Happy Diwali! Teachers, are you Teaching about Diwali?

by Punita Rice Teaching

Happy Diwali!

Happy Diwali! Thursday of this week is Diwali (also spelled Divali, and sometimes called Deepavali/Deepawali). A lifetime ago, when I was a student, a teacher asked me to explain Diwali to my classmates. I don’t think I provided much more than:

“Um… it’s the festival of lights? There are fireworks?”

Me, as an 11 or 12 year old who knew very little about Diwali

In my defense, it was middle school, and it — and everyone in it — was awkward. And I really didn’t know the significance of the holiday — just that we celebrated it. (I think I knew that different people celebrated it differently / for different reasons, but I definitely wasn’t the expert on Diwali she hoped I’d be. And I also felt kind of embarrassed, like I was letting down all of India by not being able to teach everyone about it. The whole thing was pretty embarrassing, actually.)

Today, I can share a lot more about Diwali (but then, today, I’m also the teacher instead of the student, and also, I’m not 12 anymore), so I thought I’d do that here. If I’d known then what I know now, here is what I’d have shared with my teacher and peers… so read on to learn all you might want to know about Diwali so you can teach students about it (plus, some resources for teaching students about it). 

(And, pro-tip: if you’ve got an Indian kid in class who celebrates it, please find out ahead of time if they’d like to share anything about it with the class — and please don’t assume they’re the expert!)

What is Diwali?

Diwali is an important cultural (and religious) holiday, and it’s celebrated by over a billion people on Earth, for many different reasons.

Why Teach about Diwali?

If you’re teacher, this probably means many of your students and staff members are celebrating, too. Which means it’s probably also worth considering teaching about Diwali. So if you’re teaching about Diwali (and I hope you are), I hope this post is helpful for you!

While the holiday is celebrated for its religious significance for many Indian religions (including Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and others), it is also important to learn about in the context of studying world cultures, because of its’ CULTURAL significance.

In my school district, this is particularly relevant for students in 7th Grade World Studies, who will soon be talking more about the cultural significance of holidays, and the role they play in human civilization and society, in the next few weeks when we start Unit 2 (Culture & Cultural Diffusion). Thus, even from a strictly informative standpoint, it is worth learning about!

What is Diwali?

The holiday has many different meanings for different cultural and religious groups in India, but one of the key themes of Diwali is the celebration of the triumph of good over evil (definitely an idea we can all get behind). This theme is represented in many different ways for the hundreds of diverse cultural groups in South Asia.

Diwali (or Deepawali) means “row of lamps,” and these lamps or lanterns represent the “inner light” in all of us. Often, when someone wishes you a Happy Diwali, they also share some version of this sentiment: “may there be so much light filling your lives that darkness finds no room to dwell!”

How is Diwali Celebrated?

Diwali is part of a five-day Festival of Lights that begins just before the New Year in the Hindu lunar calendar. Diwali is originally a Hindu holiday, and for many Hindu families, it can include praying to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, prosperity, and good fortune.

The most visible forms of celebration include fireworks, eating and exchanging sweets, decorating doorsteps with Rangoli Art, hanging lights, and lighting clay lamps.

What about Sikhs?

Many Sikhs also celebrate Diwali for its cultural significance, but Diwali has a different religious meaning than it does for Hindus. Diwali is celebrated in Sikhism for some distinct reasons:

  • Sikhs celebrate an event called Bandi Chhorh Divas, which marks the return of the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind Ji, who was freed, and helped free 52 Hindu kings who were being held as political prisoners, in 1619. When he arrived at Harmandar Sahib (aka The Golden Temple), it was Diwali day, and hundreds of lamps had been lit to welcome him home.
  • Diwali is also associated with the martyrdom of an elderly Sikh scholar and strategist named Bhai Mani Singh, in 1737 on Diwali day. Bhai Mani Singh was the Granthi (reader of Sikh scripture) at Harmandir Sahib, and he transcribed the final version of Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikhs’ Living Guru and holy book) dictated to him by Guru Gobind Singh, the last guru of the Sikhs, in 1704. The martyrdom of this important religious and historical figure is also honored on Diwali.

Many Sikhs celebrate Diwali for its cultural significance, but may also partake in religious activities, including Kirtan and an Akhand Paath (continuous reading of Guru Granth Sahib). Typically, Sikhs celebrate Diwali with fireworks and hanging lights at Gurdwaras.

Happy Diwali! May this year be full of you getting to do all the things you love to do. Love and light to everyone!
Happy Diwali! Add me on Instagram @punitarice

My favorite resources for teaching about Diwali

There are links embedded throughout the information above, which you are more than welcome to use. Below you will find some more links to resources that didn’t make it into the text above, but that can be used or shared to enrich understanding of this holiday’s significance, as well as to improve cultural competence and proficiency.

  • A quick intro to Diwali (from BrainPop) – includes lots of (free) lessons, ideas, and resources for teachers.
  • Also, if you have access, check out the Diwali BrainPop video (I think the video requires a login; check with your school system).
  • A great resource packet (PDF link) on Diwali from the NYC Department of Education.
  • Here are National Geographic’s Diwali resources

Other resources for teaching about Diwali

The following are more resources — these aren’t resources I’ve personally used in lesson plans before, but they are still probably worth perusing:

If you end up putting together a mini-lesson plan of your own, please consider sharing it in the comments below!

Have a Happy Diwali! May this year be full of you getting to do all the things you love to do. Love and light to everyone!

P.S. – Here is a nice video of President Obama wishes everyone a Happy Diwali, and here’s a helpful infographic on Diwali. Also, here’s a fun idea for using repetition in the classroom, and here’s a lesson plan to encourage random acts of kindness, and here’s how our family celebrated Diwali last year. Also, if you haven’t already done so, check out this post about my outreach organization, ISAASE.

The image at the bottom of this post is from my Instagram. Follow me if you’re not already at @punitarice.

About the Author
Punita Rice

Punita Rice

Punita Rice is a mother, educator, writer, and founder of ISAASE. She is the author of Toddler Weaning: Deciding to Gradually Wean your Toddler & Making it Happen, and the forthcoming South Asian American Experiences in Schools: Brown Voices from the Classroom, and blogs about motherhood at Happy Mom Guide. Her work centers around multicultural education and equity, and South Asian American experiences in school. You can read more about Punita and her work here.