Diwali is arguably Hinduism’s most widely observed festival, famous for its lighting of diyas (clay lamps) and firecrackers to commemorate the victory of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and spiritual light over darkness. But did you know it isn’t the only light festival that takes place during autumn?
Kartik — the Hindu lunar month Diwali falls in, between October and November — is considered an extremely auspicious time of the year and so Hindus all over the world take advantage of the spiritually potent period by engaging in a variety of light observances. Presenting their offerings, not only to broadly honor the power of the Divine, but as a symbol of devotion to a particular deity of their desire, the entire month is a festival of lights, ablaze with the fiery oblations of a medley of unique traditions. Here is but a window into some of them.
1) Lakshmi Puja
Seeing as how Diwali is the most well-known of Kartik’s light festivals, we thought it would be an appropriate place to start, but with special focus on the ceremony that culminates in the evening, as it is, after all, when the lamps come out.
While, for many, these lamps commemorate, above anything, the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya after defeating the tyrant king Ravana, it’s also customary for most Hindus to spend the night performing puja (worship) to Lakshmi, thereby infusing greater meaning to the power of their light.
Revered as a feminine aspect of the Divine who personifies wealth, abundance, and prosperity, Diwali is said to be a time Lakshmi is especially magnanimous, as it’s associated with both her appearance day and marriage to Vishnu (a form of the supreme being in Vaishnava Dharma traditions).
Because of this, devotees take great care to invoke her presence, making sure their homes are cleaned, their shrines are decoratively adorned, they’re immaculately dressed in new clothing, and various food items are prepared. Having thus created an atmosphere worthy of a sacred personality, the diyas and lamps they light also call on her to bless their homes and lives.
And for those in western parts of India who consider the day after Diwali to be the start of the new year (as opposed to most parts where it’s observed during the spring), the celebration has yet another layer of import. In hopes of ushering in a prosperous year of successful endeavors, be they material or spiritual (though the latter is the emphasis), every aspect of the evening is charged with a heightened sense of focus, devotion, and ultimate gratitude.
2) Chhath Puja
A month of light festivals wouldn’t make sense without at least one of them honoring the source of light itself: the Sun. So, beginning on the sixth day of Kartik, adherents — mainly in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, some areas in Madhya Pradesh, and a few regions in Nepal — observe a festival called Chhath Puja, which does just that.
Dedicated to Surya (the Sun), and Chhathi Maiya (often identified as a motherly aspect of his consort Usha, “the goddess of dawn”), such adherents undertake elaborate ceremonies of gratitude to the Sun, as exhibited by some of Hinduism’s most ancient figures. Invoking the mood of those like Karna, who was a staunch devotee of Surya, and Rama, who is said to have been his descendant, the celebration is a four-day event that proceeds as follows:
- Day 1 (Nahay Khay): Derived from the Hindi word nahana (“to bathe”) and khana (“to eat”), devotees begin the festival by taking a ceremonial bath in a body of water, purifying the body, mind, and soul in preparation for the event’s sacred rituals. The day is then spent fasting, as they meticulously cook a meal for the deities, which gets offered in the evening before accepting it themselves as prasada (sacred food remnants).
- Day 2 (Kharna): Known as the day of fasting, devotees recommence their abstinence from food and water with the distinct intention of absorbing their minds in deeper focus to Surya and Chhathi Maiya. Thereby reaching a deeper level of divine appreciation, they once again accept a little prasada in the evening.
- Day 3 (Sandhya Arghya): Considered the most significant of the four days, a large part of Sandhya Arghya is spent much like the previous two, with fasting and preparing sacred food. As the evening approaches, however, devotees make their way to a riverbank, pond, or large body of water, and facing the setting sun in reverent prayer, offer oblations, sing devotional songs, and light diyas late into the night.
- Day 4 (Usha Arghya): Rising before daybreak on this last part of the observance, devotees return to their chosen body of water. As the first rays of dawn illuminate the sky, they offer a final ceremony of gratitude and prayers, illuminating their hearts with the rays of their enhanced devotion.
While revered as one who manifests the dawn of light, Chhathi Maiya is also said to bring the dawn of divine consciousness. Beyond showing gratitude for the gifts she and Surya bestow for one’s physical sustainment, Chhath Puja, therefore, is ultimately about praying for the divine couple to freely shine the light of spiritual strength and inspiration on all who sincerely approach them.
3) Karthigai Deepam
A major festival in regions of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Sri Lanka, Karnataka, and Telangana, Karthigai Deepam is near and dear to much of South India, where it’s especially celebrated in a vibrant and uplifting way. Though, as is the case with many Hindu observances, a number of narratives can be found in connection to its significance, the most prominent one centers around Shiva (the supreme being for practitioners of the Shaiva Dharma traditions).
Once, so the story goes, Brahma (“the creator”) and Vishnu (“the universal preserver”) got into a playful discourse over which of them was superior in power. As their back and forth escalated, turning into a spirited debate, Shiva, who wanted to see it brought to a conclusion, transformed himself into a towering column of light, and dared the two to find its ends. Eager to take on the challenge, Vishnu assumed the form of a boar and descended in pursuit of the base, while Brahma became a swan and soared upwards in search of the head. Realizing, in due course, however, that there was, in fact, no limit to the light’s reach, they returned to where they had begun, enthralled by Shiva’s seemingly boundless potency.
To honor such potency, adherents spend the day of Karthigai Deepam cleaning and decorating the home, drawing kolams (colored patterns of flowers, powder, rice, or sand made on the floor), and fasting. And when the sun sets, making way for the month’s brightest moon to rise and bestow a light reminiscent of Shiva’s, devotees answer back with a flurry of their own, as lamplights flood the night in awe of his divine brilliance.
In Thiruvannamalai, this brilliance is paid homage to in a particularly stunning way. 2,668 feet high on Arunachala, the town’s sacred mountain regarded as a manifestation of Shiva, a massive earthen lamp is lit, emitting a light visible to a more than 20-mile radius. Humbled by its expansive presence, hundreds of thousands circumambulate the place of pilgrimage, praying to the deity for his everlasting blessings.
4) Urja Vrata
Primarily followed by those who worship Krishna through the process of bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion) Urja Vrata, meaning the “the empowering observance,” has several layers to it, beginning, first and foremost, with Radharani, his eternal consort.
Described as Shakti, or a manifestation of Krishna’s creative and energetic force, she is the sunshine to his sun, indiscriminately conferring the light of devotion to all who choose to step into its illuminating power. During the month of Kartik, of which she is said to be the presiding deity, the current of such power is especially accessible, flowing through Krishna’s greatest devotees in various displays of unique pastimes and expressions.
The most notable of these pastimes, according to preceptors of the tradition, took place when Krishna was a toddler, after he mischievously broke a pot of his mother’s homemade butter while she was occupied tending to a pan of overboiled milk. Rapturously endeared, as recounted in the Bhagavata Purana (a sacred text focused on devotion to Krishna), upon discovering the result of her son’s naughty behavior, she immediately sought his capture, so as to lovingly chastise him.
When, however, she finally had him in her grasp, and attempted to tie him to a large wooden mortar to prevent him from engaging in further mischief, the rope, she realized, didn’t extend quite far enough. Quickly finding another longer one, she tried again, but discovered, to her surprise, that it too came up the same length short. Fueled by her maternal sense of duty to discipline him, she got another, and another, and yet another, with every one falling just as short — even when she connected a number of them together. Unwilling to relent, she persisted for hours until, finally reaching the end of her strength, gave it one last try and, right as she was about to give up, mysteriously succeeded.
Those, of course, who understand the deeper meaning behind the story, know there was nothing actually mysterious about it. Krishna, who is beyond the mundane reach of even the most powerful, illustrates in this renowned pastime, that he is bound and conquered by the pure will of unyielding love and devotion. Thus known also as the month of Damodar (“he whose abdomen was bound by rope”), devotees spend everyday of Kartik singing prayers in tribute to Yasoda’s love, and offer lamps as expressions of their own, hoping Radharani will fan their flames to heights that would be otherwise unattainable.
If you enjoyed this piece, then you may also be interested in reading “5 things to know about Diwali“