Sunday, October 18, 2009

Should Christians Wish Hindu's A Happy Diwali?

Saturday India celebrated Diwali, the second big festival in as many months (last month it was Darsa).  Like Darsa, Diwali centers around a mythological tale of good over evil.  The god Rama returns after 14 years of exile killing the evil god Ravna. Diwali, known as the festival of lights, is marked to welcome Rama’s return. The tradition of lighting lamps and shooting off fireworks is symbolic of light over darkness, a path for a brighter future. Hindu’s in the north also celebrate this day as a pooja (worship) to Lakshimi, the goddess of prosperity.

The question for Christians in this country is should they join in this festival?  The students in my anthropology class are divided on the subject.  Some of them are adamant that it is not appropriate for Christians to wish people “happy Diwali,” as they argue it is giving credence to other gods.  Others don’t see any harm.  My students are always interested in the professor’s opinion on the matter.

When I lived in Delhi my landlord, a cultural Hindu, asked why his servant girl, a Pentecostal, would not wish him happy Diwali?  He thought it was rude that she would not. She told me her pastor said it was wrong for them to do so; therefore she would not wish him glad tidings on that day.  “Is that what all Christians believe,” he asked?

My argument on the subject is much like using the word Allah as a reference to God with Muslims.  I am well aware that the Jehovah of Christians and Jews is not the same as the Allah of the Mohammedans, but for me it is merely a linguistic title.  I use a lot of cultural titles of god that are not the same as my perception of God or Lord.  Swami, Senor, Mungu are all language references to the Supreme Being.  While some Christians want to argue the etymology of words, I contend that most Hindu’s and Muslim’s don’t have a concept of the origin of words anymore than Christians know the meaning of the word “Christ.”  It’s a title, a tag word for identification only.  Refusing to use words of culture does not enhance our witness as Christians.

My landlord was gracious to wish me “Happy Christmas.”  He doesn’t understand the story, but out of respect for my faith he is willing to acknowledge it.  He is not compromising his faith by being courteous, nor I when I wish him a Happy Diwali.

Bringing people to an understanding of our faith is a process, sometimes a very long process.  While I am uncomfortable with accommodating some cultural and religious practices, I want to choose my battle lines carefully.  Diwali is not the place to draw a line in the sand.  In fact, by wishing someone a happy Diwali may be an avenue for further discussion about evil, good and Jesus.