Back in middle school, I remember standing on the rooftop of my cousin’s house in Delhi while we celebrated the festival lights, known to many as Diwali. It was a time of celebration and a sensory experience unlike many others; the sky shining bright with fireworks, the beating of drums to familiar songs, the tastes of various sweets lined up on the dinner table, and the overflow of energy that always got me dancing.
This celebration marks a time of triumph over evil in various schools of thought in Hinduism, most famously shared in the story of the Ramayana when Lord Rama returned to the city of Ayodhya after rescuing his wife, Sita, from the clutches of the demon Ravana. When he returned to his kingdom, Lord Rama was welcomed by a line of mud lamps into the city known as a deepavali, the root phrase that inspired the name of Diwali. But Diwali is more than just a celebration for a single community in a single way; it’s the message of hope and justice amidst the despair of an unjust world.
The day is also known as Bandi Chhor Diwas in the Sikh tradition when Guru Hargobind, the 6th Guru of the Sikh lineage, emancipated himself and 52 imprisoned princes from the might of Emperor Jahangir. The guru’s efforts to liberate the incarcerated serve as a model of service and social justice for our community to follow. This is just one of many ways that other communities in South Asia mark this special time, making Diwali in itself a time of interfaith celebration.
My Hindu and Sikh connections to Diwali continue to grow as I learn more about my traditions, their complex histories, and the wisdom they offer us; we are responsible for the world around us and it is incumbent upon us to be the tools for peace and equity rather than find them in others. This is the narrative that I took with me this year when to my shock, I was invited to celebrate Diwali at the White House with the President of the United States, the First Lady, and the Vice President of the United States.
In what President Biden described as, “The first Diwali reception of this scale, in this house, ever to be held, ” I found myself standing in the midst of hundreds of leaders, politicians, entrepreneurs, and entertainers to celebrate one of the most popular holidays to come out of South Asia.
“I’m grateful that, today, these diyas have guided you to this home – a home that belongs to all of you: the White House.” First Lady Dr. Jill Biden
Walking down the halls guided by staff and guards alike, being welcomed into this “House” was no small thing; I was standing in the house of the most powerful leader in the free world and remembering the history that it holds as a beacon of power built on the site of Indigenous stewards at the hands of enslaved Africans. A house that cannot deny its past has launched into a present where the walls reflect paintings of leaders of color all while welcoming other communities of color to celebrate their own excellence. It made me think of the privilege that I held by standing in that space with so many others partaking in food and drink over conversation while remembering the abundance of unhoused siblings gathered at McPherson Square just a few blocks away.
You and I cannot ignore this harsh truth.
While I sit in gratitude for everything I’ve experienced in the nation’s capital, I reflect on the wisdom of the Fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev ji:
ਹਰਿ ਜੀਉ ਨਿਮਾਣਿਆ ਤੂ ਮਾਣੁ ॥
O Dear Hari, You are the honor of the dishonored.
ਨਿਚੀਜਿਆ ਚੀਜ ਕਰੇ ਮੇਰਾ ਗੋਵਿੰਦੁ ਤੇਰੀ ਕੁਦਰਤਿ ਕਉ ਕੁਰਬਾਣੁ ॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
My Govind make the unworthy ones worthy; I am a sacrifice to Your power. ||Pause||
In the cause of liberation, I cannot walk on this path alone. As Guru Hargobind ji took it upon himself to free his siblings in destiny, so do I take it upon myself to work for the cause of justice. I remain committed to holding those in power accountable for their actions in serving the people of this nation while putting in every ounce of my might to help those in need. In the name of the People’s House, may our light illuminate the world and provide us the strength to grow and sustain justice on our path to an equitable future.
Tahil Sharma is an interfaith activist based in California, born to a Sikh mother and a Hindu father. Following the events of the Oak Creek Gurudwara shooting in Wisconsin by a white supremacist, Tahil has been active at the intersections of faith, identity, and justice for a decade. He is the Regional Coordinator for North America at the United Religions Initiative, the world’s largest network of grassroots interfaith organizations focused on creating cultures of peace, justice, and healing in the world. He also serves on the board of Sadhana: A Coalition of Progressive Hindus and as an Interfaith Minister in Residence for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.