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Last year's Diwali celebration was organized by the Penn Hindu & Jain Association in the Hall of Flags in Houston Hall on Nov. 4, 2022.

Credit: Angela Ye

The Penn Hindu & Jain Association and Penn Sikh Organization collaborated to host an evening celebrating Diwali that encouraged interfaith exchange. 

The event, held on Nov. 18 in the Gutmann Multipurpose Room, was free and open to the whole Penn community. It began with a 15-minute presentation on the background of Diwali for different South Asian religions, including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. 

The presentation was followed by a "puja" prayer honoring the goddess Lakshmi led by Umesh Jois, a Hindu priest from New Jersey who helps HJA run weekly prayers and other larger prayers throughout the year. Traditional Indian food catered by Virasat Haveli, a nearby restaurant, was served, and attendees mingled and danced to Bollywood music towards the end of the night. 

College and Engineering junior Om Gandhi, one of the presidents of HJA, described the event planning process as a significant group effort. Gandhi was in charge of spearheading the collaboration between HJA and PSO. 

“We work with SPARC, which is the Spiritual and Religious Life Center at Penn. Our mentor, Steve, recommended that we reach out to PSO because they have new leadership and that they're very interested in working on these interfaith initiatives,” Gandhi said. “We set up a meeting, and we immediately hit the ground running.”

Members of the PSO board who worked on the event remarked on how people of all faiths showed up, from Hinduism to Sikhism to Islam and Judaism.

“Someone taught me how to do the Naatu Naatu dance, which is like a South Indian dance, and it was really hard,” College junior and PSO fundraising coordinator Navraj Singh said. “But I did it, and I was like, ‘Wow, I never thought I could do that!’ and then I taught a couple of people how to do some Bhangra steps. So it was like we were exchanging cultural knowledge.”

The PSO board members also shared the history behind the Sikh holiday of Bandi Chhor Divas at the event, which celebrates the release of the Sikh guru and 52 Hindu princes. 

“When the holiday itself demonstrates interfaith solidarity like that, it was really great to express it at an interfaith event and then have others learn about it,” College senior and PSO Co-President Chanpreet Toor said.

Both clubs agreed that it is essential to hold events like this because it provides an inclusive opportunity for students to celebrate their culture.

College junior Diya Mohnot, who attended the celebration, appreciated how the event encouraged her to learn more about her own faith.

The event also encouraged people to ask questions about Diwali. Jois not only performed the Lakshmi puja but also explained the different parts of the puja, especially to people who celebrated different variations of the holiday and weren’t familiar with it.

“Diwali is such an important part of so many different faiths that people have been celebrating this festival for their entire life,” Gandhi said. “And so, coming to college, that's one area in which you might feel disconnected. We try to provide that space for people to celebrate a festival that means so much to them.”