Happy Diwali 2020! The festival of Lights is only a few days away, and it is celebrated every year with great enthusiasm across India and many Asian countries.
Here in the UK, which is home to a large Asian diaspora, Diwali is celebrated as a symbol of support for diversity and inclusion, using the occasion to highlight the significant contributions of the Asian community to British society.
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This year in London, due to the global pandemic I could not join my friend Shashank for our favourite yoga and ayurvedic health spa session at Brown’s Hotel Rocco Forte Spas. We could not also head to Trafalgar Square to enjoy as usual spectacular Diwali music and dance performances, delicious Indian food, and arts & craft activities.
For the past eighteen years, the Diwali in London (DiL) committee, in partnership with the MAYOR OF LONDON have brought the Diwali festival to Londonders on Trafalgar Square.
The London event that generally brings together over 30,000 people took place online instead on 1 November 2020 prior to the official Diwali celebrations that will begin on 12 November 2020, with 14th November marking the pinnacle of the festival.
To replace our traditional get-together, this weekend my friend Shashank and I have planned a replay of our favourite Katrina Kaif Jab Tak Hai Jaan Bollywood movie and songs on Prime via Zoom. As a Bollywood dance fanatic with 6 years of practice, I am so looking forward to our Diwali party!
On a more serious note, as a Christian, I also took time to reflect on the Diwali 2020 theme of “care, compassion, and gratitude” to find out how we in this difficult season could continue to be the light in the darkness and to show up for one another. Here is my take on Diwali.
What is Diwali?
Diwali is the five-day festival of lights, celebrated by millions of people of Hindu, Sikh and Jain faiths across the world. The name comes from Sanskrit dipavali, meaning “row of lights.” Sanskrit is the classical language of Indian and the liturgical language of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Diwali symbolizes the spiritual “victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance”.
Mythical tales shared on Diwali vary widely depending on region and faiths, yet all share a common focus on righteousness, self-inquiry, forgiveness, and the importance of knowledge.
Such a spiritual message resonates with my soul during this pandemic where we are called upon to sit with ourselves, taking stock on our values, our ways of life, and how we can show greater kindness to ourselves and to others through small gestures in our daily lives. It may be forgiving a person who has hurt you a long time ago to heal your own karma, or simply calling a family member or a friend to check up on them, or helping an elderly person with his/her grocery shopping.
The Diwali festival falls during October or November, depending on the new moon, on the 15th day of the Hindu month of Kartik.
I was first introduced to Diwali 14 years ago at a London inner city primary school I visited as part of a mentoring programme I chose to partake in. Needless to say that I was thrilled by the infectious enthusiasm of 7-year olds who were thoroughly enjoying their Diwali themed arts and crafts activities, whilst discussing the fabulous outfits they will be wearing to celebrate the festival. And this is where I learned the story of Diwali which relates to the legend of two Hindu deities Prince Rama’s and his wife Princess Sita’s return from exile.
Legend tells us that Prince Rama and Princess Sita were banished from their kingdom Ayodhya for fourteen years at Rama’s stepmother’s request. Kaikeyi wanted one of her own sons instead of Rama to sit on the throne as the next King following the death of her husband King Dasharatha. The couple was exiled to the Dandaka forest, not knowing that a demon-king with 20 arms and 10 heads called Ravana lived there. They were joined in their exile by Rama’s brother Lakshmana.
To avenge his sister Shurpanakha whose nose had been cut off in battle by Lakshmana, who was defending Sita from Shurpanakha’s assault after she had been rejected by Rama whom she fell in love with, King Ravana kidnapped princess Sita. Prince Rama with his brother’s support enlisted the help of the monkey God Hanuman to find his beloved wife, with messages sent to all the monkeys in the kingdom and passed on to the bears too. After a long search, Rama found Sita and killed Ravana in a hard fought battle. The couple travelled back to their homeland and everyone lit up oil lamps and fireworks to guide them along the way and welcome them home.
How is the five-day Diwali festival celebrated?
Diwali, as a festival of new beginnings, also marks the start of the Hindu New Year and each day of the festival brings its own different meaning and celebration.
On the first day, called “Dhanteras” people clean their homes and beautifully decorate them with colourful lanterns, holiday lights, and rangoli designs made of coloured rice, sand, or flowers on the floor. This is also the day when people buy gold and silver jewellery, candles, home goods, and various gifts for their loved ones and make large donations to the poor. Lord Dhanvantari, the god of health and Ayurveda, is worshiped in the evening.
In the spirit of Dhanteras, I gifted my dear friend Shashank his favourite RITUALS The Ritual of Happy Buddha Gift Set and Jay Shetty Think Like a Monk book for him to continue to live on purpose, with joy and gratitude in his heart. To his older sister, I gifted her RITUALS The Ritual of Namasté Anti-Aging Face Oil, which is one of her favourite beauty products.
On the second day – “Naraka Chaturdas”, the Hindu literature narrates that the asura (demon) Narakasura was killed by Krishna, Satyabhama and Kali. The day is celebrated by early morning religious rituals puja to pray for the spirits of ancestors in the afterlife. The rest of the day is spent preparing or buying special food, especially sweets called mithai.
On the third day, the main day of Diwali -“Lakshmi Pujan”, is dedicated to the celebration of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, prosperity, auspiciousness, and good fortune.
On the evening of Lakshmi Pujan, people open their doors and windows to welcome Lakshmi, and place lanterns and candles on their windowsills and balcony ledges to invite her in. Families gather and celebrate together in their homes and in the streets, and by shooting off fireworks. People wear new clothes or their best outfits as the evening approaches.
Traditions of the fourth day -“Govardhan Puja” vary, but a common theme is the bond between husband and wife, so husbands will often buy their spouses gifts to celebrate. In some traditions, it marks the day when Lord Krishna defeated Indra, the god of thunder and rain, and it is also the start of a new year.
The fifth day “Bhai Dooj” focuses on the bond between siblings, specifically between brothers and sisters, with siblings praying for long and happy lives for their brothers or sisters and sharing food and gifts.
From London, Leicester, Birmingham to Cardiff, Yorkshire and Edinburgh, the Diwali festival will indeed be celebrated across the UK, with lots of virtual events taking place and intimate gatherings of loved ones in homes until the global pandemic subsides.
Diwali 2020 theme: care, compassion, and gratitude
As we move closer to the end of 2020 in preparation for our new beginnings, how can we awaken the light within our souls to show more care, compassion, and gratitude to ourselves and others in line with the Diwali 2020 theme?
Perhaps, being more mindful of how your thoughts influence your actions and your attitude on a daily basis could be a starting point. Taking time to meditate for fifteen minutes and to journal daily after my prayer helps me to set clear intentions for the day. Most days my morning rituals work for me and other days I just struggle. Find what works for you.
Finding the right exercise that makes a positive impact on your health and wellbeing could also help you better take care of your overall health. Walking outdoors four times a week for forty minutes is instrumental in helping me better take care of my mental and physical health. And keeping in touch with my loved ones via technology to find out how we are all getting on in this season is also very therapeutic to me.
Letting go of past hurts, broken dreams and goals and focusing on the present moment is also another way for me to express compassion for myself and others, as I refuse to hold myself hostage to the past. I am doing my best with my ups and downs to find and share joy in this very precious “now” that we have. Again, explore what truly resonates with you.
And, finally, what are you grateful for? Are you grateful to still be alive whilst many people have suddenly lost their lives to the coronavirus? Are you grateful to still have hopes and dreams in spite of how many times life has thrown you big curves?
Everyday write down and say it out loud four things you are grateful for. I promise you, as you practise doing it daily, particularly in your darkest hours, you will start to awaken the light within your soul.
On this note, I bow to you by saying “Namasté”.