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God Squad: Diwali, the greatest Hindu holiday of the year

Diwali is celebrated by lighting lamps made of

Diwali is celebrated by lighting lamps made of wick and oil during festive season. Credit: Parthkumar Bhatt/Dreamstime

Happy Diwali!

I have just concluded my Yom Kippur prayers and their litany of atonement, and buried among my confessions is my sin of not writing more about Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and the other so-called Eastern religions (which are only Eastern when viewed from the West). These faiths represent more than a billion people, and they are full of powerful and spiritually uplifting holidays, rituals and moral insights.

This is a great time to correct my spiritual blindness because on Oct. 27 (Oct. 26 in the South of India) on the 15th day of Kartik, which is the holiest Hindu month, the greatest Hindu holiday of the year begins. Hinduism, like Judaism, has a lunisolar calendar, which equalizes the lunar calendar with the solar calendar so that fall holidays always occur during the fall. This is a five-day holiday called Diwali. Like Christmas, it is marked by displays of colorful lights, bright holiday clothes, gift-giving and sweets. Everywhere in Hindu lands lamps called diyas are lit. Like our Fourth of July it is celebrated (particularly on the third day of the holiday) with fireworks.

Diwali does differ from Western religious holidays in that it is not a celebration of a historical event that has been spiritualized. Christmas and Easter are celebrations of the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus in time. Passover is a celebration of the real exodus from the real Egypt in time. Ramadan is a celebration of the real pilgrimage of Mohammad from Mecca to Medina in time. In addition to these historical events that drive Western religious holidays, there is the cycle of natural time that is overlaid upon them, specifically the spring and fall harvest seasons and the winter solstice.

Diwali is different. It is primarily a celebration of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi and Lord Krishna, who killed the demon Narakasura and defeated the god Indra, who is the Hindu god of thunder and rain. These are spiritual events recorded in Hindu scripture and legends. Diwali also occurs every year in the late fall, which puts it right at the natural seam between the dry season and the monsoon season. So, Diwali, like Hinduism itself, is rooted more in a spiritual montage and a natural harvest celebration and not so much in the rhythms of history. This fits the outlook of Hinduism perfectly because its goal is release from the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation (moksha) rather than the return of an early Messiah or a new Davidic monarchy with an ingathering of exiles. Hinduism and Diwali are pure spiritual events. The rhythms of history do not enter.

The message and hope of Diwali, as for New Year celebrations in the West, is for health, happiness and prosperity in the year ahead. Many Hindu merchants close their books for the year on Diwali. People give gifts of sweets (mithai) and gold. New clothes for the holiday are purchased. Lights and fireworks are everywhere.

The five days of Diwali are Dhanteras (gift-giving day); Chhoti Diwali "the small Diwali" or Naraka Chaturolashi, when demon figures are burned; Lakshmi puja, also this is the New Moon (Amavasya) and is the day when fireworks and lamps (diyas) are lit; Annakut, the day (according to Northern India traditions) that Krishna defeated the god Indra; and Bhai Duj, my favorite Diwali day and custom. On this fifth day of Diwali, brothers travel to the household of their sisters to renew their bond of love.

Hinduism is, of course, a polytheistic religion, which reverences many gods rather than one God. This is a major difference from the Abrahamic faiths, but what is remarkable is how many similarities exist. At a time of darkness (New Moon) light is celebrated. No matter how difficult the year has been, a holiday occurs that is full of light and joy and giving. The bonds of family are celebrated and honored. The cycle of nature is reverenced, and giving to others from our bounty is commanded. These themes occur everywhere on our blue planet. These themes elevate us above the vicissitudes of nature and introduce the spiritual realm into our daily lives. This holiday of Diwali reminds us that life is not about crushing work every single day but about pausing to give thanks for our gifts, to give gifts, to look splendid, eat sweets and celebrate one's family and friends.

The religion of Hinduism could not be more different from the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but on Diwali our common roots in light and joy are the message we all share. 

Happy Diwali!

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at godsquadquestion@aol.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.

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