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Driving away darkness

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Glittering lights match the sparkle in the eyes of the well-dressed people carrying presents for their loved ones, and the warmth radiating from the brightly lit, newly cleaned and painstakingly decorated houses. It's holiday time, a time to look forward to the New Year, and a fresh start. Sounds like one more Christmas celebration? Well, close, but not quite.

What I'm describing is the flurry of Diwali, the Festival of Lights celebrated on Amavasya, the 15th day of the dark fortnight of the Hindu month of Ashwin. Diwali is about vanquishing ignorance that subdues humanity and driving away darkness that engulfs the light of knowledge. Lost? Geographically, you have reached India, but in reality, this festival is celebrated by Hindus the world over. The Indian community of the Triangle celebrates it every year at the Hindu temple in Morrisville.

Each of the five days of Diwali has its own significance in myth, legend and belief. The first day, Dhanteras, (dhan=wealth) is particularly important for the affluent, mercantile community of Western India. Believing this day to be auspicious, women purchase some gold or silver for good luck. The second day, Narka-Chaturdashi is dedicated to lights and prayers heralding a joyous future. The third day, Lakshmi-Puja, is the most important. It's devoted to offerings to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Every home, from a poor man's hut to a rich man's mansion, is lit by sparkling diyas, small earthen lamps. Feasts are arranged and gifts exchanged, as families, dressed in their best clothes, visit temples, friends and relatives. The fourth day, Padwa is looked upon as the most favorable to start a new venture. In some Hindu homes, the wife prays for her husband's long life, and in return for her devotion, he gives her a special gift. The fifth and final day is known as Bhai-Duj (bhai=brother), observed as a symbol of love between brothers and sisters.

Despite its religious roots, Diwali is more of a social festival. It's a time of love and forgiveness, a time to strengthen old friendships and forget past enmities. In that way, Diwali reminds me of Christmas and I've grown up celebrating both.

Multiculturalism is a loaded idea in a year torn apart by terrorism and religious fundamentalism. The world can learn from a poor, underdeveloped country like India, that struggles under decades of religious strife, yet bravely upholds its constitutional right of freedom of religion. This is a crucial time for the world to spread its arms and embrace humanity, not only for five days of Diwali or 12 days of Christmas, but for all 365 days of the year.

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