There are many stories of origin of the tradition of Diwali. The most popular story is the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya. Some of the other stories are briefly described below.
Incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi
It is believed that Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, was incarnated on the day of main Diwali, which is an Amavashya night. Legend has it that when the Gods and demons churned an entire ocean for a potion of immortality, it was Goddess Lakshmi who appeared with the magical potion. This day of her advent is celebrated as Lakshmi Puja day even today.
Lord Krishna conquers demon Narakasur
On the dark Amavashya night in the Hindu month of Kartik, an evil demon king named Narakasur was killed. He was the son of Bhudevi and was the ruler of Pragjyotishpur, a province to the south of Nepal. Lord Brahma had blessed him with immense power but he utilized the powers to wrongfully gain power over the demigods. After defeating Lord Indra, a demigod, in a war, Narakasur took away mother Goddess Aditi’s earrings. Goddess Aditi was the ruler of Suraloka then and happened to be a relative of Lord Krishna’s wife, called Satyabhama. Narakasur also went on to imprison sixteen thousand daughters of Gods and Saints. It was then that Lord Krishna guided Satyabhama into a battle with the evil king. With Lord Krishna guiding Satyabhama, it is only obvious that Satyabhama killed Narakasur and released the women kept in captivity and returned the special earrings to Goddess Aditi.
The return of the Pandavas
Like the story of return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya, there is another story of return of the five sons of Dhitarashtra to their kingdom after 13 long years. When the evil Duryodhana and his 99 brothers won against their five step brothers, Yudhishthhira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva, in a game of dice, wicked Duryodhana sentenced the five brothers to thirteen years of exile. It was on the dark night of Kartik Amavashya that the five brothers returned to the kingdom after thirteen long years in exile. Similar to the celebration on the night of return of Lord Rama, the dark night of return of the five brothers was lit up with oil lamps.
Coronation of King Vikramaditya
One of the greatest Hindu kings, Vikramaditya, was believed to have been coroneted on Kartik Amavashya and the people celebrated the occasion by lighting oil lamps made of clay.
End of King Mahabali’s reign
King Mahabali was a very powerful demon king who once ruled the entire planet. He became arrogant and conceited after Lord Brahma granted him with invincible powers. He misutilised his powers to raise battles against the demigods. When the demigods approached Lord Vishnu for help, he made a plan to trick Mahabali into giving away his kingship and wealth. Lord Vishnu, disguised as a Brahmin, approached Mahabali for charity. King Mahabali was immensely popular amongst his subjects for his generosity. Lord Vishnu knew that he was a benevolent person and won’t refuse his request. When King Mahabali promised to offer whatever he wished for, the Brahmin asked him for a piece of land equal to his three steps. When Mahabali granted his wish, Lord Vishnu grew into a giant figure with huge feet. In just 2 steps he covered Bali’s entire kingdom and with his third step he pushed Bali into the ground.
Lord Mahavira attains nirvana, a state of enlightenment
Diwali has a different significance amongst the Jain community in India. This is the day when their Lord Mahavira, the last Tirthankara and founder of modern Jainism, attained the eternal blissful state of Nirvana. The Tirthankara, who were born as human beings but later ascended to a superior state of enlightenment through meditation and self-realization, are worshipped by the Jains.
Swami Dayananda Saraswati attains nirvana
Swami Dayananda Saraswati was one of the greatest reformers of Hinduism. It was on the Kartik Amavashya day when he attained nirvana and became Maharshi Dayananda, which means the great sage of Dayananda. He then founded the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement, to eliminate the immoral beliefs and practices in Hinduism. His greatness and contribution to Hinduism is remembered and celebrated on the day of Diwali.
Release of Guru Hargobind and 52 other princes from prison
Guru Hargobing was the sixth guru of the Sikhs. Legend has it that when Guru Hargobind was being released after being imprisoned by Emperor Jahangir with 52 other princes, he asked for the 52 princes to be released with him. However, the clever emperor agreed to release only those princes who could hold onto the guru’s cloak. Although Guru Hargobind was wearing a small cloak, it was made of exactly 52 strings. He asked the princes to hold onto one each and they left. This day of return of Guru Hargobind is still celebrated by lighting the Golden Temple, the sacred temple of the Sikhs.
Worshipping Goddess Kali
Legend has it that Goddess Durga reincarnated as Goddess Kali, to save the heaven and earth from the atrocities of the demons.
The demons were growing powerful and created mayhem after they had won a battle against the Gods. It was then that Kali appeared to put an end to the malice created by the demons. However, after killing all the devils, Kali got so overwhelmed that she lost self-control and was killing everyone she came across. To stop Kali, Lord Shiva appeared and just as she was about to strike him, she had a sudden self-realization and calmed down. This moment of her self-realization, when she reacts with her tongue sticking out, is captured in all depictions of her, even today. The epic day is celebrated to this day on Diwali, when devotees seek blessings from Goddess Kali.