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Hindus kick off new year with festival

Nov. 1, 2005

By JIM RAY, reporter

Rama slayed the demon king of Lanka in an epic clash, according to many Hindus' lunar calendar. This age-old victory will be widely celebrated by Hindus today in a festival called Diwali, marked by the new moon of the Indian New Year.

"Diwali signifies the war between good and evil -- between God, Rama, and the devil, Ravana," said Jayesh Pandya, owner of Jay Jewelers and father of Baylor student Aloc Pandya, a Waco junior.

One common tale of Diwali's origin has Ravana kidnapping Rama's wife and spiriting her away from India to Sri Lanka, Pandya said. After a lengthy battle, Rama defeated his foe and leveled the kingdom of Lanka.

"The day he comes back to India is Diwali, which represents the return of Rama with his wife," Pandya said.

According to the Web site of Barsana Dahm, a Hindu temple in Austin, this occasion was marked by a great spectacle that welcomed the returning king. People in the Indian city of Ayodhya lighted up their houses and walkways with candlelit fire. "The whole of Ayodhya was glowing with light," temple leader Jagadguru Shree Swamiji's message on the site said.

"Diwali," also known as "divali," stems from the word "deepavali," or "rows of candles," according to the site. A message from Swamiji on the site says two gods, or aspects of God -- Krishn and Radha -- celebrated Diwali in novel ways. Once, they each came to either side of a great pond and set thousands of lights in the dark water.

Disturbing the pond, they made the flames appear to walk on the ripples.

Mani Subramanian, one of nine co-founders of The Hindu Temple of Central Texas in Temple, said the modern Hindu practice is "almost like Christmas, but it's not dependent on electricity."

Subramanian said Indians light wicks in oil-filled cups and place them all around their houses. "But in southern India, the tradition is fireworks," he said.

Getting up early in the morning as a boy, when the moonless sky was still black, Subramanian would light the fireworks his parents had bought for him.

Both Subramanian and Pandya said this spectacle is more individual when compared with the mega-shows of America's Independence Day. Households tend to stage their own displays. Sectarian interpretations, origin accounts and names of gods range widely across India.

But while Indians disagree on the details of the tradition, everyone knows when to light the wick. And when every single house releases screaming, spark-streamed comets in one of the most populous countries in the world, it makes for a sky-shattering event. "You hear boom-bahm, boom-bahm all over India," Subramanian said.

Niyati Vaidya, a Houston junior, said Diwali is Hindu's "major festival." Another of the significant aspects of the festival is its emphasis on togetherness and hospitality, she said. As a child in India, Vaidya -- who has lived five years in the U.S. -- went house-to-house with her family greeting neighbors.

Diwali is also significant for being the day before the Indian New Year. Pandya doesn't recommend dialing India tonight because that's what "everyone" will be doing, bombarding satellites and landlines with new year's salutations.

Donning new clothes is also part of the tradition's varied festivities, which include inviting wealth into the home. "In Indian culture, you invite the goddess of wealth, Laxmi, into your home," Vaidya said. "You open the doors to your house after the ritual."

Unlike Christian traditions, Subramanian said, people disagree in India on the origin and significance of the festival they all observe. He stressed the diversity of tradition among different Hindu sects. He said, "Unlike many religions, it tends to be an amalgamation of many belief systems."

The Hindu Temple of Western Texas and Barsana Dahm emphasize the reverence of different deities, though differences among Hindu sects are sometimes only nominal. The Web site of The Hindu Temple of Central Texas states, "Our primary deity is Omkara Mahaganapathi," but more "deities are represented and we try to cater to the large sections of the Hindu community."

The Hindu Temple of Central Texas will celebrate Diwali today at 6:30 p.m. today at 4309 Midway Drive in Temple.