By Belen Edwards
On October 30, the University of Chicago’s Office of Spiritual Life hosted a celebration of Diwali, the festival of lights, in Rockefeller Chapel. Spiritual Life collaborated with the Hindu Student Sangam and the South Asian Students Association (SASA) to create a space where UChicago students and members of the community could celebrate Diwali and participate in the spiritual ritual, or puja.
Third-year Vennela Mannava is the president of the Hindu Student Sangam, a group that gives Hindu members of the UChicago community or those who want to learn more about Hinduism a space to practice and discuss topics related to Hinduism. Mannava oversaw this year’s Diwali celebration, coordinating the singers and dancers and organizing volunteers for the event.
“The goal of this celebration was to bring the Hindu observance of Diwali to campus, so our community could be a part of and learn about how Diwali is celebrated as a spiritual or religious event,” said Mannava.
In organizing this event, Mannava collaborated with Jigna Shah, Assistant Dean of Rockefeller Chapel and Director of Spiritual Life, and Eden Sabala, Special Events Manager for Rockefeller Chapel.
“This event has been happening for at least a decade, if not longer,” said Shah. “It’s really wonderful because while the majority of attendees are students, there are a number of people from staff, faculty, and the community that attend. They may or may not celebrate Diwali in their own homes, but it is part of a wonderful experience we provide as part of our religious literacy efforts.”
This year’s Diwali celebration opened with a series of spiritual and artistic performances before moving into the puja, a prayer ritual that offers devotions to deities. This year’s puja was performed by fourth-year Mimansa Dogra, who is also the first woman to perform the puja at UChicago.
“Puja means reverence and worship. This puja invites God into your house as if they are a guest, and you worship them as a guest,” said Dogra. “It’s a more personal way of worshipping God.”
For the Diwali celebration, Dogra performed the Ganesh puja and the Ashtalakshmi puja. “What I do is invite Ganesha. I feed him, give him water, give him clothes, and light incense,” said Dogra. “Ganesha is the remover of obstacles, so I asked him to remove all obstacles for the year.”
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Dogra did a puja for her as well. “I praised her attributes, and I invited her as a guest and asked her for a good year for the occasion of Diwali,” she said.
Attendees to the celebration were invited to participate in the puja by coming onto the Rockefeller chancel. Since Diwali is the festival of light, each participant lit either a tea lamp or a diya, an oil lamp.
“The celebration at Rockefeller, is more spiritual and religious in nature,” said Shah. “Diwali puja is a core experience of the Diwali celebration. Many of the students who attend, grew up with this experience. Being away from their families and homes, they don’t always get the opportunity to engage in this way.”
Diwali puja is just one of many ways in which the Spiritual Life office provides space to members of the UChicago community for their individual and collective spiritual/religious practice and observance. On Thanksgiving they held an interfaith service in Rockefeller, and they will also hold a service on Christmas Eve. In the spring, the Hindu Student Sangam and SASA will collaborate again for a celebration of Holi.
“Spiritual resources on campus are necessary to provide, even if not all students rely on them,” said Mannava. “It’s a great avenue to explore new directions and celebrate other people’s spiritual practices. They can also serve to better mental health for some students.”
“Spiritual, religious, ritual space is sacred,” said Shah. “It might be a core part of students’ identity or something that reminds them of home, but when they make that connection here it can make it feel like UChicago is also home. It’s a sense of belonging, a sense of being a part of community through a sacred space. We think we can help students find a place where they feel like they can belong.”