwali is a major occasion traditionally for India’s business community, for a variety of reasons, including beginning of the new fiscal year, and sale of gold during the Diwali festival. Women, as this tradition still continues at least in the rural India, for people who have yet to be educated in the art of stock market or brokerage. Interestingly, the word for those practicing the latter is dalal, a term which still harbors a less than respectable connotation, although many people do not actually know that the MBA degree waving crowd is in fact nothing but an Anglicized version of dalals.

While many such dalal intellectuals deride the household holding of gold mostly as jewelleries (according a 2019 report in Financial Times, it was worth $1.14 trillion, over 40% of India’s GDP that year), gold is not just a means of money, but in Indian tradition it is a standard of purity and almost a yogic non-reactivity or a nobility. India is the king of gold, it imports nearly 900 tons of gold annually, and it doesn’t go unnoticed even by US scientific companies like ThermoFisher Scientific, which put out an article entitled, “Diwali: The Festival of Lights and Sparkling Gold” on its blog exhorting people to buy its equipment and services for ensuring the purity.

Indian families in US also are in heavy buying of gold, although the grip of pure gold is a bit loosening. 24 karat (or 22 for jewellery) is the standard. While business experts would perhaps like the money for their stock and bond, instead of gold, but no one likes to be stocked or bonded, no one likes to be broke, but gold standards are available as standards in every field, every walks of life, and in every era or yuga.

Balram Singh is a Professor and the President of the Institute of Advanced Sciences, Dartmouth, Massachusetts, researching Ayurveda, Yoga, Vedic education, and Vedic social and political traditions. He is also adjunct faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.

Images courtesy of RMSI, Spiritual Blog and Provided

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