The Collective Light of Community: Diwali 2020

Monday, Nov 16, 2020
by Regina Lankenau '21

The chapel against a purple night sky backdrop

The Princeton University Chapel lit up for the Diwali celebration in 2017

At this time of year, the Princeton University Chapel, bathed in a rapturous purple glow, would have been packed with hundreds of visitors sitting shoulder to shoulder. At the front, in the chancel, would have stood the puja mandir: where ornate curtains and tea-lights are hung from a golden temple framethe backdrop to a three-table altar bedecked with the idols of Hindu gods and goddesses. Dozens of candles and flickering flames dotting the exterior and interior of the chapel would have indicated that Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is underway. 

Or, at least, that’s how it would have looked like pre-Covid. This year, one of the biggest religious festivals of the yearcelebrated by more than a billion people worldwidehas had to adapt to the limitations imposed by a global health threat. For Princeton University’s Hindu Life Program, that meant that the annual Diwali At The Chapel (DATC) event, a vibrant occasion that never fails to attract eager crowds from campus and beyond, did not take place in the chapel in the thirteen years since its inception. 

Instead, the Hindu Life Program compiled offerings from professional guest presenters and reflections from Princeton University students. The Divya Joti: Diwali 2020 video premiered on Saturday, Nov. 14th to mark the third day of Diwali; on Sunday, Nov. 15th, the festivities continued over Zoom during a community mixer in which members of the Class of 2024 had the chance to get to know the University’s various Hindu Life student groups. 

Vineet Chander, Coordinator for Hindu Life, who has spearheaded the Princeton DATC celebration since its inception, feels that what has made the event so beloved in its original and virtual format is its open invitation for the broader community to experience a “hybrid worship service devotional art showcase.”

Students present worship offerings at the 2016 DATC

Students present worship offerings at the 2016 DATC. Photo by Sameer Khan, Photobuddy. 

Although he knows that 2020 has been a difficult, “dark” year marked by anxiety, injustices, and palpable division, Vineet appreciates the way Diwali acknowledges that darkness and responds with the collective light of communities coming together. 

“DATC is just such a joyous, incredibly touching event,” Vineet explained, “because it’s our opportunity to share what we love about Diwali and what’s so special about it with the public at large.” 

Also known as Deepavali, Sanskrit for “rows of lighted lamps,” Diwali is one of India’s largest religious festivals integral to the country’s calendar. Widely observed by practicing and non-practicing Hindus, as well as Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists all over the world, the holiday has several narratives associated with it, the most universal of which is the epic story of Ramayana. It tells of how, on the darkest night of the year, the royal avatar, Rama, defeated Ravana, evil king of demons; triumphant, he returned to his kingdom guided by the rows of oil lamps, or diyas, his citizens lit to usher him home. 

In a year marked by somber challenges, the timely relevance of Diwali’s message about good conquering evil, light overcoming darkness has not been lost on many. 

“Traditionally and personally, Diwali is a time to cleanse all the bad feelings and to destress your heart and soul,” Srija Patcha, a sophomore who offered a personal reflection in the video, commented. She continued, “It’s essentially a new year, a chance to look at your future with hope and prosperity; I’m hoping and I’m optimistic that things will get better.” 

A screenshot of AKS and Lakshami as they perform

AKS and Lakshami performing "Bhaja Mana Radhe Govinda" for the virtual Diwali 2020 video

Although the jovial gathering of people was sorely missed, the virtual nature of the event drew participation from highly regarded Hindu artists from across the US, such as electronic bhakti singers, Ashwin and Lakshmi Subramanian, mantra meditation musician, Jahvani Harrison and kirtan performer Gaura Vani. 

The Diwali 2020 video also featured a presentation from Princeton Swara, a student group that promotes Indian classical music on campus. Although dispersed across the world, students were able to send in submissions of themselves playing their musical pieces, which were then stitched and synchronized together to mimic a group performance. 

“Diwali is one of our favorite events on campus,” said Seyoon Ragavan, a senior who played the mridangam, a South Asian percussion instrument, as part of Princeton Swara. “While it saddens us that these events can’t happen this year, we’re very happy to be a part of the campus community’s Diwali celebrations in some way.” 

A screenshot of the Princeton Swara performance

Seyoon Ragavan '21 (left) playing percussions in the virtual Princeton Swara performance

According to Ragavan, despite the separation from campus at this time, the silver lining of a virtual Diwali was being able to perform at his local temple’s celebration in Sydney, Australia where he has been living with his family during the pandemicsomething he hasn’t had the chance to do in many years. 

Ipsita Dey, a third-year graduate student, found that quarantine had given her welcome time to self-reflect. For the video, Ipsita contributed an emotive, seated dance honouring the Damodar Lila of Lord Krishna, a story, she said, that expresses the way only selfless devotion and serving others allows devotees to find the Lord in their hearts. 

With so many things and events lost, she realized, “true contentment is always within, and the external world only presents to us distractions and opportunities, material or otherwise, to become unhealthily attached.” 

“It’s become a time for me to practice what I preach,” she said. 

For Sriram Hathwar, a junior who contributed a virtual reflection to Diwali 2020, the past few months have reinforced the importance of maintaining community for him. As a co-president of Princeton Hindu Satsangam, he’s helped coordinate several virtual club events, such as analyzing shows like The Good Place through a Hindu lens. Coming together in community is an aspect of Diwali he has cherished since growing up in a small town in upstate New York, where families would gather to celebrate the holiday, watching the neighbourhood kids perform skits and singing hymns together. 

Though Vineet Chander can’t wait for the day DATC returns, he finds the challenge of fostering community not on the basis of physical proximity to each other, but by being spiritually aligned, to be a refreshing source of hope. “That’s powerful--that’s Diwali!” he said.

The single diya lit during the celebration might be, practically, only a small flame easily extinguished by rain or wind. “But the secret of Deepavali,” Vineet explained, “is that, when we start lining up our individual lights, as seemingly weak as they may be, together we create a force of illumination. That’s how we counteract the darkness.”