Diwali: Myths and legends associated with the festival of lights

November 8, 2020 5:30 AM

From Lord Rama’s arrival in Ayodhya to the killing of the demon king Narakasura, there are many myths and legends associated with the festival of lights

Artistes performing Ramlila in New Delhi in October; (clockwise from above) devotees at a temple; an artiste making a rangoli of goddess Durga in Thane, Mumbai; and a staff member at a south Indian restaurant in Ahmedabad arranges idols of gods (PTI & Express Photos)Artistes performing Ramlila in New Delhi in October; (clockwise from above) devotees at a temple; an artiste making a rangoli of goddess Durga in Thane, Mumbai; and a staff member at a south Indian restaurant in Ahmedabad arranges idols of gods (PTI & Express Photos)

By Shriya Roy

Diwali celebrations might be a little sombre this year thanks to the pandemic, but the emotions remain high as ever. The festival of lights, as it is popularly known, goes beyond cultures and borders, with the five-day festivities celebrated across the world. There are, in fact, many myths and legends associated with the festival that go back centuries and these find mention in scriptures as well as pop culture.

The underlining theme, of course, is of good’s victory over evil. From Lord Rama killing the demon king Ravana and returning to Ayodhya to Kali Puja being celebrated all over Bengal-to commemorate the victory of goddess Durga’s fierce avatar Kali over the demon Mahishasura—these myths and legends are a reminder of good’s triumph over evil.

If we talk of the five-day festivities, the first day of Diwali is called Dhanvantari Triodasi, or Dhan Teras. The word ‘Dhanteras’ originates from two Sanskrit ones—’dhan’, which means wealth, and ‘teras’, which means the 13th day of the month.

Legends ascribe the occasion to a story about the 16-year-old son of King Hima. The prince’s horoscope predicted his death by snakebite on the fourth day of his marriage. When that day came, his wife didn’t allow him to sleep and laid out all her ornaments, as well as gold and silver coins in a heap at the entrance of their sleeping chamber. She also lit lamps all over the palace. When Yamraja, the god of death, arrived at their doorstep in the guise of a serpent, his eyes were dazzled by the brilliance of the jewellery and the lamps. Unable to enter the prince’s chamber, he climbed on top of the heap of gold coins and sat there the entire night, leaving in the morning. The young prince gets saved from the clutches of death thanks to his wife and this is how the festival of Dhanteras began to be celebrated. On this day, devotees worship the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and traditionally buy gold, silver, ornaments and utensils, as this is believed to bring good luck and prosperity for the future.

After Dhanteras, on the second day, comes Chhoti Diwali, which is also popularly known as Naraka Chaturdashi. According to the legends, this was the day Lord Krishna’s wife defeated and beheaded the demon king Narakasura. According to the myth, Narakasura ruled the kingdom of Pradyoshapuram. He had a curse put on him which said that he would be killed by his mother. Narakasura kidnapped and forced women to live with him. To prove his power, Narakasura stole the earrings of Aditi, the mother of all gods.

Unhappy, the gods asked Lord Krishna for help, who, in turn, asked his wife Satyabhama, a reincarnation of Narakasura’s mother, to drive his chariot as he went to battle with the demon. Narakasura shot an arrow at Lord Krishna, who pretended to be hit. Satyabhama made use of this opportunity, grabbed Lord Krishna’s bow and arrow, and killed the demon instantly. In parts of Maharashtra and south India, people on this day take bath before sunrise, apply fragrance and conduct a small puja ceremony to mark the victory of good over evil.

The third and the most important day of the festivities is when Lakshmi Puja is observed. This day is the most important because on this day, according to legends, Lord Rama returned home to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile. Lakshmi Puja is conducted in the evening in hopes of peace and prosperity.

In mythology, Rama was the son of the king of Ayodhya and heir to the throne. The king, however, sent Rama to live in exile in the forest for 14 years. Rama’s wife Sita and his brother Lakshman accompanied him. They returned to Ayodhya after 14 years. To welcome them, the people of Ayodhya cleaned their houses and placed oil lamps to light their path. This is the reason people today decorate their homes with lights, diyas and candles, and burst crackers to celebrate the return of their king.

Then comes the fourth day, that is, the day of Govardhan Puja. Govardhan is historically a small hillock situated in Braj near Mathura. As the legend goes, Govardhan Puja is celebrated to mark the day when Lord Krishna saved the people of Gokul from the anger of Lord Indra by lifting up the Govardhan hill and giving shelter to them. People offer prayers to Govardhan, who is believed to be the manifestation of Krishna.

Apart from Govardhan Puja, the fourth day is also celebrated as Vishwakarma Day in certain parts of the country. Lord Vishwakarma, as per mythology, was the god of weapons and was the one who created them. Vishwakarma is considered to be the symbol of quality and excellence in craftsmanship. The day is, therefore, celebrated as his birthday in many parts of India.

The fifth and final day of Diwali is the occasion of Bhai Dooj. Bhai Dooj historically celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters.

Legend has it that on this day, Yamaraj went to visit his sister Yami after a long time and she welcomed him by applying tilak on his forehead and preparing a big feast. Pleased with her love and affection, Yamaraj gave his sister a boon that whosoever visits her on this day shall be liberated from all their sins. Since then, the custom of celebrating Bhai Dooj started in the country, with gifts and pleasantries exchanged and feasts partaken.

Apart from the legends, there are also many superstitions associated with the festival of Diwali. One of the most common is making a rangoli or drawing footprints on the floor. This is believed to be a secret method to summon the gods inside one’s house. According to some beliefs, rangoli is believed to be a “magnet” for goddess Lakshmi. Gambling, too, is a part of Diwali superstitions and is considered to be another way of pleasing the goddess of fortune.

These myths and legends have been passed down generations and over centuries, and continue to be the driving force for the festival of lights year after year.

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