Diwali as a Mercantile Festival

in Article
Published on: 30 October 2020

Silpisikha Baruah

Silpisikha Baruah is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies (CHS), JNU. She has completed her M.Phil in ancient history from CHS and has worked on Early Assam. She also has publications in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress.

Festivities are an important aspect of the cultural life of people and are symbolic of recreation, happiness and devoutness. They are not monolithic wholes, but comprise of singing, dancing, dramatic expression and various other ways of entertainment. The festival of lights, Diwali, celebrated in India is a vibrant expression of devotion and joy with distinct regional variations; however, broadly it can be said that there are two forms of Diwali on the basis of religion, Jaina Diwali and Brahmanical Diwali. 

Brahmanical Association with the Mercantile Community
Inscriptional evidence suggests Diwali’s association with mercantile Brahmanical communities; for instance, the scholarship of the time of Krishna III, Rashtrakuta charters from Chinchani of the middle of the tenth century AD deals with a vyavastha (settlement) of a dispute between two mathikas (monastery or temple) :

Verses 12-14 speak of the god Bhillamaladeva, also called Madhusudana (i.e. Vishnu), worshipped at an unspecified place whence the charter was issued. The deity is stated to have been installed by the descendants of the merchants of Bhillamala, which is the modern Bhinmal in the Jodhpur region of Rajasthan. Verses 15-19 state that, at the same place, there was another mathika, i.e. monastery or temple, which had been constructed by Kautuka and at the gate of which the goddess called Bhagavati had been installed for worship.[1]

The reason of dispute is that a small piece of land, which belonged to Lord Bhillamaladeva, had been enclosed within the northern compound wall of the mathika of a goddess. It appears that the vyavastha was based on an order and was offered to the mathika of the goddess by the varikas (priests) of the Bhillamaladeva temple at Samyana. According to the terms of the vyavastha, the mathika of the goddess were to pay 40 drammas (coins) to Bhillamaladeva and his varikas as srotaka (rent), and the payment was to be made on the occasion of Dipotsava bhanga, i.e., the end of the festival. The Dipotsava mentioned in the charter is nothing but the festival of Diwali. In the Rashtrakuta inscriptional description, it has been noticed that the mathika of Bhillamaladeva has been associated with mercantile community and the day of payment has been fixed on the day after Diwali night. 

Other inscriptional evidences of the Rashtrakuta period such as the famous caves at Ellora also contain strong symbolisms of activities such as gambling that connect the idea of business with Diwali. Siva and Parvati’s dice play, which finds mention in Brahma Purana as having happened on the fourth day of Diwali, is depicted on Cave 21 of Ellora. Dice play and other forms of gambling continue to be intrinsic to Diwali and a victory in these games is thought to bring good fortune for the entire coming year.

Jaina Diwali
Jaina Diwali, celebrated among the Jaina community, comes after the greatest of all Jaina sacred seasons, Pajjusana (a popular eight-day festival). The miniature paintings in Jaina Kalpasutra, which contains biographies of Jaina tirthankaras including Mahavira, has a description of Diwali in plate 25, fig. 84: ‘On the night when Mahavira died the 18 confederated kings instituted an illumination on the Posadha, which was a fast day. They said, “Since the light of holy knowledge is gone, let us make a material illumination!”’[2]

It isn’t the only reference of the nirvana of Mahavira being celebrated with a festival of lights. We also have mentions of it in the Harivamsa Purana (Jaina Purana): ‘With the nirvana of Mahavira…both Sur and Asur lit the lamps and with the illuminations the sky of the Pawa city was illuminated. From that time… in the Indian sub-continent people full of devotion celebrates the festival of Dipavali.’[3]

Margaret Stevenson opines that Diwali derives its position in the mercantile community of Jainas from the importance of wealth. The idea is that the notion of wealth is crucial in the celebration of Diwali in the mercantile community. According to her, the festival continues for four days: 

The first day is called Dhanteras according to Svetambara Jainas, and this day is devoted to polishing jewellery and ornaments in honour of Lakshmi.

The second day is Kalichaudasa, the women try to propitiate evil spirits by giving them some of the sweet meats they prepare and cook on this day. These sweet meats were placed in a circle at cross-roads to protect their children during the year from evil influences.

The third day is Amasa and the great day of the feast. It was on this day that Mahavira attained moksa and Gautama Indrabhuti attained to Kaivalya (supreme wisdom) and on this very day, Jainas worship their account-books and decorate and illuminate their houses. In the evening, they summon a Brahman to direct the Sarada Puja (worship of Goddess Lakshmi), or worship of the account- books, for Brahmins are still the domestic chaplains of the Jains. During the puja, the Brahmana writes Sri (i.e. Lakshmi) on the account book and the account book is left open for several hours. Before closing they say: Laksa Labha, Laksa Labha i.e., a hundred thousand profits!

The last day is the New Year Day which falls in the first day of the month of Kartika (Oct-Nov).[4]

The Jaina Diwali differs from the Brahmanical Hindu Diwali because it celebrates Mahavira’s attainment of moksa, instead of Lakshmi puja which is at the heart of the latter. 

Despite the differences between Jaina and Brahmanical Diwali, one thing that is evident in both types of celebration is the worship of account books and the opening of new account books, which is indicative of Diwali’s association with business activity.

Jaina Diwali and its Association with Mercantile Community
N.N Bhattacharyya in his work, ‘Ancient Indian Rituals and Their Social Contents’ has cited historian Ranabir Chakravarti who opines that the day immediately following Dipotsava (Diwali) is traditionally considered by the merchants, especially of western India and Deccan, as the beginning of a new financial or accounting year. On day after Diwali, a priest conducts certain rituals and new books of accounts are opened. He also states that the day is auspicious for monetary transactions as the period from the end of Asvina(Sept–Oct) onwards is generally the kharif season when crops are harvested in preparation of rabi in India. The commercial community living within an agrarian society, in general, would find it convenient to mark an auspicious day during cropping season as the beginning of a new financial year.[5] On the other hand, the Jaina scholar, Padmanabha S. Jaini has pointed out that according to Jaina belief on the night of Diwali, Mahavira entered nirvana and in a matter of hours his ganadhara (chief apostle) Indrabhuti Gautama attained kevalajnana (enlightenment), the supreme goal of a Jaina mendicant after his teacher had passed away.[6] The Jainas believed that the day Gautama Swami attained supreme knowledge marks the beginning of the new commercial year when merchants open a fresh set of financial books. This clearly shows Diwali’s association with merchant communities as most of the followers and patrons of Jainism are merchants. As mention above the inscriptional evidence from Chinchani also suggest this association.

It is important to note here that merchants among the Jainas occupied a very respectable position and it is said to be the most desired profession of the Jainas. To understand the reason behind such preference, it is useful to explore the vows that govern the activities of the Jaina monks and laypeople. There are five mahavratas (great vows) observed by the monks and five anuvratas(partial vows) observed by the laypeople; the five mahavratas are non-injury and abstention from lying as well as stealing, chastity, and renunciation of all possessions, while the anuvratas are ahimsa, satya, asteya(abstinence from gross stealing), brahma (contentment with one’s own wife/husband), and aparigraha(non-possession, in case of layman setting of limits of what he may own).It is assumed that these anuvratas can only be followed by being a merchant because the Jainas believed that though ahimsa cannot be achieved in totality, there is less himsa (violence) inflicted in the profession of a merchant. A merchant has no need of taking the life of any other living being, and there is also less scope for indulgence in falsehood and stealing. However, there are restrictions in the scope of the profession as well; within the context of commercial activity, certain varieties of trade have been specifically prohibited which include dealing in charcoal, selling timber, selling or driving oxcarts, charging fees for transport by oxcart, excavation, ploughing and quarrying, dealing in animal by-products such as ivory, trading in livestock, trading in lac, manufacturing or selling alcohol or other substances that come in conflict with the anuvratas, indulging in slave trade, dealing in poisons, weapons, etc.[7] Thus, the merchant profession is most preferred and  here a close association of the merchants with the Jaina faith was noticed. Diwali which was originally a Brahmanical festival got adopted by the Jainas in course of time. The exact date of which cannot be known. This importance of Diwali among the Jainas is mainly because of the significant position occupies by wealth in a merchant life. 

The author of Yasastilaka[8], who was himself a Jaina monk, writes that gambling being common on the day of Diwali. The factor of luck is associated with the game and it is believed that the winner has a fruitful year. Thus, the worship of wealth, the beginning of a new commercial year after Diwali, and the game of dice with which fate is being associated are all pointers of association of Diwali with business activities. Moreover, as the merchant communities have assigned lots of importance to the festival of Diwali such to start the financial year the next day of Diwali, so it would not be wrong to term the festival as a ‘mercantile festival’.



Sircar, Epigraphia Indica, 56.

[2] Brown, A Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of Miniature Paintings of theJainaKalpasutra: As Executed in the Early Western Indian Style.

[3] Chaudhary, Harivamsa Purana, 148.

[4] Stevenson, ‘Festivals and Fasts (Jain),’875–879.

[5] Bhattacharyya, Ancient Indian Rituals and Their Social Contents, 214.

[6] Jaini, The Jaina Path of Purification,p.38

[7] Ibid., 172.

[8] Handiqui, Somadeva’sYasastilaka: Aspects of Jainism, Indian Thought and Culture, 401.


Bhattacharyya, N. N.  Ancient Indian Rituals and Their Social Contents. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 1996

Brown, Norman. A Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of Miniature Paintings of the JainaKalpasutra: As Executed in the Early Western Indian Style. Washington, D. C.: Freer Gallery of Art, 1934.

Caudharī, Rāmamūrti. Harivaṃśapurāṇa: eka sāṃskr̥tikaadhyayana. Lucknow: SulabhPrakashan, 1989.

Chattopadhyaya, B.D., ed. A Social History of Early India, Vol. II, Part 5, Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture. New Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2009.

Chakravarti, Ranabir. Trade in Early India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Dhavalikar, M.K.Ellora (Monumental Legacy). New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Sircar, D.C., ed. Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XXXII. Calcutta: Archaeological Survey of India, 1959.

Gode, P.K.  ‘Studies in the History of Hindu Festivals—Some Notes on the History of Divali Festival (Between c. A.D. 50 and 1945).’ In P.K. GodeStudies.Vol. V. Poona: Prof. P.K. Gode Collected Works Publication Committee, 1960.

Jaini, Padmanabha. The Jaina Path of Purification. Delhi, 1979.

———. Collected Papers On Jaina Studies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2000.

Stevenson, Margaret. ‘Festivals and Fasts (Jain).’InEncyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics,Vol.V. Edited by James Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912.

———. ‘Rites of the Twice-born’.  In Religious Quest of India Series. London, 1920.

Sinha, Kanad. ‘Sporting with Kama: Amusements, Games, Sports and Festivities in Early Indian Urban Centres.’ Journal of Asiatic Society, Calcutta 2 (2013): 73–120.

Handiqui, Krishna Kanta.Somadeva’sYasastilaka: Aspects of Jainism, Indian Thought and Culture.New Delhi: Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, 2011.