Article: Dīvālī

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Dīvālī – commonly spelled Diwali – or Dīpāvalī is the 'Festival of Lights'. It is a holy date falling in late September or October for Hindus, Sikhs and Jains alike but their understanding of it is totally different. For the Jains, this annual festival commemorates Mahāvīra's final liberation. It unfolds in various stages and corresponds to the beginning of the new year.

The Dīvālī festival celebrates two apparently contradictory features – the desirability of renouncing the world and of worldly values such as wealth and well-being. It is celebrated by Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras alike.

Festival date and key events

This statue of Mahāvīra is richly decorated for the festival of Dīvālī, which marks the turn of the year. For Jains, it also commemorates the liberation of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra.

A statue of Mahāvīra at Dīvālī
Image by  © Oshwal Association of the UK (OAUK)

The Dīvālī period is connected with two major events of the Jain tradition, which are both commemorated in the festival.

These are, firstly, Mahāvīra's final liberation and, secondly, Indrabhūti Gautama's enlightenment. The celebration of the emancipation of the 24th Jina takes place on the 15th day of the dark half of Āśvina, roughly September to October. Gautama's enlightenment is remembered on the first day of the bright half of Kārttika, roughly October to November. This day marks the New Year.

In early sources such as the Kalpa-sūtra, Mahāvīra's death and liberation are precisely located and dated. His emancipation from the cycle of rebirth took place in Pāvāpuri, in modern-day Bihar.

During this monsoon halt, in the fourth month of the rainy season, in the seventh fortnight, in the dark half of Kārttika, on the fifteenth day, that being his last, during the night, the Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra passed away, went off, quitted the world, cut asunder the ties of birth, old age, death, became perfected, enlightened and liberated, the maker of the end; he entered into liberation and ended all misery.

Translation by K. C. Lalwani, page 70

Following the liberation, various kings of the region began setting up lights, which they saw as substitutes for the spiritual illumination that the teacher embodied:

During the night when the Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra passed away […], during that night, the night of the new moon, nine Mallaki kings, and nine Licchavi kings, in all 18 confederate kings, from Kāśī and Kośala respectively, instituted a spiritual practice name[d] pārābhoga-poṣadha and said: 'As the light of intellect is gone out, so shall we light the light with material objects'.

Translation by K. C. Lalwan, page 72

The second event is described as well:

During the night when the Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra passed away […], during that night, his senior disciple-monk Indrabhūti, of the Gautama line, was freed from the tie of attachment [towards the Master], and attained the supreme knowledge and faith, kevala by name, unprecedented, unobstructed, unlimited, complete and full.

Translation by K. C. Lalwani, page 71

As is customary, the date of Mahāvīra’s final liberation is given in the lunar calendar, but what is more noteworthy is that the year is also mentioned. It corresponds to 527 to 528 BCE, which marks the beginning of the Jain era known as Vīra-saṃvat, according to the Jain Śvetāmbara tradition. The year according to the Digambaras corresponds to 510 BCE.

Hindus and Sikhs celebrate Dīvālī on the same date as the Jains, but with a totally different understanding. Discussions, which can be considered relevant or pointless, have taken place about which religious group was the first to use this date for a festival of lights (see Gode).

The 2500th anniversary of Mahāvīra’s liberation

A large rangoli with oil lamps ready to be lit for Dīvālī – the 'Festival of Lights'. A rangoli is a pattern on the ground symbolising welcome and auspiciousness, and may be quite simple or, as here, colourful and quite intricate. Traditionally made of co

Dīvālī rangoli at Palitana
Image by liketearsintherain – Tommy © CC BY-SA 2.0

Each year all Jains celebrate the liberation of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra. However, the commemoration of the 2500th anniversary, which took place on the 13th November 1974, was carried out with special pomp.

Jains actively carried it beyond being a community festival with the support of the Indian government. Presided over by the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, a national committee was formed of representative Jains and non-Jains. Committees were also formed in the various states of India. These committees had various educational and intellectual objectives, namely:

  • creation of a national park with arches and pillars inscribed with Mahāvīra’s teachings
  • creation of a Jain museum
  • creation of educational centres and libraries in the name of Mahāvīra
  • establishment of a commemorative monument at Mahāvīra’s birthplace, Kshatriyakund, modern-day Vaishali in Bihar

The general aim of the committees was to 'encourage people to think about the life and message of the great prophet' (Upadhye 1974).

In fact, a Bhagavān Mahāvīra 2500th Nirvāṇa Mahotsava Samiti – the Association for the Great Celebration of the 2500th Anniversary of Lord Mahāvīra’s Emancipation – had been established as early as 1968. Intended to publish Jain books, the institution was set up at the initiative of the Mumbai Jain community. Indeed, various institutions published numerous books on this occasion, of various kinds and for different types of reader. See the section 'Further reading' for some examples.

Main features of Dīvālī

Models of lotus flowers in Trafalgar Square. Marking the new year in the Indian calendar, the festival of Dīvālī is celebrated by the Jain, Hindu and Sikh religions. Every year a large free Dīvālī event takes place in Trafalgar Square in London.

Dīvālī in London
Image by everheardofaspacebar © CC BY 2.0

In all Jain festivals, believers practise religious observances in the form of fasts and this is an important element of Dīvālī too.

Like the Śvetāmbara festival of Paryuṣaṇ or its Digambara counterpart, Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan, Dīvālī is:

  • crucial to Jain identity and is thus observed everywhere, whether in India or in countries where Jains have settled
  • lasts for several days and includes different events.

But, in practice, the festivals are somewhat different, although there is great local variation. For example, during Paryuṣaṇ the focus is on religious observances and austerities whereas in Dīvālī there is more emphasis on social gatherings, rejoicing and festive meals.

Taking place over several days, Dīvālī can be thought of as a 'cluster of festivals' (Cort 2001, page 164). It begins on the 13th day of the dark half of Āśvina and lasts till the first day of the bright half of Kārttika.

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