By Ken Chitwood
Source: Deseret News
The lights are hung, the candles lit, the feast prepared, the New Year is almost here, families gather and the children wait to hear the dramatic re-telling of stories from the ancient past. No, it is not Christmas, nor is it Hanukkah or Kwanzaa; steeped in mythical tales, religious devotion, and socio-cultural importance, it is the Hindu festival of Diwali, celebrated in India and throughout its diaspora spread across the world.
Diwali is celebrated by several religious groups including Sikhs, Jains and even some Buddhists, but its roots are thoroughly Hindu. For Sikhs it is a commemoration of “the day of freedom” when one of their revered gurus, Guru Har Gobind Ji was released from imprisonment. Jains celebrate Diwali to mark Mahavira’s moksha (enlightenment) -- the last of the tirthankara(enlightened ones). For Hindus the festival is the beginning of a New Year, a time for prosperity and new ventures, a celebration of the brother-sister relationship and the prevalence of truth over falsehood and light overcoming the darkness.
This meaning for the five-day festival is derived from several Hindu accounts. However, it centers around the account of the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon Narkasura. Other gods and goddesses, including the goddess of wealth (Lakshmi), are worshipped during Diwali, but above all it is a celebration of the victory of life, light and lightheartedness over nefarious 'Narkasuran' forces.
With a South Asian population of about 3 million, there are significant Diwali celebrations going on throughout the U.S. this week. Local Hindu and Jain temples and Sikh gurudwaras will host Diwali celebrations featuring hundreds of lights and lanterns, Indian curries and festive music played on harmoniums (keyboard), tablas (drum) and tambours (a stringed instrument). For many Asian Indians living in the diaspora, Diwali is not only religious, but steeped in socio-cultural significance and celebrations of South Asian identity.
With this in mind Pramod Aghamkar, Executive Director of Satsang Ministries, started celebrating "Christian Diwalis" a few yeas ago in Dayton, Ohio. The Christian Diwali in Dayton is an effort on his part to immerse himself in native Asian-Indian culture and add the concepts and ideologies of the Christian worldview.
“The festival of Diwali provides the necessary framework, structure and organic occasion to proclaim Christ as the light of the world” said Aghamkar. “It gives stepping stones, clues and redemptive analogies for cross-cultural witness.”
Drawing inspiration from those Christians who redeemed pagan festivals and symbols to make Easter (eggs, new life) and Christmas (the evergreen tree bedecked with lights) what they are today, Aghamkar hopes to redeem the symbols and practices of Diwali for the sake of Christian witness. For him Diwali “is a native tool that still remains undeveloped by Indian Christians.” To tap into this potential, Aghamkar hosts a Christian Diwali in South Asian family settings each year and now encourages other Indian Christian leaders to do the same in other cities.
One city where Indian Christian leaders are not so receptive to this idea is Houston. Asked about the possibility of Christian Diwali celebrations in Houston, a South Asian pastor from The Woodlands demurred, “it is a major Hindu festival, Christ is not part of the celebration.”
“Whenever possible I seek the Scriptures for knowledge and direction” said the pastor. “I am not sure there is any place in the Scriptures where it talks about redeeming a heathen idea.”
Another Houston man, Vidyasagar Garnepudi, feels the tension and the temptation to celebrate a "Christian Diwali." He said, "every Indian child's dream is to participate in Diwali, it's a victory over darkness, a festival of lights, it's firing off the firecrackers."
Aghamkar hears and understands these objections, but believes the pkenractice of Christian Diwali is still a viable custom. “Non-Hindu accounts show Diwali to be a flexible, multi-faceted festival” he said, “the form of celebration is not intrinsically Hindu, Jain or Sikh. Though the principles are ‘non-Christian,’ they are not ‘un-Christian.’” Despite the desire to participate in the celebration, he lamented that "as Christians we should not celebrate Diwali. However, we do rejoice with our neighbor as India is a secular nation."
He also cautions that while the music, lights, food and stories may be similar between Hindu and Christian celebrations, the traditional Hindu gods and Sikh and Jain teachers are not lauded, but instead it is Christ who is the hero of the story who dispels the darkness and brings light and life. “It is not shifting from radical rejection to wholesale acceptance” said Aghamkar, but it is a way for “the Indian community to experience Jesus in a native way.”
Some scholars of South Asian religion and Hindu traditions offered some perspective as they debated the saliency of a "Christian Diwali." One offered, "it's one thing for a Christian to come to a temple and celebrate the ritual, taking away the nitty-gritty of the myth, just as a general celebration of victory of good over evil...it's another to use a Hindu tradition to advance Christianity." The same individual asked, "how would a Christian react if Easter was used to further Hindu ideas and motives?"
Another participant in the academic dialogue offered that since, in India, Christianity is a minority religion, "this might be an expression of having to find their way in a world that is primarily Hindu."
Perhaps even still, this is part of a wider dialogue on the secular and/or religious nature of Diwali and whether or not Diwali is losing its religious significance in favor of more secular or purely culturally mechanic communal practices and personal rituals.
What do you think? Can Christians “redeem” Diwali? Should the holiday be left for Hindus, Sikhs and Jains to celebrate? What are your Diwali traditions?
Ken Chitwood is a religion scholar, PhD student and news reporter who lived for four years in Houston before moving to Florida. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.