Is Deepavali more than just a festival of lights? Generally, Diwali in the Northern parts of the country is celebrated to commemorate the triumphant arrival of Sri Rama in Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana. In the south, Deepavali is associated with the killing of Narakasura by Sathyabhama and Krishna. In both cases, it shows the triumph of good over evil, or so we have been taught. Different cultures celebrate the same festival for different reasons.
It is perhaps the only Hindu festival which is celebrated on a new moon day. The new moon day is generally considered inauspicious. It is the day of mourning, a day to remember one’s ancestors. Many Hindus choose this day to make an offering (Tharpanam) to their ancestors. Generally astrologers do not advise the believers to venture upon anything new on Amavasya day. In many parts of South India, Deepavali rituals include the sesame oil bath, the feeding of crows, the distribution of new clothes, the bursting of crackers etc. Ironically, most of these customs also form a part of death rituals among many communities. Are we missing something here?
Do such customs point to some ancient historical event? Did Deepavali in the south start as a remembrance of some illustrious ancestor and later got Sanskritised to its present form? In parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka, the third day of Deepavali is celebrated as Bali Pratipada. The legend is that, Deepavali is the day when emperor Mahabali of Asuras was banished to netherworld by Vamana. A pyramid-shaped image of Bali is made out of clay and is placed over a wooden plank designed with Rangoli decorations and bedecked with flowers and worshipped. The similarities with these customs with the Onam festival of Kerala are hard to miss for anyone who is familiar with Onam. Onam is in remembrance of the same Asura king, Mahabali. Flower mats are made and similar pyramid shaped clay image of Mahabali is worshipped during Onam. The belief that Mahabali’s reign was the most ideal one runs strong in the collective psyche of the people celebrating these two distinct festivals. Though it is believed that Mahabali’s capital was in Kerala, Vamana Purana states that Mahabali was performing Aswamedha Yajna on the banks of the Narmada, when Vamana approached him with the request for three paces of land.
It may not be a coincidence that people in and around Narmada celebrate the Asura emperor’s memory in an almost similar fashion in which it is being done in far away Kerala. Like their cousins in distant Kerala during Onam, the common rural folks of Maharashtra and North Karnataka celebrate the memory of a shared dream during Deepavali. Unlike the North Indian Diwali where homecoming of Rama is celebrated, it is the memory of a vanquished Asura king that gives life to the celebration of the rural folks of Deccan. They do not yearn for Rama Rajya, but for the ideal kingdom of Bali. They mourn the fact that three little steps of a dwarf grew big enough to crush their entire world and dreams. An ideal world lay shattered on the altar of jealousy; the jealousy of Gods towards an Asura ruler who brought peace, prosperity and equality to his people. The people of this country, then as it is now, do not deserve anything better, or so it is willed by the Gods. But such precious dreams of men do not wither away at the will of the Gods.
The differences between Onam and Deepavali disappear in this collective yearning for an ideal world. Now the strange customs of Deepavali that resembles many death rituals start making sense. The reason for the most important of all festivals being celebrated on an Amavasya day becomes clearer. The rituals of Deepavali are a part of “Bali Tharpan”, the homage to an Asura emperor who gave up his life for upholding the truth and Dharma. Like any death in rural South India, this day also gets celebrated with the same exuberance of life. In its bursting of crackers, in its feasting, in its new clothes, in its ritual bath with sesame oil, the bitterness of the death goes hand in hand with the life and its sweetness. The agony of a lost past mixes with the hope of a better future. Thus, Deepavali is a tribute to the spirit of our people who keep dreaming about an ideal rule. It may be as Ramarajya in the north or as Bali Rajya in the south, but the yearning remains the same. Such optimism is indeed remarkable when we consider how our Rulers and our Gods have short-changed us for so long. Yet we refuse to stop dreaming. And in such dreams lie our hope and salvation.
Anand Neelakantan is the author of Asura — Tale Of The Vanquished, The Story Of Ravana And His People