RECONCEPTUALIZING DEEPAVALI/DIWALI: MOVING PAST ‘THE DEATH OF THE ASURA’ TO RECOGNIZING THE EQUALITY OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS
What is Deepavali? When is it? Why is it celebrated? I’ll start with the When, and Weave in the What, the Why and the Who. The origins of Deepavali/Diwali are steeped in Hindu mythology and have been generally read as ‘the triumph of Light over Darkness’ often in a bloody form (as per myth). I’ll be showing you some artwork depicting scenes of that as well. I honestly wanted to write you a much more cuddlier piece, but I decided to go for a more authentic approach.
There are two different ways to calculate when Deepavali/Diwali is celebrated. One calculation places it on Chaturdasi day, the day before the New Moon (Amavasai/Amasya). And another places it on the New Moon itself. Because of this difference in interpretation, there are two separate dates given for the celebration of this festival, in accordance with regional customs: Oct 22nd and Oct 23rd 2014. According to http://publicholidays.in/diwali-deepavali/, 10 states in India celebrate it on October 22nd, whereas 23 states celebrate it on October 23rd.
As an astrologer I can see how both traditions differ, and I can also see the symbolism with each choice. October 22nd is Naraka Chaturdashi – the day that a demon known as Narakasura/Narakasuran was defeated. This is the rationale given for the celebration of Deepavali in the South. In the North, Diwali is celebrated to honor the day that Lord Rama (an avatar of Lord Mahavishnu) rescued his wife Lady Sita from the (Sri) Lankan (i.e. Tamil) ruler, the ten headed King Ravanan/Ravana.
King Ravanan was a powerful, intelligent, and wise king – an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, an accomplished musician and composer of the Shiva Tandava Strotam. Whilst all this is in the original text of the Ramayana – it’s almost completely forgotten in the way the Ramayana is remembered and re-enacted in ritual performances today.
[A statue of King Ravana in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka]
There are complex and deeply rooted racial divides that get projected onto this narrative, which is probably why it’s not as popular in the South of India, but more so in the North of India. What the ancients intended, I cannot say for sure without further research, but sadly, it has been taken in a divisive way.
How do I see it? Well… Unfortunately, the North-South divide is part of racial memory, and people do hold on it. Not everyone, but it’s not inconsequential either. Holding onto the past will serve no one, and it will certainly not serve those who are cast as ‘demons’ who are then vanquished.
If you look at the depiction of Narakasuran (the other ‘defeated asura’) in the New Indian Express (an Indian newspaper) below, you’ll see him depicted with a body that that is (stereotypically seen as) Southern Indian, particularly Tamil (i.e. the pot belly, dark skin, abundance of curly body hair) in contrast to his mother Satyabhama (visibly of a different body type, skin colour, etc.). The same stereotyping is present even in temples – have a look at the ‘asuras’ which the Gods and Goddesses destroy and vanquish and you’ll see what I mean. Those more familiar with Tamil traditions will notice ancient Gods such as Muniswaran/Sangili Karupan sharing similar characteristics.
There are visible exceptions as when Goddess Kali is shown in Her Beautiful Blackness as is Lord Krishna whose name literally means ‘The Dark One’. More often than not, they are shown in different hues.
[Racially stereotyped depiction of Narakasuran about to be shot by his mother Satyabhama]
What do I think of all this? Well, whilst I am a proud Tamil, I do incorporate aspects of the Vaishnavite tradition I am comfortable with and have also made pilgrimages to sacred sites in that tradition. In retrospect, I went to a Perumal (Krishna) temple just earlier today and prayed in the Spirit of Deepavali. Personally, I see these racial projections as collective wounds that are in need of healing and transcending, instead of furthering and deepening the hurt – a theme which I believe is integral to the ‘Festival of Lights’.
Having said that, let’s turn back to Narakasuran and why (especially in the South) his ‘defeat’ is celebrated as part of Deepavali/Diwali celebrations.
Narakasuran is a complex figure in Hindu mythology. He is the asura (demon) son of Varaha (the Boar Avatar of Lord Vishnu) and Bhumadevi (Earth Goddess). In one narrative, he is shown to be a a powerful being who sought to conquer all and who kidnapped and mistreated women. (There are some parallels with his portrayal and that of King Ravanan of Lanka).
At times his death/defeat comes at the hands of Lord Krishna, and at others, by the hand of his outraged mother, Satyabhama (an avatar of the Earth Goddess). Either way, it’s a bloody, graphic death. Lord Krishna’s discus (chakram) slices him in two, or his mother shoots him in the heart with an arrow. In the present day, effigies are built of Narakasuran, which are then burnt during Deepavali – to ritually enact the triumph of ‘Good’ over ‘Evil’.
[Death by discus, cleaved in two]
[Death by discus, decapitation]
You might wonder why I’m showing you these images – but honestly – this event is what Deepavali celebrates. The Defeat of the Asura, be it Narakasuran or King Ravana.
Personally, the way asuras are depicted and written into Hindu mythology makes me question whether ‘demon’ (as is understood in the Western context) is a fair description of who they are and how they operate. Conquests and the abuse of power is just as present among the figures of deities in Hindu mythology. I prefer seeing ‘asura’ as code for ‘different’. Someone who was Othered on the basis of race, ethinicity, region, religion, or some other idea. But getting back to Narakasuran …
Other narratives associate Narakasuran with the Shaktha path, and in particular, the Sakthi Peeth known as Kamakyha (in Assam). Goddess Kamakyha represents the Yoni of Goddess Sakthi, and is sometimes interpreted as Goddess Kali herself. Her temple, in Assam venerates the Das Mahavidyas (Ten Mahavidyas) and is an important Tantric site. For three days, the river that runs near the temple turns red – it is a sacred site which venerates the Menstruation of the Goddess/The Earth. Navaratri and Manasa Devi (Serpent Goddess) worship is also conducted there. (Definitely on my Sacred Sites to Visit list).
In one myth, Narakasuran challenges Devi Kamakhya, seeking her hand. She, according to legend, sets him a task which is deemed impossible by the break of dawn – yet he nears its successful completion. Devi then chooses to grasp a cock (male chicken) in order for it crow [as its crowing indicates the coming of dawn], so that Narakasuran assumes that he has failed and abandons his nearly-completed feat. So, clearly a powerful being – and one whose reach in both cases transgresses some fundamental principle of Justice or Cosmic Order.
You can read this myth in many ways – and I choose to see it as an invitation to re-conceptualize the figure of Narakasuran. I suspect Tantra has a lot more to say about this figure and what he truly represents in our understanding of Self, Spirit and Spirituality.
Taking all this into account, Narakasuran no longer appears to comfortably sit in the ‘demon’/’evil’/bad’ category. The allegorical principle he represents appears to move beyond the straightforward idea of ‘victory of light over darkness’ as is usually attributed to Deepavali. It seems to be more about ‘knowing the balanced use of one’s power’ and the consequences of failing to do so.
This re-interpretation fits the astrological symbolism of the New Moon in Libra (in Indian [sidereal] astrology- those using the Western astrology would read it as Scorpio). Here, we are encouraged to set the seeds for a fairer, more just way of relating with others. We are called upon to seek Justice, Harmony, Grace and Fairness – and to understand the consequences of seeking to live in imbalanced ways.
Though I have always heard of Deepavali as ‘the festival of lights’ symbolized powerfully by the lone lamp gleaming in the darkness as a portrayal of Good vs. Evil – looking at it now, it seems to be about Balanced Coexistence. Light learns to accept and exist alongside its Absence, and in so doing, the Shadow is Accepted and Wholeness realized. It’s a process, and one we often forget the moment we pit one aspect of ourselves against another.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t defend yourselves if attacked, or seek justice – that’s a whole other thing.
But coming to Deepavali/Diwali – Why else have a festival about ‘Light’ at the time when the Moon is at its ‘Darkest’ if not to teach the principle of Balance and Equality of Light and Dark? On top of that – it’s a Solar Eclipse 🙂
Remember that the mythologies we venerate and assume to be true are thinly-veiled parables. And we each read those parables in different ways.
This is my interpretation of it – feel free to stick to what feels truest for you. Given my reading of this festival, the ‘slaying’ of Narakasuran or the Healing of the Shadow is represented by Naraka Chaturdashi (October 22nd). The point of Coexistence – Balance – Equality comes the day after, with the powerful Libra (Indian approach) / Scorpio (Western approach) Solar Eclipse (October 23rd/24th depending on time zone). I shall be celebrating on both days, and for a while afterwards, I expect 😀
The Eclipse is exact at 5:56 am, October 24 (GMT + 8). For reference, that’s 3.26 am Oct 24 for India (GMT + 5.5), 5:56 pm, October 23 in New York (GMT -4, EDT) and 7:56 am, October 24 IN Brisbane (GMT + 10).
This is a POWERFUL solar eclipse and one which makes a powerful aspect to Neptune Retrograde. More on that closer to the date.
Deepavali Greetings (Deepavali Nalvazhthukkal) to All
Priestess Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD
Diya necklace Dipavali Diwali November 2013.jpg – By Ramnath Bhat (Flickr: Diya necklace) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
இராவணன் சிலை.jpg – By Rubanraj10 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Image of Narakasura’s Defeat from: Narakasura Diwali Story by Reeja Radhakrishnan. New Indian Express, 9 November 2012 [online] http://www.newindianexpress.com/education/student/article1333576.ece
Krishna cleaves the demon Narakasura with his discus.jpg, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Goddess of Earth gives Aditi’s earrings to Krishna.jpg – By Ramanarayanadatta astri (http://archive.org/details/mahabharata01ramauoft) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Idol at Kamaykha Temple, Guwahati, Assam 02.jpg – By Subhashish Panigrahi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons