- As I was marching down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan I realized that I could permit myself not to celebrate Diwali this year.
October and November feature the most festive period of the South Asian religious calendar. Navaratri and Diwali bookend a month of nonstop celebration across the Indian subcontinent. In a normal year, Diwali (known in South India as Deepavali) is a joyous occasion, not just for Hindus, but for Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and all South Asians. We come together to share meals, jokes, stories, and community.
I grew up in an upper-caste Hindu family in Chennai, India, and London, UK. My parents would celebrate Deepavali in London by gathering with family and friends and lighting sparklers and fireworks. Every Deepavali, my mother would tell me that the real teaching of the festival is that the battle of good and evil is within each of us. “If Rama were pure good and Ravana were pure evil, then Rama would have been kinder and more just to Sita, and Ravana would have brutalized her while she was his captive,” she would say.
Each year I remember that lesson and commit myself to bringing the light of love and justice to my observance and celebration of the festival. But this year, October began with the awful news that Hamas killed 1,400 Israelis in a terrorist attack. (That number has been lowered by Israel to 1,200.) In days and weeks since, the Israeli government, with the backing of Western powers, has engaged in a vengeful campaign of war crimes, paving the way to possible genocide. I’ve struggled to feel anything but anger and anguish as I see the United States — my government — provide arms to an army that has killed more than 10,000 Palestinians, almost half of them children.
Even if we were not in the midst of this horrific campaign of mass atrocities in Palestine, many parts of the world, including South Asia, have been in deep pain this year. In Sudan, the same forces who committed genocide in Darfur two decades ago have returned in a campaign of terror that has displaced more than 900,000 people. In Nagorno-Karabakh, almost all Armenians in a formerly majority Armenian territory have fled in the last few weeks in fear of the Azeri military (which receives military assistance from the U.S.).
In South Asia, the Pakistan government announced that all “illegal immigrants,” namely 1.7 million Afghan refugees, must leave the country by October 31, 2023. And in India, the country of my birth, a Hindu nationalist government has shut down all civil society and fanned the flames of communal, anti-Indigenous violence in the state of Manipur.
It has been hard to find anything to celebrate against this backdrop, let alone the two most important festivals in the Hindu calendar. I feel a dissonance between the posts of glitzy celebrations for Deepavali and Navaratri and videos of Gazan children pleading in broken English for the chance to survive. Or, dead Gazan babies slung over healthcare workers’ shoulders, mourned by wailing, shattered, emaciated fathers and mothers.
I am appreciative of celebrities like Rupi Kaur who publicly boycotted Vice President Kamala Harris’ Deepavali celebration, saying, “I decline any invitation from an institution that supports the collective punishment of a trapped civilian population — 50% of whom are children.” Had I been invited, I wouldn’t have attended either. But this would not have satisfied my question: how does a Hindu of conscience observe Deepavali?”
I have been active in the massive grassroots movement in this country and across the world that calls for an immediate ceasefire. It was while I was marching down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan that I realized that I could permit myself not to celebrate Deepavali this year. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, “It is better to follow your own dharma imperfectly than someone else’s dharma perfectly.” Lord Krishna is saying we must think for ourselves and live our lives according to our principles, inclinations, and nature. My nature is to be horrified by injustice and war, and marching in the streets with thousands of peacemakers is the way I am observing Deepavali in this year of unbearable carnage.
At this time when I cannot find a reason to feel festive, I’ve come back again and again to my mother’s words, and those of Lord Krishna. To honor my mother, I meditate on the struggle between good and evil within me, and all around. And to honor the divine, I center myself in my own dharma rather than the dharma of others. I know I was doing my dharma when I sat with thousands of Jewish Americans and allies to shut down Grand Central Station in their powerful civil disobedience, an action followed by similar shutdowns of railway stations across the world.
And because my work is devoted to honoring the glorious diversity of ways we live and worship as humans, I will also honor the diverse traditions of this Deepavali season. I will honor those who have died in conflicts around the world, as my Nepali friends do for Tihar. Like my Sikh friends celebrating Bandi Chhor Divas, I will fight for the liberation of our communities from hate, casteism, and violence. As Jains do, I will continue to hold every life as sacred.
I invite all Indian Americans to join me in signing this solidarity statement with the people of Gaza. Since Deepavali is a time for gathering our communities, I hope that we may all gather with friends and family in love, healing, and solidarity.
Shubh Deepavali to one and all.
(Photos, courtesy of Hindus for Human Rights)
Sunita Viswanath is the Executive Director of the Hindus for Human Rights.