The Festival of Lights in Various Religious and Literary Texts of South Asia

in Overview
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.

India, with its extensive diversity, has festivals that are celebrated in specific regions as well as those that are celebrated nationwide with regional variations.  Diwali is one such festival that is celebrated variously all over the country by lighting lamps, decorating households and worshipping deities. Generally, Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped during the festival, but there are certain instances, such as in Bengal, where Goddess Kali is worshipped and Diwali is known as Kali Puja.[1]

Diwali follows the lunar calendar and as, Indologist P.V. Kane in his book History of the Dharmasastra states, the festival spreads over approximately five days and comprises five principle rituals: worship of wealth, the celebration of Vishnu’s victory over the demon Narakasura, worship of Lakshmi, victory of Vishnu over Bali and dice-play, and the exchange of brotherly and sisterly affection. Kane also explains that the process of illuminating diyas take place on all the five days, starting with the trayodasi tithi (thirteenth day) of the dark half of the moon in the month of Asvina (September–October).

Puranic and other literary texts such as the play Nagananda by Sri Harsa Deva, Jaina monk Somadeva’s Yasastilaka Campu, Iranian scholar Alberuni’s Tahkik-i-Hind, and Marathi saint-poet Sri Jnanadeva’s Bhavartha Dipika are important sources that throw light on the nature of the Diwali festival during the early medieval period, and also give an idea of the various stories and legends that surround the origin and evolution of the festival.  

Diwali and its Ritualistic Practices in Puranic Literature
There are varied accounts of Diwali in the Puranas, and while they have similarities, they contradict each other in some respects. For instance, there are differences regarding the first day of the lighting of lamps in the festival; verse 124.4 in the Padma Purana[2] mentions that it is done on the trayodasi tithi of Kartika (mid-October to mid-November) by the purnimanta (a lunar calendar where a month ends on full moon day) reckoning and not Asvina; the Skanda Purana[3] also mentions the same time though it specifies that lamps are lit in honour of Yama, the god of death, to avoid accidental death; however, according to Bhavisyottara Purana[4], Diwali lamps should be lit on caturdasi tithi (fourteenth day) of the dark half of the moon in the month of Asvina (September–October). 

Kane mentions that worship of wealth is an important element of Diwali and is observed on the first day. This day is known in Gujarat and Saurashtra as Dhanteras. In preparation for the day, people paint and decorate their houses, get the courtyards cleaned, and ensure polishing of metal vessels.[5]

There are 18 Mahapuranas including Brahma PuranaVisnu PuranaPadma PuranaBhagavata PuranaBhavisya PuranaVamana PuranaLinga Purana, etc., but not all of them talk about Diwali. The ritual process mentioned in Bhavisyottara Purana[6] mandates worship of Yama on the first day which is the caturdasi tithi. Its Yama worship involves an oil bath at daybreak, following which to ward off the evil eye one has to tie the twigs of apamarga tree together with clods of ploughed land and move it over one’s head. The worship also calls for offering of tarpana (libation) to Yama. 

Brahma Purana[7] describes the belief that on this caturdasi tithi of the dark half of the moon, Goddess Lakshmi comes to dwell in oil and Goddess Ganga comes to all waters. Like Bhavisyottara PuranaBrahma Purana also prescribes Yama worship and oil bath, which seems to be a common Diwali ritual and finds place even in Dharmasindhu that came much later in 1790–91 AD; Dharmasindhu mentions that the yatis (ascetics) also took oil bath. 

Kane reflects on the probability that the caturdasi tithi was originally called narakacaturdasi (naraka means hell) because Yama was to be propitiated on this day; however, the legend of killing of Narakasura, the king of Pragjyotisha city, also known as Kamarupa, by Krishna, later came to be associated with the day.[8] The Narakasura-Krishna legend is found in the Visnu Purana and in Bhagavata Purana where the depredations of Narakasura are narrated.

The next important day of Diwali is the Asvina amavasya (the night of the new moon); verses 14–29 of Bhavisyottara describes the amavasya rituals of Diwali:

In the morning one should take [oil] bath, worship the gods and pitrs [ancestors] and perform the parvana sraddha [rituals performed to pay homage to one’s ancestors] with curds, milk, ghee and feed brahmanas. Then in the afternoon the king should proclaim in his capital ‘today is the sovereignty of Bali; O people! Enjoy yourselves’. People should make merry with dance and music in their houses, should offer tambula [betel nut] to each other and anoint their bodies with saffron powder. They should dress themselves in silken robes and wear gold and jewels and young women should move about in groups wearing brilliant clothes. The houses should be full of rows of lamps, handsome maidens should cast rice grains about and the waving of lamps should be resorted. Towards midnight, the king should move about in the capital on foot to see the fun and charm of the festival before returning to his palace. When midnight is past and people’s eyes are heavy with approaching sleep, the women in the city should create great noise by beating winnowing baskets and drums and should drive out Alakshmi [ill luck] from the court-yards of their houses.[9]

While Alakshmi (goddess of adversity) appears in Bhavisyottara, we get a detailed description of her in Linga Mahapurana (fifth to tenth century AD) where she is depicted as a deity of the evildoer. It is said that worship of Lakshmi during Diwali keeps Alakshmi away. Lakshmi worship during Diwali is an elaborate affair. Medieval scholar Hemadri (1259 to 1274 AD) has quoted certain additional items related to Lakshmi puja in Bhavisya Purana

No one except children or ailing persons should take a meal by day; one should worship Lakshmi in the evening and should illuminate shrines of gods, squares where four roads meet, cemeteries, rivers, mountains, houses, bottoms of trees, cowpens, caves with treelike rows of lights and should decorate shops.[10]

Among Diwali rituals, the Puranas also mention Bali pratipada (worship of Bali) which falls on the pratipada (first day) of the bright half of Kartika month (October- November). Oil bath is compulsory on this day as well, and the worship of Bali is the most important aspect of this tithi (a lunar day). Bali pratipada is also mentioned in Bhavisyottara which specifies that people must consecrate the image of king Bali made with rice grains inside their houses and worship him with flowers and fruits.[11] The ritual of worship of Bali is called Vira pratipada in the Vamana Purana

The Brahma Purana also establishes the ritual connection of dice play with the pratipada day of Diwali as it states that on Diwali, Siva and Parvati played a game of dice where Parvati emerged as the winner. It is believed that those who win on the game of dice on Diwali have a beneficial year ahead of them.  

According to various Puranas, the pratipada day involves worship of Bali, Govardhana and Margapalli (literally, protectress of the road) as well as cows and bulls, apart from lighting diyas, buying new clothes, dice play, other gambling games, etc.[12] While practices such as gambling, lighting diyas and Bali worship still continues in many communities, Govardhana and Margapalli worship is hardly seen anymore.[13]

The Puranas state that the final day of Diwali falls on the second day of the bright half of the moon of Kartika known as bhratrdvitiya (a ritual where brothers give presents to their sisters and sisters pray for their long life) or YamadvitiyaBhavisya Purana describes the day: 

...on the second tithi of Kartika bright half, Yama was treated to a dinner by Goddess Yamuna in her house; therefore this tithi became declared in the world as Yamadvitiya; wise men should not take mid-day meal in their own houses, but they should take food from the affectionate hands of their sister, as doing so increases one’s welfare and prosperity. Gifts should be given to one’s sisters; all sisters should be honoured with-golden ornaments, clothes, reception and meals; but if there be no sister, one should honour a woman whom he regards as sister (uncle’s or aunt’s daughter or a friend’s sister).[14]

It is likely that bhratrdvitiya is an independent ritual that was added to the three festive days of Diwali to lengthen the duration of Diwali’s festive fervour.[15]

Nilamata Purana
Nilamata Purana is a local purana composed between eighth to seventh century AD in Kashmir. In Nilamata Purana, the term Sukha Suptika (sleep with happiness) is used instead of Diwali though there is a mention of dipamala (rows of lamps) as part of Sukha Suptika. 

Till the full-moon night of Karttika, a lamp should be placed outside the house, at night, for one month and the Kaumudi (the giver of bliss) festival to be celebrated. Then after the fortnight, there should be the celebration of Sukha Suptika. This festival is to be celebrated on the 15th day of the dark half of the moon and none except the sick and the children should take meals on that day. It also says that after sun-sets, one should worship Lakshmi and then lamps should be lit in the temples, cross-roads (chatusapatha), cremation grounds, rivers, courtyard, and shops etc. All shops should be decorated with clothes. Then in the place surrounded by rows of lamps (Dipamala), a person well dressed in new clothes, should eat in the company of friends, relatives, the Brahmanas and servants. In the next day, the person well anointed and well decorated should gamble and listen to vocal and instrumental music. They should also feast with above mentioned persons. The year is considered auspicious for those who wins in that gambling (Dyutai Jayo). During the night, the place where beds are placed should be well decorated and should be surrounded by lines of lamps and perfumed with incense and the night should be spent by them in company of their wives.[16]

Sukha Suptika may be read as a kind of regional variation of Diwali. After the celebration of Kaumudi, a festival which is celebrated for a fortnight till the full-moon night of Kartika, Sukha Suptika takes place on the fifteenth day. For Sukha Suptika, Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped in the evening, shops are decorated, earthen lamps are lit, and people dress in new clothes and feast with their friends, relatives, brahmanas (priests), and servants. In the text, it has been said that all shops are to be decorated on this day, which is indicative of the involvement of the merchant community in the festival. The mention of gambling and music on the next day and so forth are all features that are quite similar to Diwali as is celebrated today. Sukha Suptika is believed to be important for merchants and traders who worship their account books and close old accounts while opening new ones on the auspicious day.[17]

Diwali in Other Literary Sources

The author of Nagananda, Sri Harsa was an illustrious king of ancient India who ruled from 606 to 647 AD and took keen interest in literature and learning. The drama composed by Sri Harsa in the seventh century, based upon the story of the bodhisattva Jimutavahana was performed and popularised during his time.[18] The drama is divided into four acts. The reference to Diwali appears in Act IV of the play; it occurs in the interlude part where there is a short dialogue between the chamberlain of King Vishvavasu and the doorkeeper who are commanded by the queen and the king, respectively, to summon family members to distribute Diwali gifts among them.[19]

In Nagananda, the mention of Diwali is not very elaborate but is seen to be quite important. Nagananda shows that Diwali was known even in the seventh century and had various rituals attached to it; Diwali was celebrated with pomp and grandeur, and presenting gifts was an important aspect of the festival. The text interestingly also seems to mention bhratrdvitiya as King Vishvavasu is shown asking his son to think about the gift he would give his sister. 

In the Jaina monk Somadeva’s Yasastilaka, the festival of Diwali finds mention in book three. Somadeva’s Yasastilaka is a text from the tenth century A.D. It deals with the story of Prince Yasodhara in prose as well as verse forms over eight books that are called Asvasas (cantos).[20] In a part of Yasastilaka, a bard gives a short description of Dipotsava, another name for Diwali, to the king, which includes whitewashed palaces and white flags, and rows of lights on the lofty terraces of the buildings of the city. There is also a mention of ‘women excited by gambling’, the gaiety of courtesans, and the sweet notes of music.[21]

It may be argued that Dipotsava depicted by Somadeva in Yasastilaka is secular,[22] but it would be more appropriate to say that it had become free from religious affiliations and become a part of the courtly culture. The association of Diwali with urban life is also apparent in the text; while there is no mention of any specific deity in the context of Diwali, there is a description of Goddess Jyestha, elder sister of Lakshmi, in the third book where she is said to be worshipped with white lotus blossoms.[23] Jyestha is often seen as a form of Alakshmi, the polar opposite of Lakshmi.

Alberuni’s travel account, Tahkik-i-Hind written un 1030 AD, also known as Alberuni’s India, which deals with religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws, and astrology of India mentions Diwali in its section on festivals and festive days:

The first Karttika, or new moon’s day, when the sun marches in Libra is called Dibali. Then people bathe, dress festively, make presents to each other of betel-leaves and areca-nuts; they ride to the temples to give alms and play merrily with each other till noon. In the night they light a great number of lamps in every place so that the air is perfectly clear...[24]

Here the use of the word Dibali is indicative of the prevalence of the term Dibali instead of Dipotsava or Dipavali during Alberuni’s time. 

Bhavartha Dipika
There are references to Diwali in Marathi saint Sri Jnanadeva’s Bhavartha Dipika, otherwise known as Jnaneshwari, written in 1290 A.D, though not as elaborate compared to the other sources mentioned. In Bhavartha Dipika, the word Diwali is used as: ‘When the East is dominated by the Sun it gives an empire of light to the entire universe; in that way the (faculty of) speech should be able to make a gift of Divali-festival in the form of knowledge to the entire society of listeners.’[25]

Bhavartha Dipika, among other things, tells us that Diwali was celebrated in the region of Maharashtra in the thirteenth century. 

It is evident that the Puranic texts provided the base for the creation of the various stories and legends centring the festival of Diwali. Moreover, literature from the early medieval period gives us an idea about the representation of Diwali at the time. While there are differences among the Puranas regarding the day of lighting lamps for the Divali festival, the essence remains the same.


 Gode, ‘Studies in the History of Hindu Festivals—Some Notes on the History of Divali Festival (Between c. A.D. 50 and 1945),’ 191.

[2] Kane, History of Dharmasastras, 195.

[3] Ibid., 195,196.

[4] Ibid., 196., Bhavisya Purana’s fourth part is called Uttaraparvan, also known as Bhavisyottara Purana.

[5] Ibid., 195.

[6] Ibid., 196.

[7] Ibid., 197.

[8] Ibid., 197.

[9] Ibid.,199.

[10] Ibid.,199.

[11] Ibid.,201.

[12] Ibid.,204.


[14] Ibid.,207.

[15] Ibid.,209.

[16] Kumari, The Nilamata Purana, 106, 107, 108.

[17] Kane, History of Dharmasastras, 200.

[18] Bak Kun Bae,Nagananda of Harsa, ix. 

[19] Ibid.,99.

[20] Handiqui, Somadeva’s Yasastilaka: Aspects of Jainism, Indian Thought and Culture,1.

[21] Ibid.,401.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 406.

[24] Sachau, ed. Alberuni’s India, 182.

[25] Bhagwat, Jnaneshwari, 447.


Bak Kun Bae, ed. Nagananda of Harsa. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992.

Edward C. Sachau, ed., and tr. Alberuni’s India. New Delhi: S. Chand & CO., 1964.

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. Gode Studies. Vol.V. Poona: Prof. P.K. Gode Collected Works Publication Committee, 1960.

Hazra, R.C.  Studies in the Puranic Records on Hindu Rites and Customs.  University of Dacca, 1940.

Kane, P.V.   History of Dharmasastras. Vol. V, Part I. Poona: Bhanderkar Oriental Research Institute, 1958.

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

Kumari, Ved. The Nilamata PuranaA Cultural and Literary Study of a Kashmiri Purana. Vol.II. Srinagar and Jammu: J & K Academy of Art, Culture and Language, 1968.

Ramchandra Keshav Bhagwat, tr. Jnaneshwari. Madras: Samata Books, 1979.