By Prof. A.V. Narasimha Murthy, former Head, Department of Ancient History & Archaeology, University of Mysore
Deepavali translated as festival of lights is a three-day celebration. The first day is Naraka Chaturdashi, the second day is New Moon Day (Lakshmi Puja) and the third day is Balipadyami. All our festivals generally have a mythological background and the three days of Deepavali is no exception to it.
Deepavali literally means line of lights or cluster of lights. Here the word ‘light’ has to be taken as an oil-lamp with a cotton wick. The lamp is made of refined red earth. Once in a year this is made use of and afterwards it goes to attic and remains in ajnatavasa for another year. Most of the traditional Hindu homes follow these procedures and celebrate Deepavali. These thoughts came to my mind while writing this note. Actually all of us would have celebrated this festival by the time this note is published.
Most of us celebrate Naraka Chaturdashi by having a good feast of tasty dishes but most of us do not know who this Naraka or Narakasura was. Actually, Narakasura was born when Vishnu took the avatara or incarnation of Varaha (boar). A drop of perspiration fell on the earth and the demon was born to Goddess Bhudevi. Hence he is also referred to as Bhaumasura. Vishnu gave this demon at the instance of Bhudevi a powerful weapon called Vaishnavastra. Having obtained this, the wicked Narakasura began tormenting the Gods and the people. He went to the extent of taking away the white umbrella of Indra and the Manishikhara where Indra was spending his leisure time. The demon also took away the ear-ornament of Indra’s mother Aditi. Naturally, Indra was humiliated but was helpless. Then he went to Lord Srikrishna and narrated his predicament. Krishna went to Pragjotishapura and waged a war against Murasura and he was killed. Then seven sons of Murasura with their general Peethasura came for a battle. They were all killed and then came Narakasura who fought and ultimately was killed.
Then Bhudevi returned all the precious materials and kingdom to their original owners. Thus the demon and his successors, relatives and friends were all eliminated and everybody felt happy. Naturally people feel happy at the elimination of wicked persons and this is not confined to Puranic era but it is the case even today of our own time. Narakasura had imprisoned sixteen thousand Princesses and after killing Narakasura Krishna released them from the prison.
Before his death, Narakasura confessed to Krishna that he had tormented people out of his own wickedness and ignorance. He expressed his repentance and requested for a favour that people should remember him one day in a year on Chaturdashi Day and it should be called Naraka Chaturdashi and people should celebrate his death by making a lot of sound by bursting crackers. On that day he would peep into the earth and feels happy if crackers are burst over the repentance he has expressed. This was granted and the tradition of bursting crackers (making loud sound) came into vogue.
Our tradition excuses a person when he expresses his regret over his own cruelty and remembers him on a day. Thus we do not hate him but our generosity has made us to excuse him because the prodigal son has repented. That is why all of us celebrate Naraka Chaturdashi and remember him.
The other part is the Balipadyami. Bali was an emperor of the Puranic times. He was the grandson of Prahlada and the son of Virochana. He performed many sacrifices (yagas) and became highly powerful and influential. He performed a sacrifice called Vishwajit and obtained from Agni chariot, horses etc. Prahlada gave him many powerful weapons which could defeat any of the enemy kings and bring him victory. He waged a war against Indra and occupied Swarga (kingdom). Then all the Gods including Brahma were scared of Bali Chakravarti. They all went in deputation to Vishnu and requested him to curb the autocratic behaviour of Bali and save them the great humiliation. Vishnu assured them that he would help them and teach a lesson to Bali Chakravathi however good emperor he was. A king or an emperor has to protect his subjects and do not behave as an autocrat. Vishnu devised a plan to solve this problem. Vishnu himself was born in Goddess Aditi as Vamana. After upanayana he became a Brahmachari and naturally had to live by begging as per the ancient tradition.
He came to the capital of Bali Chakravarti and asked for three footsteps of land. The highly generous Bali did not know the plan behind this request. Immediately he agreed, disregarding the caution by Sukracharya. Vishnu in the form of dwarf (Vamana) measured the first foot the entire earth (bhumi). He measured the second foot the entire sky. Then he asked the place for the promised third foot. Bali had no other way as he had made a promise to Brahmachari Vishnu. He did not like to become a defaulter. He offered his head on which the Bramhachari could put his third foot. Immediately, Vishnu put his foot on the head of Bali and pushed him to Patala (netherworld) one of the lower worlds of Hindu mythology.
At this juncture, Bali asked Vishnu when he is going to get moksha. Vishnu replied that he would get moksha when there are no people on the surface of the earth. Hence Bali comes out on the Naraka Chaturdashi Day and puts a ladder to the Tumbe (flower) plant and tries to peep if people are there or not. This is a folk belief. Bali Chakravarti’s kingdom was full of peace and prosperity and people enjoyed their life according to tradition of the country. Even now traditional homes worship Bali and praise him in glorious terms.
Incidentally, Deepavali is a festival of sons-in-law. The son-in-law is invited for this festival, given presents and fed sumptuously by choicest dishes.
It is a good omen that there has been an awakening among people regarding bursting of crackers which spoils the atmosphere. Some children have decided to donate the money given to buy crackers for buying books for poor school children. Highly laudable step indeed.