Thursday marks the global observance and celebration of Diwali or Deepavali, also known as the Festival of Lights.
The festival, most commonly connected to the story of Lord Rama’s return home from exile, is observed by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. As Anantanand Rambachan’s wonderful piece in Huffington Post last week showed, Diwali has a deep philosophical and spiritual meaning beyond the cultural aesthetics that have become popular across the globe, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, the West Indies, Malaysia, Indonesia, Fiji, and South Africa, to name just a few.
For many of us who grew up in the United States observing Diwali in our homes, explaining it to our peers was often challenging because we lacked the resources — and our schools lacked the information — to do so. Now, as our children — and future children — are enrolling in school, there has come a much better understanding of how to articulate the importance of Diwali.
In some parts of the country, there have been efforts to make Diwali a school or even a public holiday. For example, in New York City, a diverse coalition of organizations has asked Mayor Bill de Blasio to make Diwali an official school holiday, given the number of Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs who attend schools in the city.
However, for schools across the country, Diwali continues to be something that isn’t touched upon or acknowledged. Given the Constitutional constraints about celebrating religious festivals in classrooms, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has developed a toolkit for parents and educators to understand Diwali better within an educational setting.
One of the most important things educators need to know is that it’s OK to bring up holidays such as Diwali in a classroom if it is done academically (as opposed to devotionally) and with an emphasis on cultural competency. This is why so many schools are updating their cultural calendars to incorporate acknowledgments of Muslim holidays such as Ramadan and Eid. Teaching about different religions in public schools also involves an awareness of what different faiths consider holy.
HAF’s Diwali toolkit works in two ways. First, it helps parents who celebrate Diwali better explain the holiday to their children’s educators and peers, while also providing a vetted resource for teachers to enhance diversity awareness within classrooms. Second, it helps teachers be more sensitive to their Hindu, Jain, and Sikh students who celebrate Diwali, including ensuring that they are caught up in classes if they miss Thursday in observance of the holiday.
Lastly, for teachers who do use age-appropriate readings to explore understand diverse traditions such as Diwali, there are several books that can help their students. Books such as Amma, Tell Me About Diwali by Bhakti Mathur, Lighting a Lamp: A Diwali Story by Jonny Zucker, and Diwali by Mia Gardeski are easy to read and can provide cultural context and enrichment for students.
As Diwali becomes more of an American holiday, it’s important to understand that it’s easier now than ever before to incorporate a better sense of what Diwali and what it means into classrooms. That in itself is worth celebrating.