The symbolism of these famous lines from the Upanishads is well expressed in the celebration of Deepavali. The festival is associated with more than one legend and has a deep social and spiritual significance for the Hindu world. It is known for the worship of the goddess Lakshmi, who symbolizes wealth and prosperity. It also marks the end of the rainy season and the harvesting cycle, and therefore is also the festival of the Kharif or new crop.
However, the original and most important legend behind Deepavali is that of Lord Krishna’s victory over evil Narakasura, as is attested by the fact of the day preceding Deepavali being called Narakachaturdasi. Deepavali celebrations all over the world are marked by profuse fireworks, a variety of cultural programs, a spirit of sharing and brotherhood, and, most importantly, the lighting of lamps (deepas) in several arrays (wali) inside and outside the house. It is these luminous deepas that seem to contain the essence of Deepavali.
Just as light dispels the darkness of night and shows the right path to a weary traveler, the lighting of lamps on the night of Karthik Amavasya symbolizes the victory of good over evil; justice over injustice, light over darkness, and wisdom over ignorance. In countless Indian cities, towns and villages, the celebration of Diwali is marked by illumination everywhere. Rows and rows of small earthenware lamps are seen in every Hindu home. However, Diwali is most known for fireworks which begin at dusk and continue till late in the night. In every house the children, even elders, light firecrackers.
That night sounds like a battle-field everywhere. The story explaining what is being celebrated is given in the tale of “The Slaying of Narakasura” in the Bhagavata Purana. Diwali is a joyous celebration of the death of the Titan (asura) of hell (naraka), Narakasura, at the hand of Lord Krishna. Narakasura, known as the son of the earth, was all-powerful. He was an intolerable menace to the gods, sages and all men of piety, in those most ancient times when these mythological events are said to have taken place. He looted and plundered not only the earth but heaven as well.
He carried away 16,000 fair daughters of the gods and imprisoned them in his harem. The gods led by Indra approached Lord Krishna and supplicated the Lord to destroy the demon. Krishna readily agreed. He fought a fierce battle. After destroying thousands of demons, Krishna slew Narakasura. Thereafter he rescued the imprisoned damsels and on their earnest prayers took them as his wives (Lall 67). On the face of it, the story may sound a little inane, but as with many such legends in India, a symbolic meaning is offered as a deeper explanation.
This festival, like a number of other Hindu festivals and rituals, explains the inner personality of man and his deliverance from his ignorance and ego to attain his supreme nature of Godhood. The darkness of the night represents man’s total ignorance of his Self, ignorance of his own divine nature. In that darkness reigns the desire-ridden ego which destroys peace and brings about sorrow and misery in the heart of man. The 16,000 damsels represent the desires that arise in an egoistic man. Obviously, 16,000 is simply a way of saying “umpteen. ” Desires dwell in ignorance under the control of the ego.
All these desires cannot find fulfillment in this limited world. They remain frustrated. Thus man is driven to a state of sorrow and suffering by his own negative and lower tendencies. Actually, it must be noted that the question of desires being fulfilled or not being fulfilled is not the issue here. Just as Buddha more daringly and explicitly proclaimed, Hindu philosophy too believes that desires as such are the fundamental cause of human misery. This may be a very difficult notion for the Western mind to comprehend. After all, desiring seems to be the essence of human life.
Without desires, life could turn into a meaningless, pointless and purposeless affair. It is true that when we fail in achieving some of our desires, it may lead us to sorrow and despondency, however when we succeed in realizing some of our desires, they give us reason to celebrate. For us, successes and failures, joys and sorrows, constitute the game of life. Hinduism seems to take a radically different viewpoint. To Hinduism, the amount of celebration and “partying” is not directly proportional to the number of desires fulfilled, as most of instinctively feel.