Diwali: Festival of Light

Quick Facts

  • Summary: a five-day ‘festival of lights’ celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists
  • 2020 Date: 14th November (regional variations) and two days either side
  • Celebrated by: Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Indians
  • Linked Holidays: Tihar and Swanti (Nepalese variations of Diwali), Bandi Chhor Divas (Sikhism), Raksha Bandhan (Hinduism), Galungan (Balinese Hinduism), Kali Puja (Hinduism)

Background and Theological Significance

Diwali, also called Deepavali, is the ‘festival of lights’ in the Indian subcontinent, and is celebrated by all of the Dharmic faiths including Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and some branches of Buddhism. The name derives from two Sanskrit words: ‘dipa’ meaning ‘light’, and ‘avali’ meaning ‘row or series’. This refers to the most prominent feature of the festival, which is the displaying of rows of illuminated lamps and candles from homes, temples and other buildings in order to symbolise the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. Diwali is usually celebrated over a five-day period with the most important being the third day (or the second day in parts of southern India). This central day falls on the new moon day (or ‘amavasya’) of Kartik, the eighth month in the Hindu calendar, which occurs during the autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.

Diwali is one of the most popular festivals within Hinduism and is typically associated with legends concerning divine figures such as Rama or Krishna defeating the forces of darkness, or else with the goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati. However, within Jainism, Diwali celebrations tend to focus on the death and nirvana of Mahavira, whom Jains revere as the last Tirthankara (great spiritual teacher). For followers of Sikhism, Diwali also commemorates the founding of the Golden Temple in Amritsar as well as the release of the sixth Guru Hargobind Singh from prison. Although Diwali is at its heart a celebration of the victory of light over darkness, it also combines many traditions and practices from across the Dharmic faiths in India and around the world.


The festival of Diwali has been celebrated in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years, and probably originated as a combination of different harvest festival traditions. Ancient texts such as the Skanda Purana, composed around the sixth-century CE, describe the festival and make mention of the lighting of ‘diyas’ (earthenware oil lamps) to symbolise the radiance of the sun. Diwali has also been described in many accounts throughout the centuries by Indian scholars and by foreign travellers. The customs and beliefs associated with Diwali vary greatly between different parts of India and within the different branches of Hinduism, but tend to share a common emphasis on celebrating the victory of light over darkness. In northern India, Diwali is believed to be the day when the god Ravana returned to Ayodhya after defeating the demon king Ravana. In southern India, it is celebrated as the day when the god Krishna defeated the demon Narakasura. Many Hindus also celebrate Diwali by honouring Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. In some parts of India Diwali marks the start of a new year, so prayers offered to Lakshmi ask for a prosperous year ahead.

Within Jainism, the celebration of Diwali has many similarities to the Hindu festival, including the lighting of diyas and offering prayers to Lakshmi. However, the festival is mainly held in honour of Mahavira, the most recent Tirthankara and founder of Jainism, who is believed to have achieved ‘moksha’ (spiritual liberation) and ‘nirvana’ (the final release of the soul from the cycle of birth and death) during Diwali. The lighting of diyas is believed to be in honour of Mahavira and to symbolise the triumph of knowledge over ignorance.

Diwali has traditionally been celebrated by followers of Sikhism, but has come to take on additional significance over the centuries. It is now celebrated as the festival of Bandi Chhor Divas (meaning ‘day of liberation’ in Punjabi), and is believed to be the day when the sixth of the ten Sikh Gurus, Guru Hargobind, was released from the captivity of the Mughal Emperor during the feast of Diwali in about 1611 or 1612 CE. It also celebrates the founding of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest gurdwara in the Sikh faith.

Diwali is not typically celebrated by Buddhists, but it is observed as the festival of Swanti by Vajrayana Buddhists as well as Hindus in the Newar region of Nepal. Both Swanti and Tihar are Nepalese variations of the festival of Diwali.

Diwali is usually celebrated over a period of five days, with the most important day being the third day. This day falls on ‘amavasya’, the new moon day, of the Hindu month of Kartika. The Hindu calendar is composed of twelve lunar months, of which Kartika is the eighth, and each month is divided into two fortnights called ‘shukla paksha’ (when the moon is waxing) and ‘krishna paksha’ (when the moon is waning). Although traditions disagree as to which paksha goes first (thereby meaning that the month is observed on different dates in different parts of the world), it is accepted that the central day of Diwali falls on the night of the new moon. The dates of Diwali according to the Gregorian calendar change from year to year, but the festival normally falls in late October or early November.

What Happens?

Diwali is typically celebrated over a five-day period, beginning two days before the new moon day and finishing two days afterward. The first day normally occurs eighteen days after the festival of Dussehra or Vijayadashami, which marks the end of the festival of Navaratri. Each of the five days of Diwali have their own special significance and customs.

  • Day 1: Dhanteras. On this day homes are cleaned and decorated and many diyas are laid out and lit to signify the start of the festival.
  • Day 2: Choti Diwali. This is a day to pray for the souls of the ancestors as well as to prepare festival food. In parts of southern India, Choti Diwali is considered the main day of the festival.
  • Day 3: Diwali or Lakshmi Puja. This is the principal day of Diwali and is a time to celebrate and feast with loved ones, offer ‘puja’ (worship) to the goddess Lakshmi, and light many diyas and firecrackers to celebrate the gift of light.
  • Day 4: Balipratipada. This is the first day of the new paksha and is a time to celebrate the relationship between husbands and wives.
  • Day 5: Bhai Dooj. The final day of Diwali is a time to celebrate the relationship between brothers and sisters (a similar festival to Raksha Bandhan).

Diwali is considered a time for joy, celebration and worship, and Hindu traditions range from wearing new clothes and having a ritual oil bath to visiting temples to offer puja to the gods. Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists who also celebrate Diwali often have similar traditions, although these tend to emphasise the teachings and values of their own society. Diwali is one of the most important celebrations in India and amongst the many faiths it has given birth to, but it is also widely observed in other parts of the world which have significant Indian diasporas. ‘The festival of lights’ is a time for followers of the Dharmic faiths to remember the triumph of good over evil and to commit themselves to living their lives in the way of the light.

Diwali and Hinduism by Nila Joshi

When I moved to Scotland I brought with me a wealth of Language, Religion, Culture, Traditions, Belief, Colours and Customs.

Culture gives us our identity and guidelines for leading a healthy life style.

I am a practicing Hindu and believe in the concept of God as an all pervading spirit. God, known to Hindus as Brahma, is found in all things- animate and inanimate. God has many forms and attributes. Hindus believe God has 3 main forms: The Brahma (creator) Vishnu (the sustainer) and Shiva (the destroyer). These three aspects of God are what we believe sustains our reality or creation.

A central belief of Hinduism is the existence of a cosmic or natural order in the universe and therefore the need for us to live a balanced way of life, physically, socially, ethically and spiritually in accordance with this cosmic law. The most common precepts arising from this that I live by as a Hindu are that of karma- the cosmic law of cause and effect. As you sow, so shall you reap; treat others as you would have them treat you, and moksha: where the ultimate goal of life is for us to learn all our lessons, and to successively purify our souls, so we can liberate ourselves from the cycle of birth.

Life is seen as enduring and so if we are unable to complete all our lessons or leanings in one lifetime, under this cosmic law, we are born again to continue our journey; whereby our soul will take on another body for the next lifetime.

The Hindu Calendar has many festivals and Diwali – the Festival of Lights, is one of the most glamorous and popular among them. On these dark nights, multi-coloured fireworks light up the horizon. It tells the ancient story of king Rama’s coronation after 14 years of exile to his kingdom and is still as important to Hindus today as it ever was, shown by the rows of lamps, which are lit every year. On the Kings return to his Kingdom, these lamps glittering on a dark night welcomed home King Rama and his Queen Sita.

Each of the religions of the world has it’s own culture, with many customs, traditions, and refined qualities. The Hindu culture is a culture of love, respect, honouring others, and humility.

Indian culture is one of the oldest and richest civilizations in this world. For many centuries it has represented diversity, peace, and harmony.

We say that India is the cradle of human race, the birth place of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and great-grandmother of tradition.

Being part of such a culture makes me proud to be an Indian.

Diwali Diya‘ by dhondusaxena is licensed under CC by SA 2.0