What Is the History and Significance of Diwali?

Diwali, the festival of light, has been celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Muslims – across South Asia and beyond for over 2,500 years.

Nov 11, 2023By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

History of Diwali


The festival of Diwali symbolizes the victory of light over darkness, new beginnings, and the supremacy of knowledge over ignorance. Spanning five days, the festival can trace its roots back to the ancient harvest festivals of South Asia. In modern times, the story of Diwali is interpreted differently depending on the region and beliefs of those celebrating it. Yet, amidst the diversity of Diwali stories, a unifying, common theme cuts across interpretations – the triumph of good over evil. 


What Is Diwali?

The striking Diwali street decorations in the north Indian city of Jaipur. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Diwali does not fall on an exact date every year. But rather, aligns with the 15th lunar day of the Hindu calendar. Following the pattern of the moon, Diwali arrives somewhere between mid-October and mid-November on the darkest night of the Hindu lunar calendar. In 2023, Diwali is set to begin on 12th November. 


As the festival approaches, participants clean their houses and decorate their homes, workplaces, and temples with bright illuminations of candles and lights. Diwali is above all a family festival. During the festivities, feasts are organized and gifts are exchanged; temples buzz with the energy of revelers dressed in their finest clothes. 


The streets buzz with energy and shimmering light. The sweet scent of jasmine mixes with the smell of firecrackers, as fireworks shoot through the night sky. Together the revellers of Diwali embrace each other in the light to ward off dark thoughts, shadows, and evil. 

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


The Origins of Diwali

Happy “Diwali”. A postcard alluding to the origins of the festival of Diwali. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


The term “Diwali” finds its origins in the Sanskrit word “deepawali” which means “row of lights” – with “deep” meaning light and “avali” translated to mean a row. Across the many communities that observe Diwali, the festival is known as a festival of lights. 


While Diwali is primarily associated with Hinduism it is also celebrated by Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Muslims. The celebrations also differ depending on regional angiography and one’s cultural background and religious beliefs. Nonetheless, there are common roots to the festival. 


Pinpointing the exact origins of Diwali is a challenge. However, Diwali most likely originated as a fusion of ancient South Asian harvest festivals. In this regard, the history of the festival appears traceable to the thanksgiving of farmers and rural communities for the prosperity of a successful crop. 


Besides the association with the victory of good over evil and light over darkness, Diwali has no single origin story. Instead, many myths, legends, and religious texts are linked to the festival. 


Diwali in Northern and Western India

Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya from Lanka.


For North Indian Hindus Diwali signifies the homecoming of Lord Rama to Ayodhya and his victory over the demon Ravana. As per the Ramayana, the return journey of Rama and Sita from Lanka to north India is commemorated by lighting diyas – small candles made of oil – and clay lamps, to welcome them home. 


While the story of Rama and Sita is central in the north, in Western India, the story of Diwali focuses on the legend of King Bali. An ambitious and powerful demon, King Bali posed a threat to the gods, the heavens, and the earth. Until, disguised as a Brahmin dwarf, Lord Vishnu banished the evil king to the underworld. 


An important part of both the north and west Indian traditions include pujas (prayers) to the Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, good fortune, and prosperity. Early on in the festivities, houses are cleaned and decorated with candles to invite Lakshmi and her blessings. 


Diwali in South India

Krishna (far left) battles against the army of King Narakasura (far right). Source: Wikimedia Commons


Meanwhile, in south India, Diwali usually takes the form of a one-day festival known as Deepavali, or Naraka Chaturdashi. Sometimes known as “Choti Diwali” Naraka Chaturdashi too celebrates the banishment of evil and darkness from the earth. 


However, instead of Rama’s triumph over the demon Ravana, Deepavali commemorates the triumph of Lord Krishna – the 8th incarnation of Vishnu – over the demon King Narakasura, a powerful giant that abducted 16,000 daughters of the gods. 


After an almighty battle, Krishna defeated the evil king of Pragjyotishapura (near present-day Assam) and freed the girls. Upon his return, Krishna was bathed early in the morning in scented oils. Hence taking an early bath with essential oils remains a Deepavali tradition. 


Curiously, in the state of Hyderabad, Dalit students and faculty at Osmania University mourn the death of Narakasura, who they claim was a Dalit king and son of the earth goddess Bhudevi, unjustly killed by Lord Krishna. 


Buddhist, Jain, and Muslim Diwali Celebrations

The focus of Sikh Diwali celebrations: the 6th Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind


Diwali, a truly national festival, transcends religious boundaries and is celebrated by a diverse array of cultural and religious groups. However, while festivities of the “festival of light” may appear similar, across these groups, each community imbues Diwali with its own unique spiritual significance. 


For instance, Sikhs commemorate the release of the 6th Guru, Guru Hargobind from prison in 1619, Jains observe Diwali as the day that Lord Mahavira reached Nirvana, while Buddhists mark the occasion as the day that the Hindu emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism

Muslims in South Asia have also been celebrating Diwali for centuries. From the era of the Mughal ruler Akbar the Great (1556-1605), Diwali was embraced and became a grand public festival. Today, many of India’s most iconic mosques from the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai to the grand Hazrat Nizammudin Dargah in New Delhi, light up to mark Diwali celebrations.

Author Image

By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.