Deepavali is a festival which everyone enjoys. On that day we get up early in the morning, bathe, wear new clothes and pray. We let off fireworks to drive away evil. We greet friends and relatives and share with them a lot of sweets. We decorate our houses with rows of lights.
Looks like a day of great celebration, isn't it? Yes, it is; for, the people are celebrating a very happy event which happened during the time of Lord Krishna.
The modern State of Assam on the Eastern border of India was known as Pragjyotisha in the olden days. In Sanskrit, Praak means the East; Jyoti means light. So, the name means the same as the Land of the Rising Sun; for, the Sun rising in the east first sheds its Jyothi or Light on the land along the Eastern border.
praak also means: dawn, day break; or, in the east; or, before, at first. Since the Sun rises in the east, people in the rest of India considered Assam as the place where Sun makes its first appearance before coming to shine over the rest of the country. Symbolically, it can be construed as the land of the enlightened people.
Once, the king of Pragjyothisha performed a severe tapas and obtained from God great power as his boon. Soon, he became very proud of his strength, started to misuse this god-given power and oppress people everywhere. He put in prison thousands of his people from different parts of the country and even dishonored women. In this manner, he became a terror to his people. He literally made the country a hell for them to live in and therefore, they began to refer to him as Narakaasura, meaning the demon-king of hell
When the people could not bear the sufferings any more, they appealed to Lord Krishna to come, save them and punish the wicked Narakaasura. And Krishna who always comes to the rescue of his devotees, decided to put an end to this evil king.
Krishna, accompanied by Satyabhama flew to Pragjyotisha riding on His Garuda, the bird-king which is the vehicle of Lord Vishnu. A great fight ensued between Krishna and Narakasura. At last, Krishna slew the tyrant with his weapon Sudarshana Chakra. The people of the region all rejoiced with great joy and thanked Lord Krishna for delivering them from the cruel and evil deeds of Narakasura. Some say that at the time of his death, the king repented for his evil nature and acts and obtained a boon from Krishna that his death anniversary would be celebrated everywhere with joy by lighting lamps, since he realized that the God had come especially to deliver him.
We celebrate this auspicious day every year as a day of deliverance from evil and call it by its other name: Naraka-Chaturdasi. For, the day that the demon Narakasura was killed was the day before the New Moon which is known as Chaturdasi. Many festivals commence after the New Moon day since New Moon signifies total absence of light symbolic of complete ignorance and utter helplessness. One other example is the Navaratri festival which commences after Mahalaya Amavasta.
To express of our gratitude to the Lord, we welcome him with specially prepared sweets and decorate our houses with rows of brightly lit lamps. For this reason, the day is also called Deepavali, which in Sanskrit means "row of lights". Those who speak the Hindi language in North India call it the Diwali.
For businessmen in many parts of India, Deepavali-day is also the commencement of the new-year for their business accounting. They worship Goddess Lakshmi on this day and seek her blessings for a prosperous new-year; for, this is the day when the Lord Himself removed evil and made the country safe for the people of the land. What better day to start an activity or a new year for the old business than this auspicious day when Krishna had assured safety and freedom to live our lives without fear from evil-doers?
The story of Narakasura tells us that the great power given to us by God should not be misused to oppress others. One who becomes bad in this manner becomes an Asura or demon, who will certainly be punished by God. Every year, on Deepavali day, we remember with great faith that God is on the side of good people like us everywhere and we celebrate with happiness the destruction of Narakasura and all evil persons like him.
In the State of Kerala, Deepavali is celebrated as Mahabali-Deepa in honor of the annual visit of the demon King Mahabali from the nether world. We may recall the story of Vamana-avatara; Lord Vishnu appeared before King Bali as a dwarf brahmin boy and begged for three steps of land. When it was granted, he assumed his Vishwaroopa and measured in two steps the entire universe and for the third, placed his noble feet on Bali's head, sending him to the nether world. At that time, he granted Bali's request for an annual visit to his country. The occasion of this visit is celebrated with welcoming lights by the people of Kerala on Deepavali day.
In North India, many celebrate Diwali as the auspicious occasion of Lord Sri Rama's coronation in Ayodhya after his victory over Ravana.
There are many reasons for the joyous celebration of the festival of Deepavali. But one thing is common in its observance: it is celebrated as the day of deliverance from evil forces and as a festival of light. Light represents spiritual enlightenment and release from the bondage of ignorance which is truly the demon which takes us to the darkness of Naraka, hell. Whenever our mind is filled with the Light from God, we are delivered from the darkness of false knowledge and ignorance into the bright kingdom of the divine. We are reminded of this fact through the celebration of the festival of lights, the Deepavali. The heroes of the day are the devotees of the Lord who are assured of victory over the demon of darkness and ignorance. That is why we recite at the end of every satsang the asatho maa sat gamaya slokam and pray to the Lord to lead us from darkness to light: tamasor maa Jyothir Gamaya.
This body of ours is the Land of Praak-Jyotisha where the light-Divine ever-shines it ought to enlighten us. But we have allowed this body to be ruled by the Naraka, the self-centered, desire dominated and power-crazy Ego. When we realize our erroneous ways and seek His help, Krishna surely comes, fills our consciousness and drives away the negative tendencies and delivers us. We ourselves then become beacons of the light-divine – Deepavali -- to illuminate ourselves and others and make our body a heaven, not hell – not Naraka.