What South Asian Christians Do During Diwali
Rivaling the scale of Thanksgiving or Christmas in the United States, Diwali has become India’s biggest holiday season.
The Festival of Lights (also known as Deepavali) marks the start of the Hindu New Year and is the faith’s most important festival, celebrated for five days by more than a billion people in India—not only by Hindus but also by Jains, Sikhs, and some Buddhists—as well as across the Hindu diaspora.
The festival symbolizes for its devotees the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance. Diwali is marked by feasts, lighting clay lamps outside the house to banish evil spirits, decorative lights, prayers, family gatherings, exchanging gifts, burning firecrackers, and doing charity, besides worshiping at homes or visiting temples.
Each year the holiday falls on different dates in the Hindu lunar calendar determined by the position of the moon, usually between October and November. This year, the festival is observed from October 22–26 with Diwali falling on October 24.
CT interviewed Christian leaders in the majority Hindu nations of India and Nepal—as well as neighboring Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan—in order to better understand what South Asian followers of Jesus do during the festival, whether they think Christians should join in Diwali celebrations, and whether churches conduct outreach to Hindus during the holiday.
India — Anil Kant, pastor, gospel singer-songwriter, and executive director of Trinity Sounds, Mumbai:
We as Christians celebrate only Jesus, so we do not celebrate Diwali in our homes. But we connect and engage with Hindu friends during Diwali. We live in a community with different religions and orientations and we use every opportunity to love people and to show God’s love.
We give a special invitation to our Hindu friends in our regular satsang (sacred gathering, or church service) during the week of Diwali. It is important to engage with people—to visit them, to interact with them. We visit Hindu friends who invite us during Diwali and eat with them. We do not consider it a religious thing, and believe that love has no boundaries.
Nepal — Hanok Tamang, chairman, National Churches Fellowship of Nepal, Kathmandu:
Diwali is a major festival, commonly known as Tihar by locals, in Nepal. Churches in Nepal do not indulge in outreach programs to the Hindu community, but many churches at the provincial level organize fellowships for new converts from a Hindu background. It is a difficult time for those whose families have been celebrating Diwali for generations and since their childhood to suddenly have nothing to do with the festival.
I come from a strong orthodox Buddhist background, and for the first few years it was very difficult for me to ignore Diwali. It took me a long time, as I coped with not participating in or celebrating the festival.
Based on my own experience, I believe there are many young people who need encouragement. They might not know why they celebrated Diwali, but they have been involved in the celebration since their childhood and suddenly cutting themselves away is hard. It is important to educate them that Jesus is the Light of the world. Christ is the one who brings us from darkness to light.
We don’t need to ignore all the good things in our Eastern culture, like our cultural dresses which are elegant and sober and treating guests very kindly and showing hospitality. We must teach our younger generation and the recent converts about which things are cultural and which are related to religion. We are living in an inclusive society, but (at times) we must be exclusive based on our precious faith that is deeply rooted in Christ. Our target is to educate, encourage, equip, and empower local believers.
Sri Lanka — M. Gnanapragasam, pastor of World Redeem Church of God, Colombo:
Diwali holds a special place in the Sri Lankan culture, and Tamil Hindus celebrate Diwali with great pomp and show. I wish all my Hindu friends, “Happy Deepavali.” Though Christians here do not celebrate Diwali in their homes, we live in a community with Hindu (and Buddhist) neighbors, and we go to Hindu homes when invited for Diwali to be a part of their celebration.
Bangladesh — Martha Das, general secretary of the National Christian Fellowship of Bangladesh, Dhaka:
Though Diwali is celebrated by Hindus in our country, there is no public holiday for the festival. I have not heard firecracker sounds during Diwali. People do light up their homes, but the atmosphere of festivity is not felt in the city of Dhaka. On the other hand, Durga Puja is celebrated as the largest festival of the Hindu community—maybe because of the influence of neighboring West Bengal. The church does not do any outreach program during Diwali. If our Hindu friends invite us to their homes, we don’t mind going.
Pakistan — Riaz Anjum, attorney and Christian human rights defender, Lahore:
The Hindu community in Pakistan fearlessly light their homes, burn firecrackers, and celebrates Diwali. Churches in Pakistan do not celebrate it. As a human rights defender for minorities, I organize and participate in interfaith harmony meetings where representatives of every faith community participate.
Diwali in Pakistan is considered as a religious festival and is celebrated by the Hindu community only. To show love and respect, some individual Christians may attend their celebrations but are very clear on their lines of not being a part of the worship ceremonies. Christians would not light clay lamps or burn firecrackers in their own homes. Pastors would not indulge in intermingling with Diwali celebrations at all, and churches do not do any outreach.
India — Shalini Bhatt, principal of St. Luke School, Haldwani, Uttarakhand:
We decorate the school during Diwali and involve the children in various activities related to the festival like craftwork, but I discourage them to burn firecrackers because they cause a lot of air and noise pollution and are harmful for animals besides humans. I am a Christian, so I do not decorate or light clay lamps or decorate rangoli in my own house.
India — Jyotsana Eva Lall, Sunday school teacher at Grace Fellowship Church, Ahmedabad, Gujarat:
I participated in a lot of rangoli competitions in my school days. Since I became a Christian, I have never lit clay lamps or burst firecrackers or made a rangoli. I am an artistic person, and I would have loved making rangoli patterns at my doorway, but I had a hint that there is spiritual significance to making rangoli thus I haven’t participated. I am keen on knowing the spiritual aspects of all that we indulge in without proper knowledge.