COLUMBIA — The Hindu community in mid-Missouri and around the world is reveling in joyful celebration this week as they mark Diwali and their new year in a five-day festival that began Saturday and ends Thursday.
The date of Diwali varies from year to year according to the lunar calendar. It typically falls during October or November.
Because there is no single universal doctrine, calendar, or spiritual leader in Hinduism, religious traditions are strongly localized. The date, the celebration, the spiritual significance and even the name of the new year's festival often depends on the region. In the Hindi language, primarily spoken in the southern part of India, Diwali is known as Deepavali, while the Nepali language calls the festival Dipawali.
In some parts of South Asia, Diwali commemorates the homecoming of the deity Ram from a long exile and a battle. In other regions, Hindus celebrate Diwali to honor Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, as well as goddess of strength Kali and ancient Indian king Bali.
What unifies the assorted celebrations of Diwali is its status as one of the highest and most popular holidays in Hinduism. As Christmas is to Christians, so Diwali is to Hindus, with similarly personalized and personally meaningful celebrations. Gifts are exchanged, feasts are shared and homes are cleaned and opened to welcome the deities Diwali honors.
The many celebrations of Diwali also share a common character as a festival of lights. The various iterations of the festival's name are all defined essentially as "row of lamps." Candles and lamps are lit throughout the days of the festival as a greeting to the deities, and in some regions, fireworks are set off.
The centerpiece of Diwali is the beginning of the lunar new year, which falls on the fourth day of the festival. In a symbolic sense, old business accounts are settled and new books opened, a nod to Laksmi and her promise of prosperity. Some regions of India mark this day as the beginning of their fiscal year as well.
Diwali is not exclusive to Hinduism. Sikhism and Jainism, which both have close ties to Hindu tradition, also celebrate the festival. Sikhs honor one of their gurus, or historical spiritual guides, while Jains commemorate the death of one of their deities.
Columbia's Shanthi Mandir Hindu Temple and Community Center celebrated Diwali -- or Deepavali, as many of the temple's primarily Hindi-speaking members call it – with a service on Saturday evening. Hindu faithful at the temple took part in a ritual of song, prayer, sacred readings and the lighting of lamps and sparklers.