The Ancient Origins of Diwali, India’s Biggest Holiday


Every year around October and November, Hindus around the world celebrate Diwali, or Deepavali—a festival of lights that stretches back more than 2,500 years. Diwali 2021 occurs on Thursday, November 4. In India, the five-day celebration traditionally marks the biggest holiday of the year.

Like many Hindu festivals, there isn’t just one reason to celebrate the five-day holiday. Pankaj Jain, a professor of anthropology, philosophy, and religion at the University of North Texas, says that the ancient celebration is linked to multiple stories in religious texts, and it’s impossible to say which came first, or how long ago Diwali started.

Many of these stories are about the triumph of good over evil. In northern India, a common tale associated with Diwali is about King Rama, one of the incarnations of the god Vishnu. When an evil king in Lanka (which some people associate with Sri Lanka) captures Rama’s wife Sita, he “builds up an army of monkeys” to rescue her, Jain says.

The monkeys “build a bridge over from India to Sri Lanka, and they invade Sri Lanka and free Sita and kill that evil king,” he says. As Rama and Sita return to the north, “millions of lights are spread out across the city Ayodhya just to help them come back home, just to welcome them.” Lighting lamps has long been one of the ways that Hindus celebrate Diwali.

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