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Happy Diwali!

Many Americans don’t know what a special day Diwali is for close to 1.21 billion people all around the world. 

It’s a holiday that is essentially the equivalent of Christmas to millions of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains worldwide. It signifies the new year and the “triumph of good over evil,” according to Sanjay Gupta, co-chair of South Florida’s Indian Regional Cultural Center’s (IRCC) annual Diwali celebration.

Gupta, who moved to the United States in 1999, admits he sometimes finds it hard to connect or explain the significance of the holiday to people. “Sometimes I ask my Jewish friends how they usually explain their holidays,” he laughed. “We’ve simplified it as ‘the festival of lights’ to book the venue and to invite people that are not Indian to the event.”

Diyas, or candles. (Courtesy of Sporadic/Flickr Creative Commons)
Diyas, or candles. (Courtesy of Sporadic/Flickr Creative Commons)

Yeah, sure it’s the festival of lights… but it’s so much more than that. The history spans all the way back to ancient India, where it was likely a harvest festival.  When reading ancient Hindu mythology, it can be tied to a number of stories.

Ram and Sita. (Courtesy of Indi Samarajiva/Flickr Creative Commons)
Ram and Sita. (Courtesy of Indi Samarajiva/Flickr Creative Commons)

The most popular Diwali story is the return of a god and goddess — Rama and Sita — from a 14-year exile deep in the forest. After Rama defeats a demon named Ravana and returns to his kingdom, the whole village celebrates their great leader’s return, dancing and lighting up the town as good triumphed over evil. There are a number of other myths that Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs remembered during Diwali, which celebrate the themes of humility, humbleness, and gratitude.

Each of these stories is celebrated on the days following and prior to the Diwali day. The first day which was on Monday is called dhan theras, which is an auspicious day that people typically spend buying silver, gold, and other valuables. On Tuesday, the second day, is choti Diwali, which means “little Diwali,” akin to Christmas Eve. Today is Diwali the day that many worship the goddess of luck, Laxmi, and pray for good fortune, clean their homes, and visit temple, friends, and family. I personally will be lighting fireworks and dancing up a storm at my community center’s annual Diwali celebration. Tomorrow will be a day of worship, and the final day, Friday, will be bhratri dooj, a day dedicated to celebrating your siblings.

In 2015, President Obama lit a diya, or candle, in the White House to honor the holiday that is so important to the some 1.6 million Indian immigrants in the United States.

A diya, or candle. (Courtesy of Subharnab Majumdar/Flickr Creative Commons)
A diya, or candle. (Courtesy of Subharnab Majumdar/Flickr Creative Commons)

Only once someone experiences Diwali, can they understand its many dimensions, and with close to 23,467 of Indian immigrants living in South Florida, Miami is a great place to start. This year’s IRCC’s annual celebration is on Nov. 12 at the Broward County Convention Center, featuring Indian music, food, and dancing to ring in the new year.

This article has been updated since publication. 

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