Lakshmi crosses the border: Birmingham Unitarian Church celebrates Diwali | The Indian SCENE

Lakshmi crosses the border: Birmingham Unitarian Church celebrates Diwali

For years, we had dreamed of this seamless blend of cultures.

(Courtesy of Latika Mangrulkar)
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Even as we meticulously mark the dates on our calendars and stay connected with families in India or here, there is a tinge of sadness for many of us as we try hard to create a festive mood in the Western context. For the Desi crowd, the holidays usually coincide with Diwali season, and our surrounding communities typically have no inkling of what a major celebration this is.

Because of this, years ago, my sister-in-law, Usha, and I decided to make it a very special time for our children — to give it as much importance as Christmas or Thanksgiving and recreate a holiday that could become an integral part of their growing up. When a few weeks ago I heard 11-year-old Raina, say “Diwali is such a fun time! I look forward to it so much,” my heart felt a slight flutter. I knew our adult children and now their offspring had taken to heart what we as fresh immigrants were trying to impress upon them.

As the Diwali season drew closer, Raina and her cousins Ariana, another 11-year-old and five-year-old Karina joined me in cooking traditional Diwali sweets like they had done last year. The seeds we had sown decades ago are blossoming. Now three generations, including Usha’s and my adult children, with many a sundry relative from out of town, actively participate in this annual weekend of festivities. Our adult children have taken over the planning and the logistics and we, seniors, can watch with pride.

Traditions have been adapted, the significance of the holiday absorbed even by my Poland-born daughter-in-law Monika and Canadian son-in-law Steve as their children and our grandchildren take the Diwali spirit beyond the immediate family. So it was not a surprise when, a few months ago, Steve asked me if I would tell the story of Lakshmi puja during Diwali at the Birmingham Unitarian Sunday service, where he is the co-director of music with Abha. The theme for the month of October was “the divine feminine,” drawing on various cultures’ heritage of the female spiritual powers. The series culminated over the Diwali weekend as the lotus-seated Lakshmi, her picture on the service program, welcomed the attendees as they entered the Sanctuary.

The week before, close to Dussehra, another major holiday that we miss so much, Rev. Mandy Beale had set the congregation thinking with a provocative and inspiring discourse on Durga. This Divine Shakti, according to Hindu mythology took on the role of the fierce Mahishurmardini to destroy the evil forces set free by the demon Mahishasur when the universe was facing total destruction on this day. The interpretation presented by Rev. Mandy was one that the modern mind could relate to.

This was a perfect segue into Lakshmi puja. The audience settled into silence while Judy Amir, the worship associate, began the proceedings with opening announcements. Soon we were drawn into a Hindustani sounding musical prelude performed by Sound Messengers, the BUC band led by Steve. After a lighting of the chalice, the primary Unitarian Universalist ritual to signal the beginning of the service, and a brief explanation of what Diwali is about, the festive service was underway.

(Courtesy of Latika Mangrulkar)

Shari Daly-Miller, acting Director of Religious Education, had decorated the background with flowing colorful sarees and I had installed a beautifully crafted clay statue of Lakshmi on the worship table. Shari began with lighting the diyas as I introduced a shloka from the Vishnu Purana that the audience could easily recite with me.

The meaning of the Sanskrit lines was transcribed along with the text on the screen. Children under ten were invited to step forward to help perform the puja. I had asked Karina to bring along a brass image of Lakshmi I had brought her from India to sit alongside the main deity. Carefully holding the silver platter that contained the diya, the lighted oil lamp and other puja items, we helped each child to put the haldi, the kumkum and other offerings on the Devi as I explained their significance. We ended this short ritual with arati. As each child walked away from the altar area, they put a red flower at the Devi’s feet and took prasad — the Diwali sweets — and returned to their seats.

It was a brief yet engaging ceremony that brought together the many traditions of Diwali. The service was interspersed with music, a blend of the east and the west that echoed the morning’s Deepavali mood, concluding with a benediction and Namaskar by the whole congregation.

As the attendees milled together in the social hour afterward, I could feel the warmth and see the glow that the morning’s service had created. It was an educational and illuminating ceremony, said some. Others commented again and again, “We had no idea that Diwali meant so many things.”

The following Sunday, many came to me and said how meaningful the whole service had been. Once again, a warm feeling ran through my spine. This blending together of the two cultures, the one we had inherited and the one that we had consciously made a home in, had been worth the effort Usha and I had devoted for so many years. It was not only us crossing the borders and finding a new home, but goddess Lakshmi too, leading us in her unique way.

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