Can a Christian celebrate Diwali, a Hindu, Sikh and Jainism festival?

Christian missions case study

lady from India holding lit clay

It was Diwali time in India and dusk was settling over the village of Dipri in Uttar Pradesh. Victor Pakraj, a Christian missionary from Madras, walked along the street to his home. Although lights twinkled merrily from the little clay-pot lamps decorating most of the homes, they did nothing to lighten his mood. Actually, those lamps symbolized what was vexing him!

Victor was looking for an answer to a question which 14-year-old Dhuwarak Prasad had asked the night before. As always, Dhuwarak's voice had been respectful when he spoke. His eyes, however, had a pleading look as he asked, "Why can't we light our house with beautiful little lamps and decorate our rooms at Diwali? Or, if we can't do it at our Hindu festival, could we do it at Christmas time?"

Mr. and Mrs. Pakraj had moved to Dipri two years ago. They began their ministry by holding a Vacation Bible School. A handful of boys and girls had showed up, all of them from the Harijan community (an "untouchable" group that ranked at the bottom of society). During that summer, a number of those boys and girls had accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. Among them was twelve-year-old Dhuwarak Prasad. Because Dhuwarak's parents had seen positive changes in their son's life after his conversion, they had been happy at his decision to follow Christ. Mr. and Mrs. Prasad eventually decided that they, too, would become Christians.

This had happened a few months before the annual Hindu festival of Diwali. That's a celebration also called Deepavali which commemorates the victory of Lord Krishna over the evil Narkasura and also honors the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi. [ visual representation of Lord Krishna ]

The Pakraj family visited the Prasads often and had them over to their own home as well. When the Prasads had become Christians, they were socially ostracized by other Harijans. Thus, the fellowship of other believers filled a void.

As Diwali approached, the villagers began to decorate their homes, preparing little clay lamps they would place all around them. To celebrate the festival, many people thatched their houses with new grass and bought new clothing. As Diwali approached, however, the Prasads began feeling depressed. For the first time they could remember, their home was going to be dark and not decorated at Diwali time. It didn't help their mood that Mr. and Mrs. Pakraj were away visiting a neighboring village.

When the Pakraj family returned, the Prasad family immediately went over to welcome them back. It was while they were sitting together and Mrs. Pakraj was preparing the evening meal that Dhuwarak had asked his disturbing question. Mr. Pakraj had said he needed a little time to think and pray about his response. So, he invited the Prasad family to come again the following evening so they could discuss the issue some more.

As Victor neared his own home the next evening, he still was not sure exactly what he would say to the Prasads. He did remember hearing that the first Christians in Europe had begun to celebrate the birth of Christ during a pagan Winter Festival. The Christians had picked that time because many of them were servants and their masters gave them some days off during that festival. It was Victor's understanding that Christians had taken the pagan symbol of an evergreen tree decorated with lights and turned it into a symbol of their own evergreen hope for eternal life because of Jesus' coming into the world.

Could a similar reinterpretation be made of the Hindu festival of Diwali which also celebrates a victory of good over evil? Victor wondered if there was a way that something in the Diwali festival could become one of those "redemptive analogies" which Don Richardson had written about? Perhaps.

Victor Pakraj felt it was important for new converts to make a clear break with Hinduism. If they did not draw clear distinctions between Hinduism and Christianity, the Christian community would likely wind up being absorbed under Hinduism's inclusive umbrella. If that happened, the distinctiveness of Jesus Christ and the witness to His saving power would be blurred and perhaps completely lost.

On the other hand, Victor also knew that he must help the Prasad family find a way to restore the joy of their salvation. He wondered how to do that. What relevance, if any, did Diwali have for Christian believers? Finally, Victor decided . . .

This case study is an edited version of one by Simon P. David which appeared in Case Studies in Missions, edited by Paul and Frances Hiebert, Baker Book House. It may be reproduced only by paying a 35-cent per copy royalty to Baker Book House, PO Box 6787, Grand Rapids, MI 49516 USA

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arrow    The Holiday Spot: Diwali

A future missionary on a Peace Corps' assignment experiences Diwali "The Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, was last Tuesday. On the night before, there was a parade here in New Nickerie. Hundreds of people carrying candles walked along the parade route along with cars, tractors and even a couple boats covered in Christmas-type lighting. It was neat to see so many people from the community involved in something like this. That is something that doesn't happen very often.

"At dusk, the Hindus put out all types of lights around their homes. The most common type were small clay pots filled with coconut oil. By tradition, the Hindu families stay up until all of their lights burn out. As it got dark, all I could see were lights everywhere. It was beautiful. I even put out candles at my house.

"Almost everyone from the clinic where I work asked me to stop by their house that next day. Though they must stay home to observe the holiday, they usually ask friends of other faiths to come visit them. I only made it to two houses, but I was sent home with enough food for the week."

  — Dalene Rovenstine
Diwali activities in a church building? From a young lady originally from India . . .

To add a twist to the very old question of "how much is too much," the local Indian community here in the U.S. is now asking to use our church building for different events such as Diwali celebrations.

We would not open the doors to false worship, but what about singing and dancing and eating? Where is the line between activities that are merely cultural and those that invite evil spiritual activity?

The answer, I think, depends on what exactly is done at the gatherings. . . but of course, my own response is wildly colored by my own experiences and upbringing . . . so sometimes I wonder.

  — Elisabeth

    -- Howard Culbertson

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