Every fall, nearly one billion Hindus celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights. It’s the biggest, brightest, and most elaborate of all Hindu festivals in India. Lights are strung across house facades, special dinner menus are planned for incoming family members, and people revel in the hustle of last-minute gift shopping. It’s a faceted festival enthusiastically celebrated amidst a multitude of languages, cultures, and mythological belief systems.
The term diwali derives from ancient Sanskrit, meaning “row of lamps.” The lighting of oil lamps during festival season represents the inner light, or atman, residing in the soul. Each person’s atman is believed to be an extension of the ultimate divine being himself, Brahman. For Hindus, awareness of one’s atman leads to freedom from spiritual darkness, victory over evil, and the dissipation of ignorance that hinders true knowledge of self, love, and joy.
Diwali originated as an Indian celebration to mark the final harvest of the year. The need for agricultural prosperity led Hindus to seek the divine blessing of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and success. Despite Diwali’s roots in agriculture, Hindus have since ascribed its origin to their own mythology to stress the importance of good over evil.
Lakshmi is still worshiped, but regional Diwali festivities also commemorate different myths about the defeat of demons. In north India, Hindus celebrate the story of lord/king Rama’s return to the city of Ayodhya after defeating the demon king Ravana. It’s said that at King Rama’s return, people lit lamps, burst firecrackers, and decorated the city to welcome him home. West Indian Hindus tell the myth of lord Vishnu defeating the demon king Bali, who was subsequently sent to rule the underworld. South Indian Hindus believe Diwali commemorates the lord Krishna’s destruction of the demon Narakasura, who had become a terror to the men of earth.
“He quickly replied, ‘No, it’s only a story. But it teaches us about good over evil.’’’
Modern Diwali Celebrations
I recently asked my Tamil language teacher, a Hindu from the south Indian state Tamil Nadu, if he knew the meaning of Diwali and if he intends to celebrate this year. He proceeded to tell me the story of how Krishna defeated the demon Narakasura, and that his family would buy new clothes, eat a lot of sweets, and give rice to neighbors. He added that in south India, Hindus rise early in the morning on Diwali to take an oil bath.
I asked him if he believed the story about Krishna was real, and why he took an oil bath. He quickly replied, “No, it’s only a story. But it teaches us about good over evil. We take oil baths to symbolize that we need to be cleansed from the evil inside us.”
Families also celebrate the festival with a Lakshmi pooja, or worship of the goddess that includes a prayer for prosperity. As my language teacher mentioned, after the pooja family and friends enjoy an elaborate spread of their favorite local foods, especially sweets, and often exchange gifts. The evening ends with an array of colorful fireworks.
During this time, Lakshmi is believed to visit homes and offer blessings, so it’s important for families to have clean, well-lit homes to welcome her. It’s been said that if families aren’t home when she comes or if their home is dirty, she will leave the home without a blessing. Therefore, Hindus light clay lamps, or diyas, and open their windows and doors to show their desire for Lakshmi’s arrival and to celebrate the victory of light over darkness.
Diwali fireworks displays light up India, Nepal, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia during this season of light. But Hindus have migrated all over the world, which means your chances to share true light during this festival may be right around your corner.
How to Shine the True Light
After listening to my language teacher’s description of how he’ll celebrate Diwali, I asked him to read John 8:12 where Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life” (HCSB). Jesus’s words opened the door for me to share the gospel. Christ’s historical death and resurrection revealed him to be the one true God and light of the world. As the true light, he alone can deliver us from sin, evil, and darkness and into a relationship with him.
This year the five-day Diwali celebrations start on October 30. During this time, Christians around the world have the perfect opportunity to share good news with Hindus who are seeking true light. Here are a few ideas for how you can do this well:
- Ask your Hindu friend, coworker, or neighbor about his or her Diwali beliefs and how he or she celebrates the holiday. As they explain, ask the Holy Spirit to magnify pieces of their explanation that could be good transitions to the gospel. Listen, ask clarification questions, and respond to them as a person.
- Speak with humility and love. No one likes to have their beliefs belittled, and oftentimes, Hindus associate their religion with their cultural identity.
- Remember Hinduism is based on myths. History is of little value for explaining this holiday. For some Hindus, typically those with more influence from the West, you can stress the importance of Jesus as a historical person who lived, died, and rose again from the dead. This makes him unique. However, don’t be surprised if some Hindus don’t particularly care about the historicity of Jesus. That’s not a cue to dig in with more apologetics but rather an opportunity to simply share your testimony of how Christ has made a difference in your life.
- Finally, boldly share the full gospel from Scripture—that true light and the end of personal darkness are freely available through the person and work of Christ. Let it encourage you that Scripture is alive and active, and the Holy Spirit can use it to pierce any heart.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to engage with Hindus, check out Sharing Your Faith with a Hindu.
Editor’s Note: By purchasing the book through this link, a portion of the sale will be given to the International Mission Board.