Queering Deepavali: Traditions in the Time of COVID

Lighting diyas on Diwali. Photo from Raja G. Bhattar.

Raja Gopal Bhattar, Ph.D., (they/them/theirs) hails from a long lineage of Hindu spiritual leaders from the Srivaishnava tradition. They are a higher education leader, advocate, and consultant. Bhattar is a 2020 Interfaith America Racial Equity Fellow.

Deepavali (or Diwali) is the Hindu festival of lights and literally translates to “row of lights”. There are many mythologies surrounding this celebration every Fall. For a portion of Hindus, Deepavali signifies the new year; a time for renewal, community, and planning for the year ahead. For other Hindu communities, it offers gratitude for a bountiful harvest and marks the beginning of new crop planning. My favorite mythology of this festival is the story of Sri Lakshmi, goddess of fortune and family. The story goes that on the night of Deepavali, she walks the streets in search of the brightest house, full of light and love. These lamps symbolize family, joy, and community. She enters the brightest houses, bringing prosperity for the year ahead. My favorite parts of Deepavali are tasting the many types of desserts, seeing new and old family members, gifting new clothes, and offering prayers to Goddess Lakshmi and other Hindu divinities. I have not spent this holiday with my family since I was a teenager, partially because it was hard to take time off from college (when the holiday usually is a multi-day affair and too close to midterms/finals) and more importantly because I never felt like I could be myself around my family.

As a queer and gender-fluid kid, I never felt comfortable being myself with family and found any excuse possible to avoid the performance required for me to look happy and “normal” as my mother used to say. While the ceremonies spoke about celebrating community and family, I was, directly and indirectly, told that I did not belong. A critical element of my own spiritual journey has been reclaiming Hindu festivals, like Diwali, by creating my own traditions and celebrating with my chosen family. As an adult, I’ve been lucky enough to move to cities with large queer Desi communities or other diverse religious identities. While I’m a proud practicing Hindu and Buddhist, Deepavali for me is about building an interfaith table that celebrates the diversity of our communities.

Sharing my culture while making space for other celebrations has always been important to my worldview. Hinduism professes “Ekam Sat Vipraha Bahudha Vadanti” (There is one truth and the wise see it in many forms). This is the foundation of our pluralistic view of the world. Celebrating Deepavali and the autumn harvest has been a way to bring together and honor traditions and learning how other cultures honor similar annual milestones. For years, my small apartment became a gathering space for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians as we observed Deepavali. I would invite friends to offer a puja to Sri Ganesha and Sri Lakshmi; praying for auspicious beginnings and prosperity in the new year. I love explaining the various symbols, sharing gratitude for the year behind us and intentions for the year ahead. One year, I even joined forces with Muslim friends to host Eid-Diwali festivities when they occurred close to each other. These celebrations allow me to practice my values of inclusion while also learning to resist the xenophobic and fundamentalist perspectives I was taught as a child. Rituals and traditions are meant to be interpreted in our context rather than static experiences that aim to demonstrate religious purity.

This year has been more difficult than ever given the various public health, racial justice, and political pandemics we are living and navigating. Yet, I’m trying to find joy in health and having a strong community. In some ways, my community has become more important than ever before. While there was no in-person gathering, we hosted a virtual impromptu celebration that was more beautiful than we could have imagined. Having a multi-faith gallery of people across the country celebrating, offering intentions for the coming year, and reflecting on our lessons of this last year gives me hope and optimism. As we transform traditions to ensure the health of our loved ones, I can hear the voices of some orthodox practitioners have an issue with celebrating a multi-faith Diwali, choosing virtual gatherings, and even ignoring to challenge caste-based mythologies surrounding the holiday, I choose to honor the complexity and messiness of our world and recommitting to learning, healing and living my truth each day. Here’s my prayer for all of us:

May this day bring a sunrise of healing, a day of reflection and community, and a sunset to the collective trauma we have held for so long. At night may each ancestral star guide us towards accepting and dusting off our own light to shine bright. Deepavali reminds me that my own light does not diminish as I help other lights shine bright and that together we can brighten the world. While this is not the year that any of us imagined, I have so much gratitude for the lessons being (un)learned about who I am, my purpose in this world, and the power of trusting the universe. May the year ahead bring you an abundance of healing, joy, family, love, and of course lots of desserts.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

To explore what American clergy are doing to support the vaccine effort, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld interviewed a series of faith leaders about their tradition's views on public health & vaccination & asked what they are doing in the vaccination effort.
His message was clear: For the future to have a chance at all, parts of the past had to be left behind, and all of us have to convene around common symbols.
A survey released by PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) found that the American public sentiment, across most religious groups, is much closer to the policies the Biden administration is proposing than those put in place by Trump.
The Conversation U.S. asked six education experts how teachers—and parents—can help young people comprehend, analyze, and process what happened on January 6.
"It was an appropriately spiritual beginning to a faith-infused day and what is shaping up to be an unapologetically religious presidential term for Biden, the second Catholic president in U.S. history."
Large majorities of today’s young adults understandably lack confidence in institutions and are inclined toward distrust of others. Yet they exhibit a knack for recasting challenges as adventures and they set out to conquer them.
My cousin and I are Christian, Cuban women imploring for conversation in an effort to present different perspectives, in order to develop our own identities in a society that only seems to value polarization and tribalism.
As a Christian who is also a minister, I live between the Great Commission (sharing the Gospel) and the Greatest Commandment (loving God and my neighbor).
Five Bridgebuilding field leaders--Rev. Jen Bailey, Kalia Abiade, Mandisa Thomas, Simran Jeet Singh, and Branden Polk--came together to discuss the decisive need for action, not empty commitments to change, and how we can impart these principles.
"This moment thus necessitates moral clarity and courage concerning the trajectory of this nation. Too many have followed the path of cynicism and opportunism away from any shared commitment to a common good."
"Both the suffering and the pursuit of justice stand true at the same time. We must hold and be responsive to both."
It is new every year. Watching my students move from multifaith to interfaith. Daring to tear down walls and build bridges to faith traditions and spiritual expressions different from their own.
It is reasonable to believe that King would support holding people accountable for crimes committed, but King also held a higher hope for at least some of those who were part of the mob.
Having recently completed a monograph on the rhetoric of divine wrath, a year ago I led an honors seminar on the way in which an angry deity is presented in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the most successful course I’ve ever taught.
The four officially wrapped up their fellowship on Sunday (Jan. 10) with a virtual graduation where they shared the lessons they learned from one another during the tumultuous year.
...But if you follow the evidence from the very start and all throughout, President Trump has thrived in generating chaos and stirring up doubt. Was this a premeditated effort that was designed to create some larger future momentum?
A Biden transition official noted there was significant energy at the meeting created by Biden's promise to overturn President Donald Trump's travel ban, which advocates characterize as a "Muslim ban."
The presence of anti-Semitic symbols and sentiment at the Capitol riot raised alarms among Jewish Americans and experts who track discrimination and see it as part of an ongoing, disturbing trend.
And so this Administration gives me hope that we can rebuild. Or, to use the President-elect’s own transition team slogan, that we can “build back better.”
In too many cases, religious beliefs and commitments have been overshadowed, and even dominated by political and racial cleavages.
To achieve full religious diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is important for the new Presidential administration to establish more interfaith dialogue and opportunities to work together.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.