Diwali 2020 and New Religious Accommodations at the University of Puget Sound
Celebrate light and improvements: Diwali celebrations and state-wide recognition of non-Christian holidays in Washington
Written by Rachel “Checks” De Guzman.
Have you lit your candles yet? Are you dressed your best? Have you reached that internal point of disco ball chic? Are you ready to dance?
These are the questions that a former student at the University of Puget Sound, Sahiti Shankar, once asked me in 2018 when we celebrated Diwali together.
At the time, Shankar had long missed her home community and remembered her favorite memories of Diwali with them. Community is such a large part of this time of year. She was so particular about making a traditional dinner with lots of aloo, or potato, for her guests, going to lengths in finding the perfect chili paste for the dish. She performed pujas, or prayers, to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, prosperity, purity and success. “On Diwali we light candles, called diyas, and we pray to Lakshmi for renewed prosperity for ourselves and our families,” Shankar shares, “and we light sparklers as a symbol of gratitude and celebration for all that she has blessed us with so far.”
This year, the holiday took place on November 14. Diwali is a celebration of the light that conquers darkness, of the good that conquers bad, and of joy given to and received by family and community. Millions of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Newar Buddhists gather to observe Diwali all around the world. In India, Diwali is one of the most important holidays. There, “everyone is celebrating it,” Keshreeyaji Oswal describes, a fifth year student at the University of Puget Sound. People dress their homes with festive decorations and lights and often wear their best clothes. Oswal includes that a “mutual bond with your community” makes the atmosphere joyful.
Since his sophomore year, Oswal organized the Diwali celebrations at the university, placing collaboration and education at the center of his philosophy. For the reason that each person celebrates Diwali differently, Oswal prioritizes the freedom of students who host the holiday to interpret their own meanings of Diwali. Oswal revealed that he and the University Chaplaincy are searching for a current South Asian student at the University of Puget Sound to hopefully continue these efforts.
Diwali parties look largely different in America in comparison to the celebrations in India. In India, Oswal compares Diwali to Christmas, particularly the lights and the decorating of houses. Fourth year student Tanvi Asur loosely compares the level of energy to that of patriotic Americans on July Fourth, only because of its intensity.
The extravagance of Diwali is a “wake up call” to Asur: Diwali in America is a “hypothetical of what could be.” She imagined what it would be like to live in India where she would probably observe more holidays and auspicious days of the year.
The “proximity to culture,” as Asur puts it, is how intimate immigrants and their children who were born in America feel to their home culture. It influences how people gather for the holiday and which traditions are upheld which is why everyone celebrates Diwali differently. Celebrations depend on a kind of “improv” as Asur put it.
This is something that Shankar, Oswal and Asur have struggled with. In their own ways, they learned how to celebrate Diwali or to be heard as Indian and South Asian-American students at the university. How to celebrate one’s identity as a non-white American with a uniquely complex culture that holds its own traditions and holidays when you feel alone? When celebration doubles as education for allies.
At a predominantly white university like the University of Puget Sound, Asur reminisced, “how good I had it” having such a close “proximity to my own culture” in San Jose. In Tacoma, celebrating Diwali is tedious if she has to make such lengths to find not just the foods she likes, but “the good ones.”
University Chaplaincy David Wright worked closely with Oswal for the Diwali events and advocated for the equal recognition of non-Christian holidays on campus. The new Religious Accommodations backed by Washington State Law (RCW 128B.137.010) took effect on January 1, 2020.
Students who celebrate religious holidays that are not widely recognized by the American calendar can take advantage of the new religious accommodations. “Students need to indicate needing the holidays during the first two weeks of the semester,” Wright informs. A full description of the complete statement of the accommodation must be on every syllabus, so recognition of and accommodations for non-Christian holidays are “not optional, not something to dance around,” Wright continues.
COVID-19 took attention from this positive news, but this article intends to inform the entire student body of their rights. Amid the “weirdness” that is surely to come in Spring 2021, Wright assures that COVID-19 should not change the implementations of this law. He encourages students to take full advantage of it.
Student life and religious life on campus stalled due to the approximate year-long quarantine that COVID-19 brought on. Even so, for this year’s Diwali, Oswal still distributed Diwali gift bags to the campus community — even to President Crawford — Wright and his team worked to promote the new Religious Accommodations, Asur celebrated Diwali over Facetime with her extended family, and Shankar celebrated at home with her loved ones.
During this time of year, I would have expected to see the Diwali promotion flyers along the billboards in the Student Union Building (S.U.B.), up the stairwells of Wyatt Hall and McIntyre Hall, and in the basement of the library. Memories of Diwali in 2018 are still some of my favorites. My friends and I lit diyas and laughed warmly that night in our little stay. Sparklers in hand, we danced and danced and danced under the stars. Music loud, we yelled into the city and across the water, “Happy Diwali!”