Celebrating Diwali in lockdown

The celebration of Diwali this year is taking a different form in college than Trinity’s usual community gathering of lights and traditional Indian sweets, but the themes of new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness feel more important than ever.

While members of the college community are unable to gather in a group as in past years, this year the college’s outdoor marquee in Garden Quad has been decorated with lights and colourful home-made lantern, thanks to contributions by students and the College’s Chaplain and Equality Fellow, Emma Percy.

To mark the occasion, former Junior Research Fellow at Trinity Pranav Singh (who has helped to organise the college’s Diwali celebrations in previous years) offers a reminder of the significance of the festival, its celebration in college in years past, and its relevance today:

Diwali is arguably the biggest festival celebrated in Northern India. This festival of lights was traditionally marked by lighting of diyas or deeps – oil lamps made of clay – giving it the Sanskrit name Deepawali, which became shortened to Diwali in colloquial use. In modern times, the festival has come to be associated with fireworks, and growing up in Delhi this was arguably the highlight of Diwali for me.

On the day of Diwali, people decorate their houses with diyas and lights, and offer prayers to Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth – before the fireworks commence. In practice, Diwali is more than just a personal festival of lights – the days leading up to Diwali are fevered with social visits and exchange of sweets and gifts, and buzzing with an excitement that can only be compared to Christmas.

The warmth of the social occasion is something I miss till date, but being part of the lovely Trinity community and the extremely lively Michaelmas calendar more than made up for it during my years at Oxford. Diwali at the president’s lodging, with Indian sweets and lighting of diyas, was certainly one of the highlights the past few years at Trinity, and I hope that we will be able to return to such communal celebrations next year.

As we move into the winter months, the themes of triumph of light over darkness and hope over fear have a nearly universal appeal. These are also unmistakable in Diwali, as is theme of the victory of good over evil. The festival has its origins in Ramayana – one of two major mythological epics of Hinduism, which narrates the life of the king and Hindu deity Rama, and is supposed to have started as a celebration to mark the return of Rama to his capital city after his victory over Ravana. Going by the lore, Ravana was an extremely well read and intelligent king, but his egotistical nature – as symbolised by the ten heads he is usually depicted with – led him down the path of evil and destruction. Rama, on the other hand, symbolises knowledge accompanied by humility and kindness.

While there can be very different interpretations of the socio-cultural contexts in which the epic was written and should be interpreted, one aspect that appeals to me personally is the idea that the triumph of light over darkness here does not merely symbolise the triumph of knowledge over ignorance, but of knowledge accompanied by humility and empathy over an egotistical and self-aggrandising pursuit of knowledge. In this sense, Diwali celebrates an internal struggle and an eventual triumph over one’s own ego as a route to enlightenment.

For members of a university, engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and research, I feel this is a very important aspect to keep sight of, and I wish all members of Trinity a very happy Diwali marked by pursuit of knowledge and kindness.

Posted: 14 November 2020