It is since ancient times that Diwali
has been celebrated. It is not easy to say now what really was the
reason behind its origin. Different people believe different events to
be the cause behind this festival. Here are ten mythical and historical
reasons that are possibly behind the Diwali (Deepavali) celebrations.
The most well known story behind Diwali is in the Ramayana, the great
Hindu epic. According to Ramayana, Rama, the prince of Ayodhya was
ordered by his father, King Dasharatha, to go away from his country and
come back after living in the forest for fourteen years. So Rama went on
exile with his devoted wife Sita and faithful brother, Lakshmana. When
Ravana, the demon king of Lanka abducted Sita and took her away to his
island kingdom of Lanka, Rama fought against and killed Ravana. He
rescued Sita and returned to Ayodhya after fourteen years. The people of
Ayodhya were very happy to hear of their beloved prince's homecoming. To
celebrate Rama's return to Ayodhya, they lit up their houses with
earthen lamps (diyas), burst crackers and decorated the entire city in
the grandest manner.
This is believed to have started the tradition of Diwali. Year after
year this homecoming of Lord Rama is commemorated on Diwali with lights,
fireworks, bursting of crackers and merriment. The festival gets its
name Deepawali, or Diwali, from the rows (avali) of lamps (deepa) that
the people of Ayodhya lit to welcome their King.
Another well known story related to Diwali history is narrated in the
other Hindu epic, ‘Mahabharata’.
Mahabharata reveals to us how the five royal brothers, the Pandavas,
suffered a defeat in the hands of their brothers, the Kauravas, in a game
of dice (gambling). As a rule imposed on them, the Pandavas had to serve
a term of 13 years in exile. When the period was over, they returned to
their birthplace Hastinapura on ‘Kartik Amavashya’ (the new moon day of
the Kartik month). The five Pandava brothers, their mother and their
wife Draupadi were honest, kind, gentle and caring in their ways and
were loved by all their subjects. To celebrate the joyous occassion of
their return to Hastinapura and to welcome back the Pandavas, the common
people illuminated their state by lighting bright earthen lamps
everywhere. The tradition is believed to have been kept alive through
the festival of Diwali, which many believe, is held in remembrance of
the Pandava brothers' homecoming.
It is also believed that on this very Diwali day, the Goddess of wealth,
Lakshmi rose up from the ocean. The Hindu scriptures tell us that long
long ago both Devas (gods) and Asuras (demons) were mortal. They had to
die sometime or other, like us. But they wanted to live forever. So they
churned the ocean to seek Amrita, the nectar of immortality (an event
mentioned in the Hindu scriptures as "Samudra-manthan"), during which
many divine objects came up. Prime among these was Goddess Lakshmi, the
daughter of the king of the milky ocean, who arose on the new moon day (amaavasyaa)
of the Kartik month. That very night, Lord Vishnu married her. Brilliant
lamps were illuminated and placed in rows to mark this holy occassion.
This event is supposed to have given rise to an annual celebration at
the same time each year. Even today, Hindus celebrate the birth of the
goddess Lakshmi and her marriage to Lord Vishnu on Diwali and seek her
blessings for the coming year.
The origin of Diwali also refers to the stories narrated in the Hindu
Puranas, the primary source of Hindu religious texts. According to the
Bhagavata Purana (the most sacred Hindu text), it was on a Kartik day
that Lord Vishnu, took on the form of a dwarf (Vaman-avtaara) and
defeated King Bali. Bali, or rather King Mahabali, was a powerful demon
king who ruled the earth. Once Bali got a boon from Lord Brahma that
made him unconquerable. Even gods failed to defeat him in battles.
Although a wise and good king otherwise, Mahabali was cruel to the Devas
(gods). Finding no way to defeat Bali, the Devas went to Lord Vishnu and
insisted him to find a way to stop Bali. Lord Vishnu made a plan. He
disguised himself as a short Brahmin and approached Bali for some
charity. A large-hearted king, Mahabali tried to help the Brahmin. But
the whole thing was a trick by Lord Vishnu and ultimately the King had
to give up all his kingship and wealth. Diwali celebrates this defeating
of Mahabali by Lord Vishnu.
The Bhagavata Purana also tells us about Narakasura, an evil demon king
who somehow got great powers and conquered both the heavens and earth.
Narakasura was very cruel and was a terrible ruler. It is believed that
Lord Vishnu killed Narakasura on the day before Diwali and rescued many
women whom the demon had locked in his palace. The people of heaven and
earth were greatly relieved to have got freedom from the hands of the
terrible Narakasura. They celebrated the occassion with much grandeur, a
tradition that is believed to be alive through the annual observance of
According to another legend, long ago after the gods lost in a battle
with the demons, Goddess Kali took birth from the forehead of Goddess
Durga to save heaven and earth from the growing cruelty of the demons.
After killing all the devils, Kali lost her control and started killing
anyone who came her way which stopped only when Lord Shiva intervened.
You all must have seen the well-known picture of Ma Kali, with her
tongue hanging out? That actually depicts the moment when she steps on
Lord Shiva and stops in horror and repentance. This memorable event has
been commemorated ever since by celebrating Kali Puja, which is observed
in several parts of India in about the same time as Diwali.
Historically it is believed that on a Diwali day in 56 BC King
Vikramaditya, the legendary Hindu king of India famed for his wisdom,
bravery and large-heartedness, was crowned and declared to be a king.
This was marked by a grand celebration by the citizens of Vikramaditya's
kingdom celebrated the coronation of their king by lighting up small
earthen lamps and that custom still prevails. Many people and even some
historians say that this event gave rise to the annual observance of
Diwali also marks the sacred occasion when on a new moon day of Kartik
(Diwali day) Swami Dayananda Saraswati, one of the greatest reformers of
Hinduism attained his nirvana (enlightenment) and became 'Maharshi'
Dayananda, meaning the great sage Dayananda. In 1875, Maharshi Dayananda
founded the Arya Samaj, "Society of Nobles", a Hindu reform movement to
purify Hinduism of the many evils it became associated with at that era.
Every Diwali, this great reformer is remembered by Hindus all over
For Jains, Diwali commemorates the enlightenment of Vardhamana
Mahavira(the twenty-fourth and last Tirthankaras of the Jains and the
founder of modern Jainism) which is said to have occurred on Oct. 15,
527 B.C. This is one more reason to engage in Diwali celebrations for
pious Jains and other than the purpose of commemoration, the festival
stands for the celebration of the emancipation of human spirit from
For Sikhs, Diwali holds a special significance for it was on a Diwali
day that the third Sikh Guru Amar Das institutionalized the festival of
lights as an occasion when all Sikhs would gather to receive the Gurus
blessings. It was also on a Diwali day in 1619 that their sixth
religious leader, Guru Hargobind Ji, who was held by the Mughal Emperor
Jahengir in the Gwalior fort, was freed from imprisonment along with 52
Hindu Kings (political prisoners) whom he had arranged to be released as
well. And it was also on the same auspicious occasion of Diwali when the
foundation stone of the Golden Temple at Amritsar was laid in 1577.