This Thursday, millions of people began celebrating Diwali with fireworks and stunning light displays. Observed across religions and national borders, Diwali is a multi-day festival that, at its root, honors the triumph of light over dark, righteousness over immorality. It's no wonder, then, that it's held around one of the darkest times of year, during a new moon to boot. This joyful holiday is meant to bring light into people's lives, and holds the promise of new beginnings.
Nikunj Trivedi, chairman of the Hindu Students Council's board of trustees, tells Refinery29 that, within Hinduism, Diwali commemorates both the return of Lord Rama (an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu) to his kingdom after defeating Ravana, the demon king; as well as Lord Krishna's triumph over another demon king, Naraka. Both of these stories carry the message that good can — and will — defeat evil. He adds that people will also pray to the god Ganesha and the goddess Lakshmi during Diwali, as they're respectively associated with success and wealth.
Some Hindus, Trivedi says, view Diwali as the start of the new year, thus the emphasis on prosperity and righteousness. Others celebrate it simply as a religious festival, paying tribute to the gods and goddess mentioned above, plus, depending on the region of India, the goddess Kali and the god Lord Shiva.
Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists also celebrate this festival of lights, as it's often called, and traditions vary slightly for each. Jains also light lamps, but in honor of Lord Mahavira, the last of 24 enlightened souls within Jainist scriptures. Sikhs actually celebrate a separate holiday, Bandi Chhorh Divas, which happens to coincide with Diwali and, since it commemorates the anniversary of the Sikh Guru Hargobind Sahib being freed from prison in the 1600s, shares some of its themes. Meanwhile, Buddhists recall Diwali as the day that the Indian Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism.
Not only does this international holiday come with regional customs ingrained in its wider traditions, it varies in length (from five days to 12) and even name (it's known as Galungan in Indonesia and Tihar in Nepal, for example). What remains consistent is the joy and vibrance with which people observe it.
Families decorate their homes with Diyas and Rangoli (elaborate floor designs), while whole communities come together at temples and mandirs to light candles, set off sparklers and fireworks, and remind each other of the light they can create in their own lives. This festival "is marked with new beginnings, joy, celebration and remembrance of the connection between humanity and divinity," Trivedi says.