Festival of Lights, Diwali Celebrations

San Diego Indian American Society will be celebrating its Tenth Annual Festival of Lights on October 14, 2017 in Historic Balboa Park. What began as a modest event in 2008 has now blossomed into a major San Diego city wide cultural program enjoyed by thousands every year in October.

Festival of Lights

A symbol of Surya (Sun) and Agni (fire), the lamp plays a very important role in life in India. It is an essential form of worship believed to carry one’s prayer to God. At every stage of life therefore, lamps are lit to celebrate eternal life force. Indian philosophy calls the soul a self-lighted torch. “The flame of the lamp is likened to the Supreme Self”.

Lamp in Human history

Throughout human history, every faith has used lamps to give a positive spiritual meaning. Lamps appear in the Torah as a symbol of “lighting” the way for the righteous and the wise.  There are several references to oil lamps in the New Testament. The sanctuary lamp in the Orthodox Church is an oil lamp. Buddhism, Jainism, Zorastranism, Islam and other faiths have used and are using lamps for  spiritual purposes.

In vedic times in India, fire was kept alive in every household in some form. Later the presence of fire in the household or a religious building was ensured by an oil lamp. Over the years, various rituals and customs were woven around an oil lamp. Every important activity, whether it is a marriage celebration or opening a new business in India starts with lighting an oil lamp.

Lamps have evolved over centuries in India. Sea-shells, clay, wood and metals were discovered, carved, crafted and molded into the torch bearers of Indian craftsmanship. From simple to ornate, these lamps have graced many a temple, palace and home. Their shapes are varied just as their sizes differ in accordance with their purpose. A wealth of imagery and symbolism built around the lamp is unique to Indian way of life.

The Meaning of Diwali – Stories and Morals from India

Diwali or Deepavali is one of India’s biggest and most important festivals.  It’s a time of great celebration with family and friends, the exchanging of gifts and of course the lighting of lamps and fireworks.  The word Deepavali itself comes from Sanskrit and means a row of lights.  In the Hindu tradition, light represents knowledge, purity and the divine.  The darkness of night represents the negative forces of ignorance, anger, greed, bigotry, injustice, and oppression.   When the light of the lamps pierces the darkness of night, it symbolizes the victory of good over evil, the triumph of virtue over vice and the conquest of ignorance with reason and understanding.  For this reason, Diwali is celebrated on the thirteenth or fourteenth days in the Hindu month of Kartik which falls between October and November.  It is celebrated on the darkest night of the year.  Deepavali is an official holiday in several countries outside of India including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Malaysia, Singapore, and Fiji.

Indian Tradition

There are many legends associated with Diwali/Deepavali.

  1. For many, it represents the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom of Ayodhya after 13 long years of unjust exile in the forest.

  2. For others, it represents the slaying of the demon Narakaasura by Lord Krishna.

  3. Diwali is also associated with the story of the fall of the demon king Bali. Lord Vishnu appeared to the demon king Bali in the form of a dwarf named Vaamana and requested only three steps of land. Filled with ego and pettiness Bali granted the drawf's meager request of only three feet. Suddenly, Lord Vishnu took on His grand size and placed his first step on the Earth, the second step on the Heavens and his third step on the head of the evil Bali.

  4. Diwali is also a day of inner renewal.  For many it represents the start of the New Year and an occasion to begin new business ventures and renew one’s spiritual vows.  Diwali is also marked by prayer to the Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth.  The abundance sought is not only material but also a wealth of knowledge, hope and faith.

Given India’s multitude of faiths and cultures, Diwali is not just a Hindu festival, but a pan-Indian celebration.

  1. For Jains, Diwali marks the attainment of moksha or liberation from the cycle of rebirth for the founder of their faith, Lord Mahavira in 527 BC.

  2. For Sikhs, Diwali is celebrated as Bandhi Chhor Diwas - the celebration of freedom.  It commemorates the release from prison of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, who also rescued 52 Hindu kings unjustly held captive with him by the Mughal Emperor Jehanghir in the fort at Gwalior in 1619. The Emperor Jehanghir was asked to release Guru Hargobind which he agreed to do. However, Guru Hargobind asked that the princes be released also. The Emperor agreed, but said only those who could hold onto his cloak tail would be allowed to leave the prison in order to limit the number of princes who would be released. However, Guru Hargobind had a cloak made with 52 pieces of string and so each prince was able to hold onto one string and leave the fort. Sikhs celebrated the return of Guru Hargobind by lighting the Golden Temple and this tradition continues today.

  3. Some sects of Buddhists chant mantras and remember the Indian Emperor Ashoka who converted to Buddhism on this day.  Hence, some Buddhists also know the festival as Ashoka Vijayadashami – or the day of victory for Emperor Ashoka.  Their temples and monasteries are well decorated during this time and the Buddha is worshiped with full honors.

  4. For Muslims, Christians and Jews, Diwali represents a time of solidarity with their neighbours and a chance to partake in the numerous feasts and Festivities that are held.

The Significance of Diwali in the Modern World

With all of the varied stories concerning Diwali, some may question its relevance for the modern world and the world beyond the Indian diaspora.  The core messages of Diwali are as universal and relevant for us today as they have been for millennia.  

  1. First, Diwali offers a message of hope. The light of truth and wisdom will pierce even the darkest night.  The light of justice and faith will pierce the darkest moments of oppression and despair.

  2. Coming together for peace.  As seen in the Indian example, many faiths come together to celebrate Diwali for many reasons, but the common theme of the victory of good over evil, unites them all.  In today’s complex world the need to accommodate diversity and find common ground is as relevant as ever.

  3. Where people can come together by finding common ground, there can be peace.  Where there is peace, there can be knowledge and light.

  4. Where there is peace and knowledge there can be justice and prosperity – material and spiritual.

Festival of Lights, Diwali Celebrations in San Diego

This ode to the Sun is presented by San Diego Indian American Society in association with Mingei International Museum, San Diego Museum of Art and   Committee for Arts of Indian Subcontinent and India associations.

This annual festival signifies the best virtues in human condition. Diwali illuminations bring the brightness and joy with the hope of finding light in darkness, achieving knowledge where there is ignorance and spreading love amidst hatred.

This Festival of Lights adds a non-traditional dimension to the celebration in that it presents replica of lamps created from ancient designs used in different eras, traditions and regions of India. It is in the fascinating variety of lamps that we see the art of the creative craftsmanship from the past to the present. Here we present fourteen different types of lamps, in varying sizes from 3 feet to 8 feet, generally used in Tamilnadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharastra, West Bengal, Gujarat and Punjab. In this collection, we have lamps used by Christians, Muslims and Zorastrians. In the years to come, we hope to increase the present collection of 54 lamps to 108 and to include other faiths and other regions of India. One thousand and eight small lamps, similar to the ones used in India during Diwali celebrations, are also lit.

These lamps are exhibited in the Organ Pavilion. Visitors are so inquisitive that they keep the volunteers busy explaining the intricacies of the art and its meaning. Countless number photos have been taken. These lamps are donated by many members of Indian American community, notably Nacha and Madhu Madhavan, C.K and Gayatri Prahalad, Lata and Ashok Israni, Nerru and Subal Goswami, Harriet and Maneck Wadia, Saroja and Dak Murthy, Kanta and P.K. Patel, Gopa and Purna Patnaik, Anita and Sri Gopal, Asmita and Rasik Bosmia, Hema and Bharat Lall and Sejal Parikh.

Besides incomparable lamp exhibition, organ pavilion stage comes alive with performances of specially choreographed dances representing various styles unique to different states in at least 14 different regional languages and a delightful music performance intermingled with modern dances. This is followed by a procession of 64 exquisitely sari clad women from different states in India carrying 1008 lights. What a revue it is. Overflowing fully satisfied, appreciative crowd of more than 2,500 people give a standing ovation for long minutes. It culminates in vigorous Punjabi Bangra dance joined by throngs of people.

Those who attend Festival of Lights also visit San Diego Museum of Art to enjoy some part of unique collection of Indian paintings and Mingei International Museum to appreciate matchless collection of folk art in the museum.

Mouth Watering Indian delicacies sold by San Diego’s famous Indian restaurants add another dimension to experience India.

Over 300 artists are involved in the performances and superb team of M.C. “Madhu”Madhavan, Hamid Daudani, Manish Parikh, Ram Seshan, Jonathan Bosco, Neelu Bhardwaj and others coordinate the event.