Image description: A close up of (1) Aditya, clad in an orange sweater, smiling, and (2) Shonal, clad in a white shirt, also smiling for the camera.
In regards to the upcoming Diwali celebrations, I had the opportunity to speak to the President and Vice-President of the Oxford University Hindu Society (HUMSoc), Aditya Dabral and Shonal Kapoor. Aditya is currently a third-year English undergraduate, while Shonal is pursuing his fourth year of Engineering.
Diwali has always been a significant annual tradition for many Hindus, Jains and Sikhs throughout the world, and this year, it falls between the 2nd-6th of November, with the main day of celebrations being on Thursday, 4th November 2021.
Oxford’s increasingly diverse student body continues to provide opportunities for this celebration, with HUMSoc playing a significant role. This week, the Student Union is also hosting a Diwali Mulakaat on Wednesday, while the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies is hosting a similar event on Thursday. In this article, Aditya and Shonal share their thoughts about the festive season.
How do you feel about Diwali coming up, and (if you live in the UK) will you be going home to celebrate with your family?
ADITYA: I’m really excited for Diwali! It’s a great way of bringing the wider Hindu community together. I’ll be going home on Saturday too!
SHONAL: Very excited too! I’ll be going away this weekend to celebrate with my extended family including my cousins, uncles and aunts. We get together every year for Diwali and so it is really nice to see them all and celebrate together!
Is this your first time celebrating Diwali here in Oxford? How different has it been in comparison to celebrating at home?
SHONAL: It’s actually my fourth time now. Last year it was tough to celebrate with others due to COVID, but in my first and second years I really enjoyed the different Diwali events put on by HUMSoc and my college. In particular, I vividly remember the Diwali Ball in 2019. It’s great to be able to celebrate both with friends and the Hindu community in Oxford, as well as at home with family.
What is your favourite thing about Diwali, overall?
SHONAL: I really like the family and community aspect of it, as it brings people together. It’s a time of celebration, festivities and reflection for all. It is also very refreshing and relaxing to be able to connect with others, many of whom you don’t get to see very often, in a religious and spiritual way.
What are common misconceptions about Diwali that you wished more people would understand?
ADITYA: I suppose most people might not know that celebrations actually span over 5 days and involve a variety of prayers. There are also many region-specific customs which complicate offering a standardised definition of the festival I suppose.
Are there any spiritual preparations and religious rituals often required of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, etc. to participate in the days leading up to Diwali?
ADITYA: You tend to clean/clear your home in the run up to Diwali and some people do elaborate rangolis (artwork), but nothing expressly religious.
How has HUMSOC been preparing for Diwali this year? Has it been difficult to manage all these preparations while also dealing with academic deadlines and the intensity of Oxford terms?
ADITYA: It definitely has been a lot to juggle, but the satisfaction I get from seeing people celebrate and be happy easily makes it worthwhile! I also benefit from having a great committee around me, which means that no-one person gets completely swarmed with stuff to do.
The Diwali Ball for 2021 has unfortunately been postponed due to Covid restrictions. How have you guys been feeling about this? I am aware that especially before Covid, the Diwali Ball had been one of Oxford’s biggest cultural highlights every year.
SHONAL: Very sad that it had to be postponed of course. On the up-side, a new date and venue has now been confirmed and I’m very excited to have the opportunity to make the ball even bigger and better than before, and therefore we are still looking forward to putting on a great night of festivities!
Overall, how do you feel about being part of HUMSoc and hosting these events at a place like Oxford, which has traditionally been rooted in its whiteness and colonial history?
ADITYA: One striking fact about the University’s past engagement with Hinduism that isn’t really known is that one of the historic criteria for being the Boden Professor of Sanskrit, was the capability to was demonste how Sanskrit Scholarship could contribute to the conversion of Indians to Christianity. Sanskrit is the language which practically all of the Hindu corpus is written in. If you’re interested in learning more about this, you can Google the 1860 election for the Professorship, which is as fascinating as it is depressing. Considering how past scholarship was conducted with these missionary agendas in mind, this just underscores the importance of decolonisation with how we approach the teaching and studying of Hinduism – especially to fully appreciate and understand what it stands for. As HUMSoc is a student society, all we can humbly offer is an open forum to discuss these things in a friendly environment, something I feel we’ve successfully done.
In relation to my previous question, what do you think is the importance of such a society like HUMSoc, in a place like Oxford?
SHONAL: As much as the University of Oxford is working to increase its diversity, Hindus and South Asians in Oxford are still few and far between. In fact, you can count the number of people with a South Asian background in my year at college on one hand! That is why it is so important for HUMSoc to provide a space for people to share their religion and culture, as well as provide a community to connect with and welcome each other. It is also important to educate others on Hinduism and its teachings, which we aim to do throughout the year through various talks and interesting discussions.
Why is HUMSOC so special to you? Why did you initially want to get involved?
ADITYA: If I’m honest, it was the singing which lured me in first! Attending weekly aarti’s were really therapeutic for me and offered me a much needed midweek respite from the hustle and bustle that we all feel at Oxford. I’ve also just had a general fascination with Hinduism as a means of connecting with my heritage, something I feel I need to consciously maintain as someone from the diaspora.
Tell us more about your weekly aarti events!
ADITYA: They happen every Tuesday at 6pm at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS) which is practically at the start of Cornmarket street. We tend to sing some bhajans before doing an aarti, after which we discuss something topical and approach it from a Hindu perspective (just this week we were talking about our obligation to the environment and nature in light of COP26) – they’re really informal and relaxed meetings open to everyone!
If there is a legacy that you wish to be continued after you have stepped down from the committee, what would it be, and why?
SHONAL: I would definitely like to keep up the strong HUMSoc community that we have built over the last year. We’ve been getting really good attendance at our events throughout the year – such as at our weekly aartis, socials and sports. It is so nice to see the same people coming again and again, alongside many new faces. It really has become a sort of extended family, and has contributed greatly to making Oxford feel like a home away from home for me.
Is there anything else you would like to add, or would want people to know? What are your final thoughts and comments?
SHONAL: Make sure to look at our socials to see all our exciting upcoming events this term, and tickets for the new and improved Diwali Ball will be on sale very soon. We hope to see many of you at our events soon, and don’t hesitate to say hi to me or Adi – we’d love to meet you!
The upcoming Diwali Ball, which was initially scheduled for 3rd November 2021, has now been postponed to January 2022. More information about the Diwali Ball is available on their website, which can be found here, where you can also sign up for the mailing list to receive the latest updates.
The Oxford Student wishes everyone a wonderful Diwali full of happiness and blessings!