Diwali in Pittsburgh

Celebrating the Festival of Lights in a new world

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Illustration by Sourav Das

As the mid-autumn sun descends into the cool night, joyous screams erupt. Fireworks roar through the sky to giddy squeals of children in shimmering Indian clothing. Their chudiyas (bangles) chime as they run in endless circles with technicolor sparklers in hand. A feast of steaming, sweet coconut gujiyas with warm, flaking crusts; fluffy breads, creamy curries, and exotic spiced vegetables crowd an overflowing table, all in celebration of the bountiful joy of the harvest season. This is Diwali, the shortened name of Deepavali, literally meaning The Festival of Lights. It is one of any Indian community’s most important holidays.

Diwali has much spiritual significance beyond its religious narrative. At its core, it is a celebration of the power of good over evil.

Among the more sensuous delights of the ancient festival, spiritual oil lamps illuminate every nook and cranny of spotless homes, which have been cleaned for days in preparation for the five-day-long celebration in India but a daylong festival in Pittsburgh, where I live. The flickering of brilliant red flames in the moonlight abound in memory of ancient gods and heroes, commemorating the inevitable triumph of good over evil, the quest for inner peace, and the superiority of compassionate virtue over corrupting vice. It celebrates unique narratives for distinct groups, Lord Rama’s return from Lanka, the enlightenment of the Jains’ last Tirthankara Mahavir Swami, and the Sixth Guru’s release from captivity for the Sikhs. This is Diwali.

The large group of friends and family come together in one setting to honor the passing year, bound together by their mutual love and warmth. They cluster around a ritual altar as ancient devotional chants and songs are sung, cleansing and reflective rites are observed, and powerful mantras are transcribed by hand to invite Mother Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity, into the home and the coming year. This is Diwali.

Despite the imposing traditions in Pittsburgh, they pale to the celebrations in India, where hundreds of millions of people don the trappings of the year’s most important holiday, celebrating in their homes and throughout the tropical streets. But as autumn leaves lose their hues to the brown heralds of snow, the tradition of happiness remains inherently the same. The ideas and importance behind the celebration retain their immutable truths and everlasting beauty: light, community, and joy. This is Diwali.

Celebrated throughout the Indian subcontinent and by Indian communities around the world, Diwali is one of India’s largest holidays, comparable to Christmas in the West. For Hindus, the largest religion to celebrate the holiday, Diwali commemorates key events in many mythological stories. However, the most widespread Hindu celebration of Diwali marks the return of the god-king Lord Rama, from the Kingdom of Lanka (modern-day Sri Lanka) as follows:

Lord Rama was an avatara (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu (the Hindu God of Preservation). After being banished from his kingdom by his stepmother, Lord Rama, his wife Sita (herself a daughter of the Earth goddess), and his brother Lakshmana journeyed through the forest. One day, the evil demon king of Lanka, named Ravana, kidnapped Lord Rama’s wife. After an epic war, Lord Rama, Mother Sita, and Lakshmana triumphantly returned to their kingdom. As they journeyed through the nights of the dark jungles, people lit thousands of lamps to illuminate their path, representing the light of virtue and victory.

Similarly, people of the Jain religion celebrate Diwali as the day on which the last tirthankar (prophet) gained moksha (enlightenment) in 527 B.C.E., and Sikhs celebrate the holiday as the day on which the Sixth Guru (teacher) was released from captivity in 1619.

Diwali has much spiritual significance beyond its religious narrative. At its core, it is a celebration of the power of good over evil. The lamps lit on Diwali signify knowledge, learning, and understanding, while the darkness that’s illuminated represents the internal ignorance within all living beings. Only through careful reflection and learning may we illuminate the darkness within ourselves with the flame of knowledge. The oil within the traditional oil lamp further represents inner vice, while the wick represents the ego. As the flame rises up toward the heavens, it burns away the inner darkness within ourselves.

When is Diwali?

Diwali is a lunar holiday, so its date changes each year based upon the lunar cycles. This year, Diwali will be celebrated near Sunday, October 27. 

Where is Diwali celebrated in Pittsburgh?

In Pittsburgh, Diwali is most often celebrated in peoples’ homes and community centers. The two large Indian temples of Pittsburgh, the Hindu Jain Temple, Sri Venkateshwara (S.V.) Temple, Chinmaya Mission of Pittsburgh, and the Sri Shirdi Sai Baba Temple also host religious functions and celebrations. 

1 Comment

  • By Asha Sharma on 27 October 2019 at 12:28 am

    Very well written !! Simply awesome 👏🏽

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