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A Westerner’s Diwali Experiences in India

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October 2007
A Westerner’s Diwali Experiences in India

Having made five trips to India, all of them during the Fall season, I have had many Diwali experiences. Two of those are particularly memorable to me—one was traditional and the other was somewhat unique to that region.

On one of my trips to India, I happened to be in Darjeeling during Diwali. Though I thought I was familiar with the general meaning and symbology of the festival, the particular Diwali practice here was unknown to me. In most of India it is the custom for a brother to honor his sister during Diwali (on the day of bhai beej).

Although, in Darjeeling, the tradition is celebrated a bit differently. The practice has its roots in Hindu mythology. When an evil supernatural being was trying to kill a woman's brother, she covered him with flowers to hide him, and this action saved his live. During Diwali in Darjeeling, a sister fasts all day until her brother arrives. She then places a garland of flowers around his neck and pours a ring of oil around him. As the oil is lighted, he stands encircled in flames, which symbolizes his sister's "ever-burning" protection. It is a very sentimental holiday. If one has no brother or sister, that person tries to help and befriend someone as though he or she were a blood relative. I observed several men proudly wearing their garlands in public.

Though most of the homes, stores, and temples in India are decorated with thousands of small oil lamps for Diwali, because Darjeeling is built on a mountainside, it enabled me to see a much larger panorama of lighted homes in a single glance than would otherwise be possible on a flat terrain. As I walked along the Darjeeling hillside that dark evening, it seemed that lighted homes were stacked upon lighted homes. These glowing memories of Darjeeling are still well-etched in my mind.

My other memorable Diwali experience took place in Ranchi, in the state of Bihar. I was staying at the ashram of my Guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, whose classic book Autobiography of a Yogi is well known in the East and West. The ashram residents and guests were all standing outside at twilight, where hundreds of small oil lamps were being lighted prior to the evening group meditation. A multi-tiered fountain that was not turned on was covered with many small clay lamps. Someone lighted all the lamps but the last one at the very top, which was out of his reach. Because I was somewhat taller than he and was standing nearby, he turned to me and asked me to light the last lamp.

A thrill went through my body as I thought of the significance of what the lamp at the top of the fountain represented to me. As I climbed onto the fountain and stretched as high as I could to light the final lamp, I prayed that my life always be an example of light for others and that evil never be able to use me as an instrument.

Thinking about the significance of Diwali and the light that Lord Rama brought into our world, during this Festival of Lights, may each of us make a special effort that the inner light within us blaze a trail of love, peace, and compassion for our error-torn world.

[Robert Arnett has had an avid interest in India for over thirty years. He is the author and photographer of the internationally acclaimed book India Unveiled and the author of a multi-award winning children's book, Finders Keepers?, set in India. For more information visit www.atmanpress.com]

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By Robert Arnett


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