Over the last decade or so there has been a strong voice amongst the Sikhs in the Diaspora against celebrating Diwali.
When a friend sent a “Happy Diwali” email to her contacts, a well-meaning community activist chided her for honoring a festival that was not “ours”, and expounded upon the fact that Sikhs have nothing to do with Diwali; instead, we should be celebrating “Bandhi Chhor Divas”. A flurry of emails went back and forth with several people wondering why we should abandon an observance that has been so much a part of our social milieu.
It is true that Diwali has no religious significance for Sikhs. It is equally true that Sikh Gurdwaras in the Diaspora and in India including Harmandar Sahib always have a huge celebration on Diwali. It was Maharaja Ranjit Singh who started the tradition of celebrating Diwali in Harmandar sahib. As the emperor of a nation where multiple faiths flourished and still do, it was a gesture of solidarity with his people.
Northern California Gurdwaras draw the largest crowds on Diwali and the most extravagant langar is brought in and served by volunteers. I suspect this is the case in other states and cities as well. The celebration of late is being referred to as Bandhi Chhor Divas although some historians question whether the day on which Guru Har Gobind outwitted Emperor Jehangir and orchestrated the release of 52 hill Rajas imprisoned in the fort of Gwalior, and led a triumphant march to Amrtisar, actually coincided with Diwali. Nonetheless, a separate reason for Sikhs to celebrate Diwali has been established.
Each year around Diwali memories of my childhood well up and I wonder what is lost and what is gained as we become insular and separatist.
I recall how during my childhood and adolescent years in New Delhi, everyone was enveloped in the spirit of festivity during the days preceding Diwali. Bazars were decked up with colorful clothes, shiny utensils, glittering gold ornaments, boxes of mithai, and myriads of firecrackers. There was a frenzy of buying as folks got ready for Diwali.
Schools were out and at sun down children sauntered over to neighborhood parks to watch Ram Lila. I recall my friends Nagma and Salma the twin sisters, Anthony who had recently moved from Goa, Hema, Usha, Baljit and me hustling one another to hurry up and make it to the park on time so we would not miss any part of the high drama of Ram Lila. Everyone booed when Ravana kidnapped Sita, and cheered in unison when Lanka was burned and the larger than life effigy of the ten-headed evil Ravana went up in flames.
After three decades of leaving India I still remember the spectacle of rows and rows of diyas and candles, the firecrackers that lit up the dark moonless sky and the sparkling phul jhurries that danced in our hands as we participated in Diwali celebrations. Friends and relatives dropped by with boxes of mithai and loads of good cheer. Muslim, Sikh and Hindu neighbors hugged and wished each other a “Happy Diwali.”
We participated in the festivities of Diwali but knew that the worship of goddess Lakshmi was not part of our tradition; the celebration was cultural and the exchange of mithai and lighting of candles was done in a spirit of camaraderie with our friends and neighbors. Long before Bandhi Chhor Divas was established we went to the neighborhood gurdwara which was also lit up with candles and diyas and thanked Waheguru Ji for many blessings.
When I first became familiar with the story of how Guru Har Gobind orchestrated the release of wrongly imprisoned Rajas, ostensibly on the same day as Diwali, the celebration took on a more personal meaning. There was yet another reason to celebrate with our friends the victory of good over evil that Diwali symbolized.
Diwali also brings up fond memories of another event around the same time. At the crack of dawn prabhat pheries -mini parades of singers chanting kirtan- would start heralding the birth anniversary celebration of Guru Nanak Sahib which fell just a couple of weeks later. The stars were still visible on chilly mornings as Salma, Nagma, Anthony, Usha, Hema and Baljit gathered at our house to welcome the roving singers. Together we relished the warm, yummy prasad and other goodies that were served. Bundled up from top to toe, we joined the procession that meandered around the fog-laden streets and sang shabads extolling the Guru.
We lived in sanjhi vaarta (shared experience) and participated in not just Diwali but various festivals sprinkled throughout the year.
When Ramadan was over, our Muslim neighbors brought over mithai and my mother served them sevian di kheer, but on Eid-ul-Fitr fully aware of our tradition of abstaining from halal meat they did not offer us mutton. Mom took that occasion to remind me of the injunction in the Sikh code of conduct to eat only Jhatka meat.
Sikhi was instilled through daily practice. We recited the Japji while we got ready for school. Every evening the family gathered for Rehras. Visits to gurdwaras often accompanied by Hindu friends were a frequent occurrence and not limited to Sundays or special occasions. Vaisakhi and gurpurabs were imbued with special meaning. We knew the significance of each gurpurab and the historical importance of each gurdwara. The reverence for Bangla Sahib, Rakab Ganj Sahib, Sis Ganj Ganj Sahib was paramount.
We were spontaneous and innocent. We did not feel the need to be exclusionary. Oneness was not preached, it was lived. We learned kindness, compassion and sharing by watching elders in the family. We did not talk about interfaith outreach, we simply reached out. There was no political correctness; our actions were intuitively spot on. Salma and Nagma greeted us with Sat Sri Akal, and we bade them Khuda Hafiz when we parted.
Our Sikh identity was distinct, and beliefs strong as we coalesced in the colorful tapestry of multiple traditions. I want to continue living in the same spirit of oneness while holding Sikhi close to my heart.
Happy Diwali and Happy Bandhi Chhor Divas.