By Adah Shair
Stepping in from the chilly weather outside, we were welcomed into a warm well-lit interior of the temple. The Interfaith Center Campus for Community (popularly known as C4C) was held at the Hindu Society of North East Florida on the 3rd of November in celebration of Diwali. Diwali is the festival of lights and aptly the entire temple was decorated in bright lights. The prayer room with its huge decorated altars was a treat to the eyes. There were about eight people from the Interfaith Center including me and later we were joined by more students from UNF.
We were seated at the rear end of the room and had a good view of all the community members coming into the room and joining the prayer with the rest. As the community members were preparing for the rituals, we went around the room in pairs to look at the beautifully decorated altars. Each altar was intricately carved and dressed up in traditional Indian attire. There were huge boxes of fruit lying around the main altar and one of my friends, who had been to the ceremony before, explained that these fruits are the offerings of the worshippers to the gods. After the ritual, the fruits are distributed back to the worshippers as a form of blessing from God. Once the room was almost full, the priest started the prayer ritual by wishing everyone a ‘Happy Diwali.’ Acknowledging our presence in the room, he gave a brief explanation of Diwali and its purpose. Diwali is celebrated as the triumph of light over darkness, of knowledge over ignorance. The priest started the chants in Sanskrit. Unfamiliar to the language yet owing to my upbringing in India and countless Bollywood movies, I realized I knew most of them by heart. When the crowd joined in the chants, the atmosphere in the room was almost surreal.
I am a Muslim and in Islam, one of the acts of worship is Dhikr (literal translation: Remembrance of God). Dhikr can mean continuously reciting the Names of God or other supplications, or just remembering God at all times. In the spiritual setting set by the chanting and the worshipping souls, I found myself indulging in Dhikr. The place was not my place of worship, the language was not my language of worship yet the sense that everyone there was trying to connect to a Higher Power, made me involuntary do the same. I looked around at my friends from the Interfaith Center and as different from this faith and culture as they could be, they too were seized; transferred to a different place, wandering in search of their peace. In that moment, I thought just being there, being a part of a ceremony that is not our own, and appreciating it regardless was the triumph of religious pluralism over religious intolerance; the triumph of light over darkness. I guess Diwali, the festival of light, served its purpose.