You are not wrong. The word “history” has been spelt with “ies”: in the plural, that is. When “Deepavali” is mentioned, the first personality who comes to our minds is “Narakasuran” (that if you are a Tamil), and it will be Lord Rama if you are a North Indian.
Actually, there are many histories of Deepavali. If it leads you to wonder how can one event could have several beginnings, you need just to read on to discover how many are it came to be so: every one of the touted geneses is full of spiritual import and symbolism. Let’s now look at the popular puranic stories connected with the Festival of Lights.
Lord Rama and Deepavali
In North India, the Hindus celebrate Deepavali (which they call Diwali or Diwaali) to commemorate the return of Lord Sri Ramachandra after His 14 years of Vanvasa (=banishment): it is on this day that he returned to country. Tradition has it that, His overjoyed citizens celebrated His return by lighting rows and rows of lamps on the path that He was to tread.
Lord Krishna and Deepavali
In the South, on the other hand, Deepavali is the day Narakasura fell: after his mother, Srimati Satyabhama, vanquished him in a battle between him and her on the 14th day (Chathuthi Thithi), as he lay on his death bed, he asked Sri Krishna for a boon, i.e., to celebrate his death day as a day of victory for Dharma. This day became Deepavali. This is the puranic story that the peoples in Singapore, Malaysia, South India and Sri Lanka often cite for their reasons to celebrate the festival.
Hare Krsnas and Deepavali (?)
The Vaishnavites, including the hare Krsnas, celebrate the day after Deepavali as Govardhan Puja. It is the day, the scriptures say, Sri Krishna defeated Indra, the deity of thunder and rain. According to this tale, Sri Krishna dissuaded the people of his land from doing the annual offering to Lord Indra. When the villagers went by His advice, Indra became very angry and punished them by causing floods in their village. Sri Krishna finally defeated him. (The point to note is that the Hare Krsnas or their fellow Vaishnavites do not consider this day as Deepavali, and neither do they regard Deepavali as Vaishnava festival.)
Mahavira and Deepavali
Deepavali has a very significant place even in the history of the Jains. According to their scriptures, it is on this very day that Mahavira, their founder archarya, attained nirvana (=enlightenment). Their scriptures say that the gods illuminated a city by lamps to mark the occasion. Since that time, their scripture say the people of Bharat celebrate the famous festival of lights to worship the Mahavira on the occasion of his nirvana. Incidentally, on the same day, many years later, Mahavira’s principal disciple came by the Supreme Knowledge.
Guru Har Gobind and Deepavali
Deepavali is very important to the Sikhs. It is on Deepavali that their 6th Guru and 52 others were released from Mougul Emperor’s prison. The Sikhs celebrated the return of their Guru by lighting the Golden Temple, and this tradition continues today.
Bhrungi Rishi and Deepavali
According to the Saivites, Kedara Gowri Vrata (in short, “Gowri/Gauri Vrata”) is called Deepavali. Swami Kripananda Variyaar has mentioned this in one of his books. One of the puranic stories says that the vrata started because one “Bhrungi Rishi”. (In Sanskrit, Bhrunga refers to “bee”).
Bhrungi was a great devotee of Lord Shiva. He, however, had one great defect despite all his devotion: he never wanted to pray to Devi; hence, he chose to completely ignore Her! He ignored her even when he had to circumambulate the Lord: he would ignore the Divine Mother.
The Lord wanted to rid him of this ego. Hence, Lord Shiva and and Mother Parvathy merged into one and appeared as Ardhanareeshwara before the Saint.The saint, in his insistence in seeing the Lord different from Mother, assumed the form of a Bee, and pierced the body of Ardhanareeshwara, and tried circumambulating Shiva only.
Divine mother withdrew her shakthi from the bee-form “Bhrungi”. The rishi had to re-assume his usual human form: he, however, could not stand on his legs— his intense and arduous tapas did not help him. Lord Shiva, in His lila, gave the rishi a staff to support himself!
Lord Shiva, out of karuna, pacified Mother Shakthi, and made the Rishi realise his folly. Thus, the day when the rishi realised the oneness of Shiva-shakthi, it was Deepavali: he did Kedara-gowri Vratha Himself.
Kurma Avatar and Deepavali
Some people who do a narrow reading of Kurma Avatar lila (which is found in not one but in a number of upa-Puranas) ascribe the genesis of Deepavali to the day of this avatar. There is no explicit mention of the connection between the incarnation and the festival in the puranas but an incident of the Lord’s contact with oil in a field that grew “Eal” had been interpreted by some pundits as the beginning of the Tamilians’ oil bath on Narakachathuthi or Deepavali.
If you were to look at the above histories, you will notice that in most cases (except one: Narakasura’s death), it is not that Deepavali started from the eventful day or auspicious incident, rather an eventful or auspicious incident happened on the day of Deepavali. It is such a wonderfully spiritual day that the Lord or great personalities of the Puranic age had chosen that particular day for an event to take place.
Swami Haridoss says that Deepavali is so auspicious that even Sanyasis, who had renounced every want and desire, should honour the day with vasthiram offering.