More than 300 diyas, small ceramic lamps, flickered on tables flanking the central alter, one for every member of the audience Nov. 8 in the Princeton Chapel. Golden podiums, draped with shimmering cloth and topped with candles and rose petals afloat in bronze bowls, lined the stairs to the chancel. High heels, loafers and flip-flops, lay abandoned as the barefoot guests – adults, students, children, Hindus, Jews, Christians – filled the pews.  

For the first time since the Chapel was opened in 1928, Diwali – the Festival of Lights and one of the most important Hindu holidays – was being celebrated in Princeton’s most sacred space.

“The Chapel was an ideal place,” said Princeton Hindu Satsangam board member Manav Lalwani ’09. “We wanted it to be very vibrant and also very Princeton. We want to show that our faith can also worship here and find a sacred space.”

Princeton’s new coordinator of Hindu life, Vineet Chander, and PHS members composed a devotional service combining readings and discussion of the Bhagavad-Gita, devotional chants called Kirtan, and Indian dance.

“Diwali is one of the most important Hindu holidays. It cuts across divisions, languages, regions,” explained Chander. “We wanted to honor it on a grand scale.” Chander added that he wanted the service to be authentic to the tradition, but at the same time to educate those who knew little about Hinduism.

Derek Gideon ’12 did not know what to expect. As a Jewish student from upstate New York, he had had little exposure to Hinduism, but found the experience “ethereal.”   He was intrigued by the parallels with his own religious tradition. “The conch shell the priest blew reminded me of the shofar.”  

Although Diwali is a Hindu festival, interfaith worship was the night’s mantra. “It is a religious ceremony,” said PHS co-President Loheetha Ragupathi ’09, “but we feel that the main message of the triumph of light over darkness can be applied very generally.”

PHS vice president, Shobana Venkat ’10, felt that the message struck home during the Kirtan led by the Washington, D.C.-based group, As Kindred Spirits. “It was the point when all the audience was drawn into the service,” Venkat said. “I think people had been nervous about coming up to the seats near the altar, but within 10 minutes into the chanting the Kirtan group had drawn people in. It was amazing, we had 300 hundred people chanting the ram ram ram. That was the climax!”