None can answer the question better than Kanchi Paramacharya. “A day of universal happiness emanated from the greatest calamity that could befall a mother and a son; nothing can be nobler than the wishes of a dying demon, and more so, the prayer of his bereaving mother, when all they asked for was that the death must be remembered as a day of celebration by everyone else”, so said the great Acharya in his Deepavali message in 1957.
The legend is well known. During Krishnavathara, there was a demonic king Narakasura. As no one else could defeat him, Lord Krishna’s help was sought and he proceeded to fight Narakasura with Devi Sathyabhama accompanying him. She in a different form as Bhoomi Devi was in fact Narakasura’s mother and indeed that was one of the reasons for his arrogance and belief that no one would be able to kill him. In the ensuing fight, Lord Krishna, feigned unconsciousness and the greatly shocked Devi Sathyabhama herself shot an arrow to kill Narakasura. As he was about to die, deep in sorrow, she asked the Lord that the day should forever be remembered: Narakasura’s wish was also the same. Thus came about the celebration of Deepavali.
Deepavali literally means an array of lights. ‘Thamosoma Jyotirgamaya’, so says the Upanishad – ‘lead me from darkness to light’. Darkness is not just the physical phenomenon of lack of light: it symbolizes misery and sorrow and failure: one wants to move away from these to happiness, health and prosperity. According to another legend this was the day, Lord Vishnu, in his incarnation as Vamana sent the evil Emperor Bali to the netherworld. In exercising the right of His promised third foot, He puts down the ahamkara or arrogance of Emperor Bali.
Deepavali is therefore about light, literally and metaphorically, dispelling darkness of all kinds. It is about a small foot trouncing the ultimate ahamkara.
“In the south India, the high point of celebration is the dawn preceding the new moon day, ie., chaturdasi, when the Sun is in the Thula Rasi and any water is deemed to be the sacred Ganga and the oil is deemed blessed by Sri Mahalakshmi herself. Everyone, from the simplest to the greatest, from an innocent child to a serene saint, is enjoined to take oil bath early that day and illuminate every nook and corner with a string of lights.
“Bhagavat Gita that emerged from the battle field, in the face of death and agony, is the foremost among books of knowledge. Deepavali, that emanated from two hearts, at a moment of ultimate sorrow for them, but with the happiness of the world at large as their objective, is thus the foremost festival.”
In the north India, where also Diwali is celebrated with gusto, it is deemed the day of Lord Rama’s return to Ayodya and his coronation: as the celebrations follow the coronation, it is an evening festival in the north. It is the day when Lakshmi puja is performed and business men especially in Gujarat and Rajasthan treat the day, or the following day, depending on tradition, as the beginning of the year, or prathama thithi.
Irrespective of what the underlying legend is, Deepavali, or Diwali, is celebrated throughout most of India as a day when the house is decorated with lights, everyone wears new clothes and fires crackers, exchanges and consumes sweets and passes on good wishes to everyone else.
According to Paramacharya, the message of Deepavali, however, remains simple: “It is a monument to the high ideal of subjucating the self for universal welfare’.