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There are more than a billion people of the Hindu faith globally—that’s about 15% of the world’s population. And yet, the most important Hindu festival—Diwali—is still unfamiliar to most people in the West. The word Diwali stems from the Sanskrit Deepavali, which literally means a line of oil lamps, and figuratively signifies the idea of light over darkness—an idea that in recent years seems to have lost resonance with right-wing fundamentalists in India, my country of origin.
Nowhere is Diwali celebrated with more gusto than in India, a secular democracy that is home to 94% of the world’s Hindus. The festival has a broad cultural significance in a multi-religious country with robust minority populations of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Bahais, and others. It is common for non-Hindus to join Diwali celebrations during a time that is considered to be the Hindu New Year, ushering out the financial failures of the past year and welcoming in the hoped-for successes of the new year.
Indeed, it is similar to how Christmas is celebrated widely in the United States, even by many non-Christians (myself included) who revel in the rich traditions of family gatherings, specialty foods, and gift-giving without feeling the need to attend a church service.
Because Diwali is celebrated on the lunar timetable, the dates vary. This year the holiday begins on Nov. 4, kicking off five days of celebration.
For those of us who do not consult the Hindu calendar with any regularity, the yearly festival is always an unpredictable delight. This was especially the case during my childhood.
How My Secular Family Embraced Diwali
Diwali was a big deal in my home—this despite growing up as an Indian immigrant in a Muslim country (the U.A.E.) born to a non-practicing Catholic mother and an agnostic Hindu father with atheist Communist roots. In spite of the Catholic side of my family, Diwali was a bigger deal than Christmas, simply because it is the most important annual Indian celebration.
Each Diwali my mother always ensured there were newly tailored traditional dresses for my sisters and me. There were enthusiastic visits to the homes of friends and relatives in order to gift and receive the signature mouth-watering Diwali sweetmeats, which manifested in a sort of cookie-exchange-style swapping of store-bought and homemade mithai, and battles over which sweets were the best (my sister insisted that besan ladoos were superior while my favorite was the kaju barfi).
Although Diwali has various Hindu mythological origin stories, the universal idea of good triumphing over evil is central, and is generally symbolized by myriad forms of light brightening people’s homes and the outdoor evening skies. These range from hand-crafted accordion-style paper lanterns to outdoor electric string lights that are so bright the outlines of India’s celebrations are visible from outer space. Also common are traditional oil lamps like the grand brass Samai that my mother proudly lit, and small terracotta bowls of oil with lit cotton wicks that are used to line pathways in the hopes of attracting the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, into homes.
Those wearing easily combustible silk saris and lehengas are warned against brushing too close to the flames. Indeed, one of my most vivid Diwali memories was stepping foot-first onto a lit oil lamp and my mother whisking me to the kitchen where she plunged my singed toes into a bowl of homemade yogurt—a home remedy for burns that is familiar to most Indians.
Chief among Diwali traditions is the lighting of spectacular fireworks of the sort that are now banned in most U.S. cities and some Indian states. During my childhood the grownups were always in charge of the most thrillingly dangerous fireworks such as the Akash Ganga rockets, and the spinning wheel-style floor chakras, while the children were usually entrusted with handheld sparklers. The boldest among us would bend the wire ends and twirl the sparklers around one finger as they burned down, creating effervescent, albeit risky, circular auroras to impress our friends.
My personal favorite Diwali tradition then and now is Rangoli, the art of drawing intricate floor patterns crafted from colored powders. Amid the many ways to attract Lakshmi Devi into people’s homes—such as cleanliness, lights, and sweets—are these decorative patterns that are, by design, transient and can be easily swept away by a strong wind. Rangoli art, which is generally the purview of women, is so popular that it is now a competitive sport akin to chalk art contests in the U.S.
How Hindu Fundamentalists Have Perverted Diwali
Today, growing Hindu-supremacist sentiments across India, whipped up by the right-wing ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has taken aim at multicultural celebrations of Diwali. The popular Indian fashion brand FabIndia came under fire this year for an ad campaign around its new clothing line titled “Jashn-e-Riwaaz.” The phrase means “festival of tradition” in Urdu, a language that closely resembles the national language of Hindi but is commonly used by Muslims.
FabIndia promoted its new line saying, “As we welcome the festival of love and light,” the collection “pays homage to Indian culture.” Prominent BJP leader Tejasvi Surya immediately lambasted the company for a “deliberate attempt of abrahamisation [sic] of Hindu festivals,” and for “depicting models without traditional Hindu attires.” FabIndia subsequently faced an onslaught of criticism, leading to the company pulling its ad campaign.
The controversy echoes a similar one against a jewelry company last year named Tanishq for promoting celebrations of Diwali minus the dangerous fireworks, as if promoting safety was somehow antithetical to Hinduism. That controversy came shortly after Tanishq faced calls for a boycott over its depiction of an inter-faith marriage between a Hindu and a Muslim in an advertisement.
Such a dangerous trend that is largely centered on Islamophobia is, in my opinion, insulting to the very idea of Diwali. To secular Indians like me, the annual festival is an embodiment of India’s rich tapestry of cultural traditions, which certainly has religious roots, but which is not restricted to any one community’s interpretation of how to celebrate it.
Diwali is About Culture, Family, and a Rejection of Evil
There is beauty in the messy diversity of India’s cultural and religious heritage, one that narrow-minded Hindu fundamentalists so deeply fear will dilute their political power that they have carried out concerted campaigns like the ones against FabIndia and Tanishq to force traditions like Diwali to fit into the limited confines of what they deem is acceptable.
After all, Hinduism, unlike most organized religions, has no conversion ceremony. Its interpretations are so varied that Hindu and non-Hindu Indians mark their Diwali celebrations in mind-bogglingly diverse ways. Sometimes even neighboring villages may differ in their manner of celebratory rituals.
It follows then that one of my other favorite childhood Diwali memories is from my teenage years, when my devoutly Catholic aunt Jessie decided that our family would try celebrating Diwali with some of the explicitly religious hallmarks of the ceremony known as Lakshmi puja—just to embrace the full experience of the festival.
We assembled a makeshift version of an altar to the goddess Lakshmi and a puja plate, which is usually a brass or silver plate adorned with incense, sweets, vermillion powder, and more. We tried to sing a familiar devotional song that is often sung in prayer. My father, who has some practicing Hindus in his family, tried vainly to recall the words. Although we failed to re-create the specifics of the ceremony, the sheer effort to get it right generated raucous laughter and merriment.
That memory sticks with me most strongly for it was the togetherness, the faith in family and the enjoyment of a cultural language that we all shared—somewhat devoid of religious beliefs but instead infused with an appreciation of history and lineage that signifies Diwali.
This Diwali, what matters most is the idea that good can indeed triumph over the evil forces of supremacist and fascist thinking that are increasingly dominating the discourse on our collective traditions.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com