In 527 BC, a 72-year-old spiritual master died in the city of Pawa in Bihar. While the tales of many historical figures tell of their transformation from rags to riches, events occurred in the reverse in this case—at 30, the man gave up his royal identity, becoming an ascetic. All he had was his robe, till he abandoned clothes altogether. Naked, he pursued his spiritual quest, confronting many a challenge in the process—he was “beaten with sticks", records one chronicle, while outside a village he was met by a mob that said to him in no uncertain terms, “Get away from here." When he meditated, they “cut his flesh, tore his hair…(and) covered him with dust". But the man persevered, attaining omniscience, it is said, in his 40s.
Indeed, by the time he died, he had revitalized an old sramanic tradition of asceticism, winning legions of disciples and even kingly respect. He is now celebrated as Vardhaman Mahavir, the 24th Tirthankar of the Jains, and it was on Diwali day all those centuries ago that his mortal existence came to an end.
Through many an age, Diwali has endured as a festival of tremendous significance in India. Some see it as having evolved from an autumnal agrarian celebration: In the somewhat sniffy words of a colonial commentator, the festival marks the annual return of a time when “the granaries are full of corn, the tension of labour and anxiety about the harvest are…removed, the people are idle, and thus there is a natural tendency to outbreaks of eroticism and temporary relaxation of the laws of order".
To orthodox Jains, though, this was not originally about mere rejoicing—as a day that marks the attainment of moksha (salvation) by Mahavir, it was at first spent in silence, with fasts and other austerities as experienced by the 24th Tirthankar. Over time, though, more cheerful elements made their way into the Jain Diwali too. With many Jains being prosperous merchants and purveyors of trade, they too welcomed the goddess of wealth to their homes on this day, paving Lakshmi’s way with light and decorative opulence.
But even the Hindus never had just one Diwali—as with everything else in the faith, the festival of lights too can only be spoken of in the plural. One significant tradition declares this the day the hero of the Ramayan finally returned to his country and throne after 14 years in exile and victory over his asura foe, Ravana. Another highlights a story from the other great Indian epic, the Mahabharat, relating that it was on Diwali eve that Krishna slayed the arrogant Narakasura, liberating 16,000 women he had enslaved. Whatever the chief tradition, though, lamps and illumination are key to Diwali—even the Jains who stayed silent and fasted brightened up the night, remembering that when Mahavir died, 18 kings came together and declared, “Since the light of intelligence is gone, let us make an illumination of material matter." Akbar and Jahangir ensured the Mughals celebrated Diwali in their courts, while visitors to Vijayanagar in the south too noticed the “innumerable number of lamps of oil…which (were) kept burning day and night" on this festive occasion.
The advent of gunpowder, interestingly, made Diwali an event featuring more than just magnificent lights. In the second half of the 18th century, for instance, the celebrated Maratha general Mahadji Scindia wrote to his master, the Peshwa, about events in Kota in Rajasthan. “The Divali festival," he noted, “is celebrated for 4 days at Kota when lacs of lamps are lighted." But remarkably, “the Raja of Kota during these 4 days gives a display of fire-works outside the premises of his capital." The whole setup was described as the “Lanka of fire-works", featuring an image of the asura king Ravana in the centre, with the monkey-warrior Hanuman nearby. These and the smaller figures were “all prepared of gunpowder". The whole thing was designed in such a fashion that when Hanuman’s tail was lit—in remembrance of an episode in the Ramayan—he “begins to fly in the air, setting fire to various houses in this Lanka of fireworks". So intrigued was the Peshwa by this report that a similar contrivance was engineered even in Pune, setting the ball rolling for modern Diwalis with fireworks and displays.
The festival was celebrated even by those who did not live in the splendid palaces and great cities of India’s agrarian and commercial heartlands. Bhil tribes in Khandesh saw Diwali as a three-day affair, featuring buffalo sacrifices and a generous amount of alcohol. Celebrations in Maharashtra venerated the asura king Bali, who was defeated and banished from his land by the dwarf avatar of Vishnu—a somewhat un-Sanskritic detail in a festival formally replete with Sanskritic references. Ahir cattle herders, meanwhile, saw Diwali as an occasion not to recall Krishna as the slayer of Narakasura, but in his avatar as a cowherd.
They would create a mound to stand in for the sacred hill of Govardhan that features in Krishna’s childhood tales, “dance round it, and make the cattle trample it to pieces". Gammallas in Telugu country, meanwhile, were distillers for whom Diwali was a day to venerate serpent gods, in whose honour they visited anthills believed to house the most potent snakes.
In essence, though, celebrating the power of light in throwing off even the most forbidding cloaks of darkness remains the principal physical and philosophical motif for Diwali. The 13th century Jnaneshwari, in fact, compares the shine of Diwali’s festive lamps to the light of knowledge—an attractive metaphor, perhaps, for our own time, which seems to be seized by the creeping darkness of wilful ignorance. Those bearing today’s lamps may have to endure much like Mahavir did in his own day—but it is a quest worth its exactions, for even a single flickering flame is capable of keeping shadows at bay.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @unampillai