Divali, the festival of lights, is one of the most diversely celebrated festivals in India. This auspicious festival is important to different communities for various reasons. For much of the Hindu population of India and abroad, Divali is illustrative of good triumphing over evil, when Lord Rama, his wife, and brother return from exile as heroes. It is also when homage is paid to the goddess of prosperity and wealth, Lakshmi, along with the remover of all obstacles, Lord Ganesha. In the state of West Bengal, Goddess Kali is worshipped instead of Lakshmi. For members of the Sikh community, it is the time when Guru Hargobind freed himself and several Hindu kings from the prison of an Islamic ruler. In addition to these, there are many other kinds of Divali celebration throughout India.
For Jains, it is when Lord Mahavira, the last tirthtankara attained nirvana or liberation.
While the religious reason for Divali is diverse, celebrations are similar. Across India, families and friends gather to pray, eat, shop, light lamps, and burst firecrackers together. However, even on this occasion, Jains celebrate in a more restrained fashion.
At a digambara temple in Bangalore, people gather before sunrise to pray and offer a laddu, or round sweet, to Mahavira. After the sweet has been blessed, it is gathered and sent to orphanages and given away to poor communities.
The festival is not restricted to the temple. Jains celebrate Divali at home too. Pavan and Kalpana Argawal, a young digambara couple who originally hail from Rajasthan, allowed our team to document their Divali puja, or ritual prayer, at their home in Electronic City, Bangalore. They woke up at 4:00 AM to go the temple, and afterward came home to prepare for their family puja, and celebrations.
Pavan, 34, is a chartered accountant working for the software company, Infosys. Kalpana, 31, is a homemaker.
They have one son, Arush who is almost 7 years old.
“We do try to teach Arush as much as we can about Jainism,” said Pavan, “It is an important part of our lives, and Divali is a significant festival because of Lord Mahavira’s enlightenment.”
While Pavan said he does not normally approve of firecrackers, he admits it’s difficult to say no to his son when all the other children are exploding them. “We try to encourage him to use the smaller crackers, or the ones that just light up, so we don’t disturb all the living creatures affected by the loud sound and pollution.”
Pavan explained that according to the tradition of Jainism they follow, on Divali they perform nirvana utsava or liberation festival to honor Mahavira’s nirvana.
It is also held that Mahavira’s prime disciple, Gautama, attained kevalgyan on this day. Kevalgyan is analogous to omniscience and Divali lamps in the Jain tradition represent the illumination of knowledge. Praises of Gautama are also chanted.
In addition to Mahavira and Gautama, there is symbolic worship of Sarasvati, the presiding godess of knowledge and wisdom, and Lakshmi, the representative deity of wealth. The holy scriptures, or shastras are also sometimes worshipped.
Like many Indian religions, rituals have come to become an important aspect of Divali even within the digambara tradition in Jainism.
Food is one way Jains do participate in Divali that is consistent with everyone else. This is one of the only festivals that Jains make a variety of special foods, from savoury pakodas, or fried snack, to sweet coconut barfi, another type of milk sweet.
“We make these dishes mainly for the guests and family that come calling during Divali,” explained Kalpana, “In the villages, it used to be that this was the time where we could visit each together for a festival without as many dietary restrictions as Paryushana. It is a happy time for us because Mahavira attained moksha, or nirvana.” However, even here, there is a simple meal of rice, lentils, mixed with sugar and clarified butter that is eaten for lunch to honor Lord Mahavira’s simple lifestyle.
While the Agrawals did prioritize their religious prayer, it was clear that celebrating together as family and community mattered just as much on this day of joy.
Text and photographs: Sweta Daga
Additional commentary: Dhruva Ghosh