Dhanteras or Diwali – What is it?
There is no dearth of festivals in India. From Ugadi to Ramadan and Christmas, India celebrates festivals all-round the year. Every festival in India has its own significance, may it be historical or mythological. Similarly, Diwali or Dhanteras, the festival of lights and firecrackers too has its own significance. Since it is the season of Dhanteras, this article tries to focus on the significance of Dhanteras.
Diwali or Dhanteras is celebrated in India for 3-5 days depending on the region, and Dhanteras is the first day of this festival. The name comes from the word “Dhan trayodashi” or “Dhanvantari trayodashi” (trayodashi=13th day), the word ‘dhan’ meaning wealth. The festival falls on the 13th day of the new moon in the month of Aswayuja (October-November). On this day, Goddess Lakshmi, who is considered the goddess of wealth and prosperity is worshipped.
Dhanteras has a special significance among the business communities as this is the day most of the business people buy precious metals and commodities. Usually, sweets are distributed to the nearest and dearest ones, along with burning firecrackers. People also tend to buy gold, silver or new jewellery on this day.
History and significance of Dhanteras
The festival of Dhanteras has a mythological significance. There are several stories attributed to the festival. Here is the most common one. According to this story, it was prophesised that King Hima’s 16-old son would die by a snake-bite on the fourth day of his marriage, by his horoscope. On that fateful day, his newly-wed wife did not allow him to sleep. She laid all her gold and silver ornaments in a heap at the entrance of the sleeping chamber and lit lamps. She narrated stories and sang songs to keep her husband awake.
The next day, Yama, the god of death, arrived at the prince’s doorstep in the guise of a serpent. His eyes were dazzled and blinded by the brilliantly lit lamps and the jewellery. Yama could not enter the chamber, so he climbed on top of the jewellery heap and sat there the entire night listening to the stories and songs. In the morning, instead of biting the prince, he silently went away. Thus, the young prince was saved. Since that day, the day came to be celebrated as Dhanteras. Few other people celebrate this day as the day Goddess Lakshmi was born from the depth of the seas, during the churning of the sea (samudra manthan).
The next day is called Naraka Chaturdashi. There are again different stories attached to this as well. While some people celebrate this day to glorify Yama, the king of hell (naraka) and death (chaturdahi meaning 14th day), some people commemorate this day as the day when Narakasura, an evil demon king was killed in a battle by Lord Krishna and his consort, Satyabhama.
The third day (new moon) also signifies the worship of goddess Lakshmi, in her most benevolent mood fulfilling her devotees’ wishes. The fourth day, called Bali Padyami (padyami = first day) to commemorate the return of the famous demon emperor Bali. The story goes around that, though Bali was born a demon (in a demon family), he was considered an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu and a very benevolent emperor, who was loved by all his subjects due to his good deeds. His growing power however made other gods uneasy. They requested Lord Vishnu to do something to stop Bali’s growing power. Accordingly, Lord Vishnu took the form of Vamana (a dwarf) and in a battle of wits, vanquished Bali and pushed him down to patala (the underworld). He however was impressed by the good nature and benevolence of Bali and granted him a kingdom to rule in the underworld. He also granted him a boon that every year, Bali could come back to the surface and visit his beloved subjects for one day. Bali padyami is the day when he returns every year to visit his subjects, which is marked with celebrations by burning fireworks and lighting of lamps. In the southern part of India, the traditions vary slightly.
As seen above, there are different mythologies and stories associated with the significance of Dhanteras.. However, there is one thing which still remains common across all regions and communities – the spirit of light and celebration which brings people of different communities and religions together without the geographical and racial barrier.