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Vineet Chander Headshot

A Hindu Halloween Lament

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When I was growing up in the 1980s, every autumn Diwali waged a valiant but losing battle against Halloween. Like many religious holidays, Diwali (also known as the "festival of lights" or the Hindu New Year) is calculated according to the lunar calendar -- which means that the date shifts slightly from year to year. Often, Diwali fell uncomfortably within the week of Halloween; in at least one instance that I can vividly remember, it landed squarely on October 31st. This head-to-head conflict was the worst, and it became painfully obvious that Diwali didn't stand a chance. How could a night of visiting relatives and dutifully singing Bhajans compete with the joys of trick-or-treating or horror movie marathons? What kid (brown-skinned or not) would exchange pillowcases stuffed with fun-sized candy bars and bags of M&M's for sticky, syrupy Indian sweets that defied translation? The fun of merely lighting candles couldn't compare to the joy of placing those candles within a hollowed out jack-o-lantern, like everyone else on the block.

If my sister and I were caught in the crosshairs of the holiday war, our immigrant parents were its real casualties. Despite the fact that they weren't particularly religious -- or perhaps because of it -- they decided that Diwali was the one time of year to assert our family's Hinduness. They fought to approximate the traditions of the motherland and re-create the holiday memories of their own childhoods, even as everything else around them drowned Diwali out in the noise of Halloween. And everything about Halloween seemed, to them, bizarre and even morbid. They pushed upstream, against the current, being reminded again and again that they were strangers in a strange land.

"What kind of depressing holiday is this supposed to be, anyway?" my Mom would ask, disapproval in her voice as she suspiciously surveyed the plastic skeletons and cardboard tombstones now decorating our neighbors' lawns. "A waste of time," my father would mutter even as he begrudgingly bought bags of cheap candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters. Some of their more orthodox Hindu friends had even stronger objections to the holiday. "All this meditating on death and gore, and openly celebrating ghosts and goblins! It's ashubh, inauspicious."

Today, as a Hindu-American parent with my own costume-clad kid, I re-visit these tensions with fresh eyes. I find myself humbled, overwhelmed, and more than a little ambivalent. Halloween remains a force to be reckoned with. So what's a Hindu to do?

For some Hindus, the answer is simple: abstain from Halloween. The Spiritual Science Research Foundation -- a Hindu group that I know very little about, but whose mailing list I have ended up on -- produced a video arguing that celebrating Halloween is a dangerous concession to demonic forces. It sounds a bit like a Hindu take on the "Halloween-is-of-the-Devil" argument put forth by some conservative Christians. And I find a lot in the video problematic -- the sensationalized and alarmist tone, the gimmicky creepy music and skewed focus on gory costumes, the sketchy "science" and questionable "statistics" (at one point, the narrator announces that research shows that 30 percent of the population is demonically possessed, for instance). Still, their painting with broad strokes notwithstanding, the SSRF folks make a valid point. Hindu texts inform us that different types of energy can have profound effects on one's consciousness and spiritual health. Allowing our consciousness to dwell in excessively tamasic energy -- meditating on dark, destructive, or violent subjects, even if jest -- can pre-dispose us toward those states of mind in ways subtle and gross.

Other Hindus seem to gravitate toward the opposite end of the spectrum; not only do they celebrate Halloween, but they see the holiday as an opportunity to influence the landscape by bringing their Hindu culture front and center. Some parents dress up their little one in his or her finest Indian party clothes, perhaps with the addition of a makeshift turban or tiara, to transform the child into an "Indian prince" or "Indian princess." Others take it one step further, and have their child dress up as a Hindu god or goddess. While on one level I do appreciate the intention, something about this doesn't sit well with me. Is it a celebration of Hinduism's rich imagery, or a mockery of faith? Does it provide a teaching moment, or just fuel stereotype and marginalization? On the one hand, there is precedent for dressing up as deities in Hinduism; on the other, does it make a difference when the costume is taken out of the context of a Hindu holiday (or a temple-sponsored drama or pageant), and mapped on to the American Halloween mainstream? Does it denigrate Hinduism to have a portrayal of Lord Shiva soliciting candy door-to-door alongside Spiderman or Harry Potter? Are we putting divinity in the same character as fictional superheroes or, worse yet, freaks and creatures that only get to come out into the light of day once a year? And what if Hindu costumes became popular enough to attract the attention of non-Hindus? Would that change anything? Is it acceptable to wear a costume depicting the goddess Kali because you think her look is "gruesome" and "cool" even if you don't believe in her?

Behind the compromises and negotiation of clashing cultures, there lie important questions about assimilation, accommodation, and appropriation; minority communities growing and evolving in a multi-faith world; the interplay of power, normativity, hegemony, and identity. I don't purport to have all the answers, but I do think it is vitally important that we not shy away from these difficult conversations.

This year, at least, my family and I are surviving the battle relatively unscathed. We've tried to be intentional about eschewing the more tamasic aspects of Halloween -- the fascinating with the macabre, brutal, or lascivious -- while embracing more light-hearted ways the holidays connects us to the broader community. We will come home from an exhausting evening of trick-or-treating and then patiently read ingredients on candy labels, keeping in integrity with dietary choices that are part of our Hindu practice. If my parents fought the current and pushed upstream, we are cautiously swimming alongside it.

Earlier this week, my daughter's pre-school class took a day off from their week of Halloween themed crafts and projects to celebrate Diwali as a class; a guest story-teller offered a Ramayana narration and the children decorated diyas and made Diwali cards. (Full disclosure: We live in Princeton, New Jersey, a town with a sizable South Asian community.) That evening, she came home and carved a jack-o-lantern with her uncle. They decided to give him a Vaishnava tilaka -- making him the only pumpkin on our street to display not only his Hindu pride, but a particular sectarian affiliation as well. He now sits outside our front door, like a Hindu-American version of the grinning yalis carved above the entrances of traditional temples, guarding over our home and keeping the peace.

Shubh Halloween, everyone.