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October 25, 2005 > Deepavali, a celebration of diversity and renewal

Deepavali, a celebration of diversity and renewal

by Sunil Dhar

As a Hindu and an American, Deepavali has always been important for me - it is a part of my religion and culture, a celebration of a link to the country of my birth. This year it will be celebrated on Nov. 1.

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Deepavali is the common term used throughout India to denote this holy day. The title comes from the Sanskrit "Deepawali" Deepa meaning light, wali meaning row, hence row of lights or as it is otherwise known festival of lights. People will light 'diyas' or lights of oil, or oil lamps. This is done by using a small brass plates or tiered plates as a lamp and putting oil or ghee (clarified butter) in the clay plates and adding a wick. People light diyas every morning for puja (prayer), and keep them lit all day and night throughout Deepavali.

The lights symbolize the triumph of good over evil. In some parts of India it is celebrated as the defeat of Kali (a fierce and complex goddess), or the defeat of Narakasura (a demon), or it is a celebration of the return of Rama after vanquishing the demon Ravana (Ramayana). All over India people clean their homes and light lamps to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. They decorate houses, set off small firecrackers and invite near and dear ones to their households for a sumptuous feast. The lighting of lamps is a way of paying obeisance to god for attainment of health, wealth, knowledge, peace, valor and fame.

Symbolizing unity in diversity, Deepavali is celebrated in each state in its own special way. The Malayalees (people from the state of Kerala) celebrate Onam instead of Deepavali. Onam is celebrated in memory of King Mahabali, a benevolent ruler of Kerala. During Onam, it is believed that the King returns to Kerala to visit his people. This year, Onam celebrations in Kerala began on September 15th.

People ready themselves for Deepavali months in advance. There is excitement all around as people celebrate life and wish each other well. The firecrackers (not big ones like Americans see during July 4th celebrations, but much smaller hand held types) begin a month in advance, and near the time of Deepavali it is not even possible to think of walking outside without them bursting all around. Deepavali is like Christmas for Americans. The pujas go on for a week or more, but in America it is celebrated for a day or two.

In India and the U.S., a common practice is to buy new clothes as gifts. It doesn't have to be "Indian" clothes, it can be whatever the person likes and it isn't usually wrapped. If you want to present it in a holy way, dab your finger in turmeric and place this on the corners of the folds of the garment. It may stain, so it is usually placed on bottom hems. If presenting the gift to elderly Indians, it is a good idea to bend down on your knees and touch their feet with your hands as a sign of respect. In addition, offer the gift in the right hand with left hand on the bottom or do not use the left hand. Usually, Indians in the U.S. won't take offense to the use of the left hand, since they know the customs here, but in India that is not always the case. Other nice offerings on Deepavali include sweets, jewelry, or other household fabrics like towels, linens or blankets.

So on November 1, get ready to celebrate and wish each other well. Share gifts with those you know and donate to help those you do not know. You do not have to be a Hindu to celebrate life and to enjoy the moment. Light a few candles and place them on the window sill of your house to tell everyone that you too want good to triumph over evil.

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