Article: Dīvālī

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.

Worship of wealth

Lakṣmī-pūjā or worship rite to Lakṣmī or Śrī, goddess of beauty, wisdom, fertility and wealth. At the start of the year Mūrti-pūjak Jains make offerings to the deity and inscribe new account books in the hope of gaining wealth in the months ahead

Offerings to Lakṣmī
Image by Bansri Mehta © Bansri Mehta

The opening ceremony of Dīvālī is known as Lakṣmī-pūjā or ‘Wealth 13th’. This rite of worshipping affluence is performed on the 13th day of the dark half of Āśvina, which is known as Dhanya-trayodaśī in Sanskrit or Dhanteras in Gujarati.

This ceremony varies immensely among different communities of Jains. The main feature is worship of the goddess Lakṣmī who is wealth incarnate and thus of great importance for Jain business communities. Some communities worship silver coins with materials normally used for religious images, such as incense or scented powder, and buy silverware and account books for the new year on this day (Cort 2001, page 164). Worship of the goddess is usually elaborate. Auspicious diagrams of coloured powder – rangolis – are drawn on the ground or walls, and temporary shrines made of leaves are erected in houses (Laidlaw 1995, pages 370 to 371). In some cases, ‘religious objects are all put together in what looks like a flagrantly syncretistic way’ (Laidlaw, page 372), but they used separately in the worship ceremonies.

Account books

As Dīvālī marks the end of the year and the beginning of a new one, Jain businessmen and women open new account books. Among Jain merchants, these account books are objects with religious significance.

The account books start with an invocation to Mahāvīra and Indrabhūti Gautama, who is called Gautam Swami in modern parlance. These two are the key individuals in Dīvālī celebrations. In many respects, Gautam Swami is equated with the Hindu god Gaṇeśa, who has the same place in Hindu account books (see Laidlaw for more details).

The first page of the account books contains a list of virtues believed to be auspicious, each of them illustrated by a character known from the story literature. These lists vary, but six virtues are often mentioned (Laidlaw 1995, page 380 onwards):

All these virtues are those that an ideal businessman or merchant should possess.

On this day shops are decorated, lights are lit everywhere in the streets and savoury food is prepared in abundance.

Fourteenth day

Marking the turning of the year at Dīvālī – the festival of lights – involves lighting small lamps. The central event of Dīvālī for Jains is the liberation of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra. One of the biggest Jain festivals, Dīvālī is also celebrated in other I

Dīvālī lights
Image by Anil Wadghule © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The 14th day of the dark half of Āśvina is considered an intermediate day, because it comes between the start of Dīvālī and the new year. It is known and celebrated in contrasting ways depending on the community.

The ‘Black Fourteenth’ or Kālī Caudaś is often thought to be a day of inauspiciousness, which has to be counteracted. Reporting on how it was celebrated by the Jains in Patan in 1985, Cort tells how the day was dedicated to the cult of the heroic male deity Ghaṇṭākarṇ Mahāvīr. He is worshipped as a figure who can help Jains in worldly matters (2001, pages 164 to 166).

An opposing view takes this day as ‘Beauty Fourteenth’ or Rūp Caudaś, also known as Little Diwali (Laidlaw 1995, page 365). Then decoration of the person and of houses, buying new clothes and jewellery are the highlights of the day.

Fifteenth day – Dīvālī proper

All Jains celebrate the 'Festival of Lights' – Dīvālī. The annual festival underscores the worldly values of wealth and well-being as well as the desirability of renouncing the world. This festival also celebrates the liberation of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra.

Floating candles on Dīvālī day
Image by siddhu2020 © CC BY 2.0

The 15th day of the dark half of Āśvina is considered to be Dīvālī proper. However, even on this day the balance between religious practice proper and worldly celebrations greatly varies among different Jain communities.

Devout Jains may undertake a 24-hour fast and stay awake the night before. This helps them concentrate on the key event of Mahāvīra’s liberation. This practice is believed to gain a great deal of merit. They may spend this night in a temple dedicated to this Jina. Digambaras may light lamps in front of the statue (Jaini 1986, page 251). The ritual ends with the recitation of hymns dedicated to all liberated beings – siddha – or by singing specific hymns celebrating Mahāvīra’s and Gautama’s final liberation, known as Nirvāṇa-stavana.

As with any day of a Jain festival, lay Jains spend it listening to sermons delivered by the mendicants and recalling the key events that have inspired the festival. There are several accounts of the origin of the Jain Dīvālī – called Dīpālikākalpas. Written over the centuries in all the languages used by the Jains, they serve as the basis for preaching and reading on this day.

Otherwise the laity is occupied on this day by two types of worship:

  • worship of the goddess of wealth – Lakṣmī-pūjā – can take place again.
  • worship of the goddess of learning and knowledgeSarasvatī-pūjā – which takes the form of book worship in the temples (Cort 2001, page 168).

The celebration of Dīvālī is often associated with the use of fireworks. Jains sometimes say that this practice should be banned or at least limited, as fireworks may hurt many tiny creatures (see Hynson).

Mendicants observe Dīvālī through paying homage to Mahāvīra and Indrabhūti Gautama during the night or just before dawn. These are the precise moments when these religious events took place.

Beginning of the new year

The new year starts with sunrise on the first day of the bright half of Kārttika. Lay Jains mark the turn of the year with visits to the temple, where they listen to mendicants reciting holy verses or poems dedicated to Indrabhūti Gautama.


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