Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, stretches beyond India, a five-day holiday encompassing multiple stories from around the world, involving Hindus, some Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. For India, however, where roughly 80 percent of the population practices Hinduism, Diwali 2011 is and will be a massive and deeply Hindu affair, one involving dancing, shows, religious worship and lots of fireworks.
Diwali, or Divali, means row of lights, and is a celebration of the Hindu New Year according to the lunisolar calendar. Typically, Diwali also falls near the end of harvest season, from mid-October to mid-November, meaning the goddess Lakshmi, who brings wealth and prosperity, is honored by the holiday with candle offerings and bright, festive decorations.
It is also, however, a more general celebration of good over evil, especially that of Rama's victory over the 10-headed demon Ravana in the Hindu epic The Ramayana. Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, returns home during Diwali (Oct. 26, in 2011) after fourteen years of banishment, and Hindus lay out lamps, set off fireworks, and hang paper lanterns to help light his way home.
All these traditions combine to make Diwali a true festival of lights, from those dedicated to Lakshmi and celebrating Rama to Hindus honoring Ganesh, the God of good beginnings, on this gorgeous holiday. While the story behind Diwali and how people celebrate may vary from region to region, the holiday's essence remains the same: rejoicing at the victory of goodness, light, and atman (the soul) over falseness, darkness, and reality.