for National Geographic News
On Tuesday, fireworks and festive lights will brighten the moonless night as an estimated billion followers of the Hindu religion around the world celebrate Diwali, the festival of light.
Diwali may be news to many U.S. residents, but "it is one of the most widely celebrated festivals in the world, being a national holiday in India, Fiji, [Nepal], and Trinidad," G. Padmanabhan of the Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing, New York, said in an e-mail interview.
Diwali comes from the Sanskrit words deepa and avail and literally means "row of lights." The festival is associated with several Hindu myths about the triumph of dharma (righteousness) over adharma (unrighteousness) and light over darkness.
Padmanabhan explains that one story holds that on Diwali, the Hindu Lord Krishna destroyed Narakasura, the demon and titan of hell who conquered and plundered heaven and Earth.
In northern India, Hindus also worship the god Krishna at his abode, the sacred hill Govardhana. Krishna, believed to be the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, has deep religious significance to Vishnu devotees.
Return of the King
Mihir Meghani, a Freemont, California, physician who heads up the Hindu American Foundation, said the most common Diwali story is the return of Lord Rama (the seventh incarnation of Vishnu) to the ancient Indian city of Ayodhya after the defeat of the demon Ravana and 14 years of exile.
"It's a celebration of the joy and happiness the capital had upon the return of the king," he said. "It symbolizes the light of the king. The name Festival of Light signifies people's joy."
To celebrate the king's return, the people of Ayodhya lit thousands of clay lamps.
The day also has significance to Sikhs and Jains, followers of two other Indian religions.
For Sikhs, Diwali is a celebration of the release of the Sikh spiritual teacher Guru Hargobind from captivity by the Mughal emperor Jahangir.
For Jains, Diwali is the day Lord Mahavira, the Buddha-like founder of Jainism, died and attained nirvana, or enlightenment.
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