Recently, doubts have been raised by some people in positions of power about Deepavali not being mentioned in the Ramayana, and hence the question – What is the reference for celebration? Is there a scriptural mention of Deepavali? Although the Ramayana does not mention it, Deepavali was celebrated during Bhagavan Sri Rama’s time.
There is a mention about Deepavali in the Skanda Purana which was written by the sage Veda Vyaasa who codified and analysed the Vedas and presented the wisdom that was there in the Vedas. Traditional stories of different devatas, the cycle of creation and resolution, the manifestation of Ishvara are also mentioned in the Puranas. In the Skanda Purana, Vaishnava Khanda, section 5 has Kartika Mahatmyam in which the lights of Deepavali are mentioned (Chapter 9, shloka 65).
When the sun is in Tula Rashi (Libra) and on Chaturdashi, Amavasya day, we have to honour our ancestors by ulka hastah, firebrands in our hands. A month before Deepavali, is the pitra paksha, we invite the pitrs, ancestors to honour them. In these two weeks our ancestors return to the lokas. As a mark of honouring them we are supposed to stand in the night of Chaturdashi and Amavasya with ulka in our hands. Ulka is like a firebrand or flaming torches made with dried sugarcane leaves or castor oil sticks lit as blazing torches. We say goodbye to our pitras with the ulkas in our hand facing the easterly direction. Some stories say that we are lighting up their path.
Our pitras don’t need that. But this was the way to say goodbye. We see equivalents in modern-day living through customs of waving a handkerchief or waving the hands etc. This is different from the story of Bhagavan Sri Rama returning from Lanka and being welcomed by the people of Ayodhya. There are many stories and reasons behind Indian festivals. I am highlighting the traditional source of the significance of firebrands during Deepavali. Just because one has specialisation in a particular domain of knowledge does not mean expertise in religious matters too.
(The writer is the founder of Aarsha Vidya Foundation. You can write to him at email@example.com)