Celebrating Diwali ‘Reminds Us to Create Our Own Light’
After a long, hard year, the Festival of Lights is a welcome reset
After an exhausting year dominated by a pandemic and an equally tiring election cycle rife with racist and xenophobic attacks, a weekend of new beginnings and celebration feels overdue.
Also known in the West as the Festival of Lights, this celebration will be observed this year by millions of Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists on Saturday, November 14 as one of our biggest holidays. Others will observe Bandi Chhor Diwas, the biggest holiday of the year for Sikhs. And for many that applaud Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ South Asian parentage, this year’s Diwali portends the possibility of such celebrations becoming the norm in the White House and across the country.
Whether you’re just learning about Diwali or are a longtime observer putting a new twist on old traditions, here’s what you can do to commemorate the day:
- Celebrate and reflect on the past year. Diwali is observed as the Hindu New Year, and many see it is a fresh start by donning new clothes or buying gold and new utensils. “My favorite part of Diwali is being together as a family,” says Ankit Jain, who is celebrating in Virginia. “We have a tradition of writing down the biggest events that happened to us every year. It feels like a time for us to all get together and take stock of the past year.”
- Clean house. On Diwali night, it is said that Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, visits the households of those celebrating. In preparation, South Asian families typically scour their homes, an undertaking that won’t go amiss as we spend more time inside than ever, and draw rangolis on the ground to welcome guests.
- Bring in some light. An old Hindi teacher once explained to me that South Asians traditionally lit diyas and cleaned their homes to stop the spread of mosquitoes after the monsoon season as the earthen lamps drew mosquitoes to their hot oil and acted as a natural insecticide. Now, many South Asians light diyas and string their houses with Christmas lights to guide and entice Lakshmi into the home and bring prosperity.
- Eat all the desserts. “Unfortunately, I can’t be with family this year, so I’m making Diwali dinner for friends,” says Rahul Sinha, who is celebrating in Colorado. On Diwali, we’re equal opportunity feasters, but some desserts particularly associated with the holiday are gujhia, anarsa, and lai batasha. On Saturday, I’ll be breaking out my grandma’s famous gulab jamun recipe (you know, the recipe Chrissy Teigen also uses).
The origins of Diwali are almost as varied as the myriad ways people celebrate. For North Indian Hindus like my family, the celebration often commemorates Lord Ram’s return to Ayodhya in the Ramayan after defeating the demon king Ravan, ending his 12 years in exile. South Indian Hindus celebrate the defeat of Narakasura at the hands of Lord Krishna. Jains celebrate the day their final spiritual teacher, Lord Mahavir, achieved enlightenment. West Indian Hindus celebrate the triumph of Lord Vishnu over the demon king Bali. Some Nepali Buddhists celebrate Ashok Vijayadashami on Diwali to commemorate Emperor Ashoka’s acceptance of Buddhism. Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhor Diwas for the sixth Sikh guru’s release from captivity by Emperor Jahangir.
“Diwali reminds us to create our own light even when we feel surrounded by darkness.”
Whatever the specificities, the day universally marks the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance even in the most difficult of times.
“Diwali reminds us to create our own light even when we feel surrounded by darkness,” explains Rohan Goyal, who is celebrating in New York this year with a Zoom puja (or worship), a pandemic twist on the traditional Lakshmi pujas held Diwali night.
This year, widespread acceptance of technologies like Zoom have allowed many to be even more intentional with Diwali celebrations.
Nikhil Mandalaparthy, who serves on the board of Sadhana, a coalition of progressive Hindus, explains that the organization is hosting virtual and in-person events for Diwali and Bandi Chhor Diwas to renew their communities’ commitment to justice and freedom in the new year.
“Since virtual events generally aren’t as heavy of a lift compared to in-person event logistics, we were able to put together more specialized programs for different groups like Indo-Caribbean community members, kids, and more,” Mandalaparthy says.
Sadhana members aren’t the only ones bringing a commitment to social justice to the holiday this year.
“The pandemic has allowed me the time to take a step back and analyze how Diwali and the celebration of other popular Hindu holidays interact with the caste system,” explains Priyanka Bansal, who is celebrating in New Jersey. “I’m taking the time to read about upper-caste Diwali traditions and how harmful they sometimes are. Rather than going into the festive season clueless, this year I have the time to educate myself about its origins and impact.”