Pallavi, my friend and suitemate, is a freshman international student at USC studying Business and Accounting. She is from an Indian middle class family in New Delhi, with working parents who have separated. Although she is technically Punjabi, she does not speak that language and instead speaks Hindi. Her family is also Hindu but they are not strict practitioners of the religion, although they still follow and perform and take part in major festivals
Here, she discusses the traditions she observes around the festival of Diwali (a festival of lights), which she identifies as somewhat of a Christmas equivalent in her culture that takes place around early November (this year it will be November 3, 2013). However, she particularly emphasizes and relates the mythological background of the festival, a story that is firmly rooted in the Hindu epic of the Ramayana, or the “Ramayan” as she says (the added “-a” anglicizing the title).
“Diwali, the story behind it…it comes from a mythological story which is that Lord Ram came back from 13 years of vanwas [in Sanskrit, van means “forest,” and was means “to live,” so “living in the forest”], from exile, and he was exiled to the forest, basically. When he comes back from exile, that’s the day that Diwali happens. Because he was actually the heir to the throne. There were four brothers, but they were all brothers from different mothers, and the king was the same. And Ram was the eldest son, so he automatically got the throne, or he was supposed to get the throne, but one of the wives of the king – her name was Kaikeyi – so what Kaikeyi did… The king had three wives and four sons, Ram was the son of the eldest wife, or the first wife, and he was the eldest son also automatically. And then he had two more wives, and I think the middle wife was Kaikeyi. And she was not a bad person, but there was this whole drama going on with her handmaid or lady in waiting. So that woman was very shrewd and she wanted Kaikeyi to be the top wife. So she kind of poisoned Kaikeyi’s mind, and Kaikeyi was relatively gullible so she was swayed, and she convinced the king to send Ram to the forest for vanwas. And it was 13 years of vanwas. And he said okay. So Ram was “summoned” to the forest, but because Ram was the most loved by all his brothers, the second brother, the second eldest, who was Lakshman, was like “because my bhaiya – bhaiya is brother, and bhaiya is usually elder brother – so, because my bhaiya is going to the forest, I cannot let him go alone, so I’m going to go with him.” So even though he was married, he left his wife back, and he went with Ram and his wife (Ram’s wife Sita). So all three of them went to the forest, even though Lakshman was not exactly told to go to the forest, he still went. And so Kaikeyi’s son got the throne; but because he also loved Ram and he was very upset with his mother for staging all this, he never actually sat on the throne, in fact, before Ram left, he asked for Ram’s sandals and he always kept his sandals on the throne instead. And even though he was, in effect, he used to help his father – because his father sort of retired after that – so he would still run the kingdom but he never sat on the throne because he’s like “I’m just guarding it for my brother, when he comes back.” ”
Celebration of Diwali:
“And when Ram actually came back, that is when Diwali is celebrated, because it’s like light coming back, that’s why it’s the festival of lights. There are a lot of crackers [firecrackers] and it’s difficult to breathe nowadays. Lot of smoke. The beautiful part is there’s all these really beautiful diyas – lamps, like terra cotta pots, in which you put some oil and a wick that gets lit [they look almost like clay petals that hold oil and are adorned with designs] – there are like really pretty ones. In elementary school, we’d have diya decoration competitions and stuff. Different designs. I like this part more. Even though when you’re kids, you like the crackers and stuff more, as you grow older… this [the diyas] part is very– Because people’s houses look beautiful…. They make rangolis in front of their house because it’s a positive…
[Showing me images of rangoli via Google Images] They’re made up of…this one seems petals…but rangoli usually is made up of colors, ground up colors, you take color and you sprinkle it [into designs]. It goes right in front of your main door. And everyone has that. These are getting more modern so people have, like, the “tattoo” kind of things, so they’ll get a whole rangoli thing but they’ll “tattoo” it so if people walk over it, it doesn’t spoil, but that’s [pointing to a an image of one made with the colored powder] the traditional thing. Lakshmi is worshipped also. Lakshmi is the goddess of money…fortune, money…and that [pointing out another image of rangoli featuring a goddess figure] is a rangoli of her. She’s related to amavasya – the new moon. The new moon day in October – Diwali is based off the new moon, that’s why it’s not a fixed date. During the new moon, Lakshmi’s destroyer form is active. And you worship her.
It’s basically like purification of sorts, because Lakshmi is the goddess of money and fortune, but on this particular day you worship to her destroyer form. So all the gods…they all can take ‘forms,’ so like, for example, Lord Shiva, he’s “the Destroyer,” but he has many roles. He’s the Destroyer, but when Maa Kali, who’s considered to be the most ruthless, or the most angry goddess of all, when she gets mad or when she’s angered, Lord Shiva, he goes under her – this is also, like, a myth, or an understanding – whenever she gets mad, she, like, goes crazy and then Lord Shiva goes under her and lays down underneath her while she’s standing or whatever, getting angry or whatever. And he takes all of her negative energy; otherwise, if she goes very crazy, she’ll destroy the world. Because Kali is, again, a form of Shiva – there’s like a lot of forms going on, and derivatives going on.
But then Lakshmi…it’s just another reason for worshipping… It’s sort of like, because when Ram comes back, Diwali is celebrated.”
“Diwali is sort of like Christmas, people will exchange a lot of gifts, we’ll make sure to go to… so like my father’s not close to his brother at all, but Diwali was like the only time when his brother would come greet us, and get some sweets, and things like that. Fruits are a very big thing…you give fruit, and traditional sweets and stuff. Gifts not so much, but sweets and fruits. Dried fruit…. But Dusshera, all this doesn’t happen, it’s this smaller festival in a way.”
This Hindu festival, celebrated on the cusp of winter, certainly exhibits features similar to those in other cultures celebrated around the same time, as Pallavi, my informant, cites with her observation that this festival resembles Christmas. It, in a way, acts to herald the coming of winter, and the emphasis on light – Diwali being the Festival of Lights – is sort of a means of fortifying themselves against and lighting up the darkness.