During my childhood, there was no more exciting day of the year than Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights. As an immigrant family in America, we clung to cultural markers. For my parents, who arrived in North America in the 1970’s, their sense of normalcy was long shaped by their lives in India. They certainly adapted to the cadence of life in America, but even decades later, I remain amazed at all of the “normal” American idioms and thought patterns that eluded them. They have always processed difference through their beautifully naïve sense of givenness. By “naïve” I do not mean to imply a value judgment. What I mean is that their sense of identity did not need to be reflective. Their early experiences in India took place outside of the need to navigate multiple visions of life and reality. Indian life is far from homogenous, but it does carry a general sense of internal continuity that we can call “Indian.” For my parents, Diwali was the culmination of the calendar, and they could take that for granted. I love that they could.
When they arrived in North America, my parents gravitated toward the local immigrant Indian community. Life therein was normal for them and safe. Wherever Indians travel in the Western world, we can find clusters of our kind. These communities are havens for the immigrant and settings of social education for subsequent generations. My sister and I learned how to be Indian in these environments in multiple communities as we moved around. Unlike our parents, though, our development took place in two different worlds: the white-American social world of school and the world of 1970’s north India embalmed in our communities. In these Indian bubbles, just like in India itself, the social calendar revolved around Diwali. While our friends at school looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas every year, our community pooled resources to make Diwali the grandest event. As immigrants looking to fit in, we ate turkey on Thanksgiving and unwrapped gifts on Christmas, but the heart of the community was Diwali.
Celebration looked different in India than in diaspora. In India, in the days leading up to Diwali, my cousin and I would run around town throwing “snappers” everywhere. Then, when the day arrived, the excitement would permeate the air. Everyone was ready to eat, dance, and share in laughter with everyone else, whether or not we knew each other. Then, at night, the real fun began. The streets would be alive with countless flashes of light and with the bursts of fireworks all over: red in the sky here, green over there, sparklers waiving between houses. The scene is indescribable, and the memories are endless. Even as the scene seemed chaotic, with each community engaging its own display of celebratory lights, a grander sense of order was also apparent. The excitement was shared; each scene of celebration belonged together like scenes in a mosaic.
Conversely, in America, the whole day of Diwali largely goes unrecognized. I am writing these words now on the day of Diwali, and while my phone keeps beeping with new messages of “Happy Diwali” from family and friends, life otherwise continues unchanged around us. People go to work as though today is no different than the last. There is no excitement in the air. As if to compensate for this, I have traditional sitar and tabla music playing on my phone. This gap, though, between Diwali in America and in India gave birth to a different kind of celebration. Our community could not celebrate in the streets or at work, so we rented auditoriums, which the adults would fill with tables of delicious Indian food. The stage of the auditorium was home to a non-stop program of choreographed dances, rituals, songs, and plays. One year, in one of these productions, I portrayed the evil demon Ravana, the antagonist driving the legend that brings us one of the chief stories of Diwali. Rama defeated Ravana in order to set up the meaning of Diwali: light, the symbol of good, overcomes darkness, banishing evil. In this version of the Diwali story, Rama overcomes evil to rescue his bride Sita. In order to prepare for this amateur production, the adults made us take acting lessons. In other words, we were serious about our celebration!
But in this difference, questions begin to arise. As children, our parents took care of the celebration. We children got to have fun without any of the responsibility. Meanwhile, our daily lives formed us as Americans, which was simply a different world. I never shared my exciting weekend with my non-Indian school friends. My Indian life was “too weird.” American social life formed my generation in the mechanics of what W. E. B. Du Bois called “double-consciousness.” We lived in two worlds and never betwixt would they meet. Worse yet, American formation was in terms of commodity, and American life was the higher commodity. Even our parents, directed us to chase that American dream. Now an adult, my Indian peers and I have abandoned the lesser commodity of the giant communal celebrations, exchanging them for small, family celebrations or family get togethers with good food, hand-held sparklers, and reminiscing.
An even larger problem emerges when considered theologically. Some of us began to walk the way of Jesus many years ago. What part do we have in a festival revolving around the stories of Indian gods and demons? Indeed, for many Indian Christians, there is no space for Diwali. One of my aunties expressed surprise at me once when I wished her a “Happy Diwali.” She said, “Oh, you still celebrate Diwali? Okay. Happy Diwali.” In her mind, my turn to Jesus separated me from Diwali. Nestled within that assumption is that, for some, my turn to Jesus meant the end of my being Indian. Some Indian converts to Christ actively embrace this consequence, distancing themselves from nearly everything Indian.
Joining these two problems—the double-consciousness and the religious implications of Diwali—for an Indian follower of Jesus, what space is left to be significantly “Indian”? Do I have any hope for raising my children to care that they are Indian? As a Christian, why should Diwali matter in my house? Shouldn’t Christmas (and maybe Thanksgiving) replace Diwali? Why can it not simply remain a relic in old photo albums and in the emoji of the “diya” (the Diwali candle) in my exchange of text messages with family and friends?
As I alluded above, there is no one story of Diwali. The stories vary—sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically—according to community and region and sometimes even within regions. I am Punjabi, but that does not mean that all Punjabis would share the precise story of Diwali that I carry from my childhood. The reason for this is relatively simple: unlike Christianity in the West, what we think of as “Hindu” today has not historically been a religion codified by careful textual transmission and traditions of abstract doctrine. Rather, “Hindu” was not necessarily always a religious designation, and even today many claim the designation “Hindu” without the religious overtones that people in the Western world assume. Strictly speaking, “Hindu” refers to an identity formed out of the earth. When the Muslims first invaded the Indian sub-continent many centuries ago, they named the local people “Hindus” because they were the people who belonged to the land set apart by the Indus River. Since that time, and even for some still today, the sub-continent has seen “Hindu Muslims,” “Hindu Christians,” “Hindu Buddhists,” and “Hindu Jews.”
Most “Hindus” belonged to communities that worshipped a plethora of gods. As with all cultures, the peoples of India had many mythic stories that narrated the life and times of these gods as they interacted with mere mortals. Today, those stories belong to the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and other sacred texts, but until recently, there was never a single, historic textual tradition. Such codification only took place as a response to the missionary endeavors interwoven with colonialism. And unlike in Christianity, the variety of tellings of these stories did not create a problem. In other words, for that majority that conscribed to these stories, the variations were abundant and deeply localized, which helps explain the variety of stories that surround such festivals as Diwali.
For me, such realization is significant. There is no singular Diwali story. However, there is a unifying Diwali theme: it is the festival of lights representing the light that came down into darkness, where the darkness could not overcome it. The light is the good that overcomes evil (cf. John 1:1-5, 9). Like the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia that early Christians re-narrated to celebrate Christmas—the Incarnation of Jesus the divine Son—Diwali, too, bears the marks of a world in longing. In his Gospel, John describes the Incarnation precisely in terms of true light entering into darkness. Throughout the Gospel, John narrates the forces that seek to overcome Jesus, even to the point of humiliating him and sending him to the cruel death of crucifixion. That is, the darkness sought to envelop Jesus the Light and seemingly succeeded when it locked Jesus in a cold, dark tomb.
Significantly, in John’s telling, the first disciple of Jesus to experience the reality of Jesus’s resurrection arrives at the tomb “while it was still dark” (20:1). John is continuing his Diwali-like point here. Mary Magdalene and the other disciples are in a place of despair; they believe that their light has been overcome by the darkness, so it is narratively—literarily and theologically—significant that the mourning Mary goes to pay her respects while darkness abounds. She has no hope with the light extinguished. When she sees Jesus’s body missing, Mary assumes that “they” have taken him away. Even when she first encounters him shortly thereafter, she cannot see him for who he is. She believes he is a mere gardener, for she is shrouded in darkness. She no longer recognizes light. But then he calls her by name, at which point she sees him for who he is. That John never confirms the arrival of daylight may be a continuation of the same point, for the light to which he points is not a burning ball in the sky. Jesus is the light that overcomes darkness (cf. John 1:6-8).
Today, just as I have the last few years, I will direct my children to see Diwali in the light of the Jesus who entered into darkness but whom the darkness could not overcome. It is tempting to see this use of Diwali as one more Diwali story among the many. However, what some see as refracted light—distorted attempts to speak of the light that overcomes darkness—I teach my kids to see as mirrors that should point to the light itself. John 1:8 refers to another John who was not the light but instead was a “witness to the light.” Just as early Roman Christians saw a mirror of the Incarnation in Saturnalia, I see a mirror for Indian people in Diwali. It demonstrates the hope of liberation from the binding evil of darkness and the impulse to look for deliverance to God above. Unlike traditional narrations of Diwali, which reserve the Festival of Light for those who belong to the land carved out by the Indus River, Jesus the Light invites people where they are to begin to experience liberation where they are. To the Romans, he invites the turning of Saturnalia to the cross and empty tomb outside Jerusalem. To the Indians, he invites recognition of the Light that the cross could not extinguish and the tomb could not envelop. To Indians in diaspora and generationally removed Jesus invites the retelling of a story in a way that connects us to our heritage in distant places while directing that heritage to the Light that seeks to embrace the nations.
True Light of Light: Happy Diwali!