Sweets at an Indian grocery store. (Photo: Pooja Salhotra) 

What is usually a season of large gatherings, feasts and fireworks is instead being marked by quiet family prayers and Zoom meetups as over a billion people around the world find ways to observe Diwali– a celebration of good over evil– during a pandemic.

Diwali, the annual festival of lights celebrated among Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists, falls on Nov. 14, just one day after Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new COVID-19 restrictions go into effect in New York, restricting private gatherings to no more than ten people. For many, Diwali symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, and people celebrate the occasion in community– by exchanging gifts, eating sweets and gathering with friends and families. Though 2020 feels like a dark time, observers of Diwali are still trying to find ways to rejoice.

Here in New York, Sadhana, a progressive Hindu organization, held its annual Diwali celebration via Zoom this week. The theme for this year’s celebration, said Sadhana cofounder Sunita Viswanath, was “Deepa Jyoti Namostute,” or “Saluting the Light.”

“We said that we are not just going to hope for the light at the end of COVID, we are going to be the light,” said Viswanath. “We are going to be the light all around so that whenever we see suffering, we don’t need to wait for somebody else to do something, or for the cure to come. Every day, we have to be the light and shine it where we see the need.”

Sadhana, which values diversity and focuses on service-oriented work, typically holds its Diwali event at Brooklyn Borough Hall. The interfaith event includes leaders of different religions who share a message of solidarity. This year’s event was no different, featuring prayers from the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh and Muslim faiths. 

Sadhana also intended to host an in-person Diwali event at Shri Shakti Mariammaa Temple in Queens, but they ultimately called it off out of precaution. “We are missing gathering in person so much, but we wanted to be mindful and responsible and model what is the smart thing to do,” said Viswanath.

Individuals and their families often visit gurdwaras and temples on Diwali for group prayer, but some are instead opting to pray in their own homes this year.

“This year, many people are not going to the gurdwara,” said Kulwinder Singh, owner of Punjabi Grocery & Deli on the Lower East Side. “I don’t want to cause problems at home. I do a lot of the shopping and go to the store, so I’m going to avoid the gurdwara and do the meditation at home.” 

From their homes, some people will also be live-streaming Diwali events this weekend. Bhakti Center, a nonprofit cultural arts center, is hosting an online Diwali event on Saturday, featuring a Diwali-themed art class, performances, storytelling and a cooking demo.

Other events that have shifted over to Zoom include Diwali at Times Square, which has historically drawn upwards of 1,000 people for live performances and festivities. This year, the three-day event is being streamed online. Festivities began on Thursday with a countdown to a diya lighting ceremony (diyas are the oil lamps people typically light around their homes for Diwali) and will conclude with a live-streamed concert on Saturday evening.