I grew up in a moderately religious household. My mother regaled my sister and I with the epic stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, we went to the Mandir (Hindu temple) on a regular basis and my mother and my sister prayed everyday.
I began to question religion at a very young age. I suppose my early interest in science and constant observations of the mistreatment of women in Hinduism and Indian culture played a large role. Thankfully, I was raised by an intelligent, progressive woman who welcomed and encouraged my critical thought.
Despite what the girl on the yoga mat next to you might say, Hinduism, when practiced in its orthodoxy, is very far from enlightening, and like every other religion, is woefully guilty of being atrocious in its treatment of women. From the ancient practice of Sati, to the fasting of Karva Chaut, or even the ending of the Ramayana, Hinduism is no friend to the ladies.
Yet even as I started to question religion in general and mine in particular, I continued to celebrate Diwali.
Growing up, my mother would tell us how Ram defeated Ravana, and was returning to his home, so we needed to light the little clay lamps, known as diyas so Ram could find his way back. As we got a little older, my mother taught us about all the different ways Diwali is celebrated in India, but that all celebrations tended to have the common theme of good spirits prevailing.
Known as the "festival of lights," Diwali for Hindus represents the triumph of good over evil. The details of the meaning of the holiday vary depending on where you live for Hindus, and is entirely different for Sikhs and Jains, but that doesn't seem to matter as the entire country is busy celebrating lighting fireworks and eating burfi.
Sikhs celebrate Diwali in India to celebrate the liberation of the sixth Sikh guru from his imprisonment, Guru Hargobind Singh. Jains celebrate Diwali because it was on this day that Mahavira attained Moksh, or what is commonly referred to as Nirvana. If you are a Hindu from the state of Tamil Nadu, then you are celebrating Diwali to mark the death of the demon Narakasura, at the lands of Krishna. Often, even Indian Muslims, a group that the country has a long history of treating as second-class citizens, partake in the celebrations.
Diwali was always a particularly fun time for me growing up, and not just because it was the only day that I was allowed to use matches. India is a nation that is infinitesimally divided. It seems that Indians will use any motivation to distinguish themselves from another group, whether that difference is based on language, religion, caste, or region.
Diwali, however, seems to be the one day of the year where the whole country puts aside its trivial differences, lights up, and celebrates together as one. That's a holiday that even the most crotchety atheists, this one included, can celebrate.