DĪVĀLĪ , also known as Dīpāvalī, is an important renewal festival celebrated all over India in October–November at the time of the autumn equinox. Dīvālī marks the end of the rainy season and the harvest of the summer crops. The name Dīvālī can be translated as "row of lights," in reference to lights lit on the nights of the transition from the waning to the waxing moon. These lights stand for the hope kindled by the new season that comes at the end of the dangerous monsoon. In many ways the festival is a celebration of a new year. Accordingly, debts are paid off, and merchants close their accounts in anticipation of new wealth.
Dīvālī is a three-night festival, the last night of which is the first night of the waxing moon. The celebrations incorporate a number of mythic elements, many of which find colorful regional variations. As in any renewal rite, care is taken to cleanse and purify homes and shops, and people make certain to perform special ablutions in a ritual bath. The festival is most obviously characterized by the seemingly infinite number of oil lamps that are lit everywhere, as well as by the noise of exploding firecrackers that are said to frighten away evil spirits and to welcome the arrival of Lakṣmī, goddess of prosperity. In some regional practices the lamps are said to light the darkness for departed ancestors or to welcome the demon king Bali.
It is to Lakṣmī, however, that the people offer jewels and money, delicate foods, and special new clothes made for the occasion. Much importance is placed on the giving of gifts to all members of the family and to the neighborhood servants who help people throughout the year. Men gamble at various games in a ritual reenactment of the dice tournaments played by the gods to determine the fate of human beings.
The festival is associated with several Puranic myths. Their underlying idea calls forth what was at issue during the rainy season and centers on the notion, which holds true for ancestors as well, that underworld creatures play a crucial role in the acquisition of wealth. A well-known myth relates how the dwarf Vāmana (an incarnation of Viṣṇu) asked Bali to grant him as much land as he could cover in three steps. The generous demon king agreed. To his amazement, two of the dwarf's steps covered the earth and the sky; the third, planted on Bali's head, sent the demon to the underworld, a region that became his domain. For his generosity, Bali was then allowed to come to the surface of the earth during Dīvālī in order to bestow wealth on human beings.
Another myth, one in which the god Kṛṣṇa is said to slay Naraka (or Narakāsura, the "demon of hell"), similarly marks the momentary halt of evil underworld powers. Naraka is the son of Bhūdevī, the earth goddess, and Varāha, the incarnation of Viṣṇu as a boar, who had rescued the goddess when she lay buried under the waters of the sea. Although he was ultimately killed by Kṛṣṇa—as all demons must eventually be killed by a god—Naraka, like Bali, is nevertheless paid homage when the question of wealth is at stake.
In North India the second day of Dīvālī is reserved for the worship of the hill Govardhana, near the town of Mathura, a site of deep religious significance for devotees of Kṛṣṇa. Once Indra had captured all of the world's cattle. Kṛṣṇa freed the cows, but the enraged Indra flooded the earth with a downpour of rain to drown the valuable animals. Kṛṣṇa then raised Govardhana so that the cows would be saved. The importance of the myth is clear in the context of Dīvālī, for in Hindu thought the cow is a powerful and evocative symbol of prosperity. The ritual here primarily involves worship of cattle, but—in a play on the word govardhana (lit., "cow-increasing")—offerings are made to mounds of cow dung (govar ) to ensure continued prosperity and wealth (dhana ).
One final ritual marks the celebration of Dīvālī. Girls and women, who at the onset of the rainy season had tied protective threads around their brothers' wrists, now invite the boys and men for delicacies in exchange for gifts. This rite is accompanied by the worship of Yama, lord of the dead, and his twin sister, Yami. Yama is also known as Dharmarāja ("king of the social and cosmic order"), for that very order is then restored with the return of prosperity, which is dependent upon women and on controlled underworld powers.
For textual details on the festival, see P. V. Kane's History of Dharmaśastra, 2d ed. (Poona, 1958), vol. 5, pt. 1, pp. 194–210. Some interesting regional variations are given in Lawrence A. Babb's The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India (New York, 1975) and in Oscar Lewis's Village Life in Northern India (Urbana, Ill., 1958).
Marie-Louise Reiniche (1987)