The Pause was buzzing with energy on Saturday, Nov. 10, as St. Olaf students, faculty and other attendees situated themselves among the rows of tables lined up on the Pause floor. The Pause had been transformed to embody the aura of India. The space was dimly lit with flickering lamps, and Indian fabric and yellow lights were draped along the stage and the balconies. The gentle buzzing melody of an Indian sitar filled the room, contributing to the anticipated commencement of the Diwali festivities.
The event was emceed by two St. Olaf students, Nikita Shah ’14 and Ellen Cunningham ’15, and began with the performance of a Bhajan an Indian devotional song, “Humko man ki Shakti dena,” by Dipannita Kalyani, assistant professor of chemistry. Two Indian dances followed this performance. Then, a Carleton student, Tanmay Annachatre, enchanted the crowd with his a cappella performance of four Bollywood songs. By this time, Chapati, a local Indian restaurant, had prepared and set out food for the event. As celebrants lined up to fill their plates with basmati rice, chicken korma, naan and other succulent dishes, the sitar music once again played in the background, providing the attendees with a taste of the cultural and musical roots of this Indian holiday. Dinner was followed by a colorful fashion show and later, four Bollywood-inspired dance performances. The audience erupted with applause many times throughout the night, providing evidence of the event’s success.
Diwali is considered to be one of India’s biggest and most cherished holidays of the year. In India, the holiday is a five-day festival and is popularly known as the “festival of lights.” The name “Diwali” is a contraction of “Deepavali,” which translates into “row avali of clay lamps deepa.” During Diwali, Indians light small clay lamps filled with oil outside their homes to signify the triumph of good over evil and to symbolize the inner light that protects humans from spiritual darkness.
Diwali is as important to Hindus and many other Indians as the Christmas holiday is to Christians and many other Americans. Diwali, celebrated in October or November each year, originated as a harvest festival that marked the last harvest of the year before winter. During the time when India was an agricultural society, many people would ask for the divine blessing of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, as they closed their accounting books and prayed for success at the outset of a new financial year.
Today, this practice extends to businesses all over India, which mark the day after Diwali as the first day of the new financial year. Indians also celebrate with family gatherings, fireworks firecrackers are burst in order to drive away evil spirits, bonfires, strings of electric lights, flowers, new clothing, snacks and sweets and worship of Lakshmi. Some Indians believe that Lakshmi wanders Earth looking for homes where she will be welcomed. People clean their houses, open their doors and windows and keep glittering clay lamps lit during the night to invite Lakshmi into their home.
Over the centuries, Diwali has evolved into a national festival that is enjoyed by the majority of Indians, regardless of faith, including Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. Hindus interpret the Diwali story based upon the Indian region where they reside. Northern Indians celebrate the story of King Rama’s return to Ayodhya after he defeated Ravana by lighting rows of clay lamps. Southern Indians celebrate the Diwali story as the day that Lord Krishna defeated the demon Narakasura. In western India, the festival marks the day that Lord Vishnu, the Preserver one of the main gods of the Hindu trinity, sent the demon king Bali to rule the netherworld. In all interpretations of Diwali, one common thread is apparent – the festival of lights marks the victory of good over evil.
For non-Hindu communities, the holiday holds different meanings. In Jainism, the celebration marks nirvana or the spiritual awakening of Lord Mahavira an Indian sage on Oct. 15, 527 B.C. In Sikhism, it marks the day that Guru Hargobind Ji, the sixth Sikh guru, was liberated from imprisonment. And, as we saw on Saturday night, the festival can be rightfully celebrated in America as well. This ability for Diwali to be celebrated, accepted and shared across cultural lines was expressed through the words of the Bhajan hymn, sung by Kalyani: “Let our hearts be free from any kind of discrimination. Let our hearts and mind be always ready for forgiveness. Let us be saved from the lies and untruth and let the truth prevail.”