Om Sweet Om

Om Sweet Om


Trick or Treat? Not quite sure.

posted by Vineet Chander

Growing up, I always experienced Halloween as a clashing of cultures. More than any other American holiday, Halloween seemed to draw a line in the sand between the world that my Hindu immigrant parents resided in and the American suburban world around me. Since Halloween usually tends to coincide with a number of Hindu holidays (Hindus use a lunar calendar, so exact dates switch around), when Diwali happened to fall on October 31, the two holidays went head-to-head.  Either I could go trick-or-treating and watch the Nightmare on Elm Street marathon (my desire), or visit temple and exchange sweets with relatives (my parents’ orders), but I couldn’t really do both.

Even when there wasn’t a direct conflict, though, there was always a disconnect.

“What kind of depressing holiday is this supposed to be, anyway?” my Mom would ask, disapproval in her voice as she suspiciously surveyed the plastic skeletons and cardboard tombstones now decorating our neighbors’ lawns. “A waste of time,” my father would mutter even as he begrudgingly bought bags of cheap candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters.

(Some of their more orthodox Hindu friends had even stronger objections to the holiday. “All this meditating on death and gore, and openly celebrating ghosts and goblins! It’s ashubh, inauspicious.”)

My parents tried, of course, but somehow they were never able to quite get it. Sure, they proudly displayed the jack-o-lanterns that my sister and I carved at school; but we’d never carve one together as a family. They dutifully doled out the candy to the neighborhood kids, though without the gusto of the other parents, who’d often dress up themselves and distribute treats in character. And of course, they were content to let us go out trick-or-treating, though I can’t really remember them getting too excited about it.

And then there was the issue of costumes.

Most years — as long as it wasn’t too expensive — we could just convince them to buy whatever superhero or horror movie monster costume was popular that year.

But there were those years that our parents (and other Desi parents, I’ve since learned) stumbled across what they thought was brilliance– to have us dress up as an “Indian prince” or “Indian princess”. This feat in creative laziness they accomplished by dolling us up in our finest Indian party clothes, perhaps with the addition of a makeshift turban or tiara, and sending us out to impress our candy-giving neighbors with our exotic apparel.

The neighbors loved it, our parents felt the euphoric mix of cultural pride and saving money, and we (the Association of Involuntary Indian Princes and Princesses) thought that it was incredibly lame.

(Full Disclosure: Years later, when we were old enough to see trick-or-treating only as a means to free candy, but still young enough to get away with it, we Indian-American kids co-opted this tactic by willingly donning our kurta pyjama or salwar kameez outfits to feed our candy fix without going through the trouble of actually buying a costume.)

As much as we resented it, though, now that I look back at it, I can appreciate a certain mingling of cultures that it engendered. And now that I am a parent myself, I wonder about how to minimize the culture clash for my own Indian-American daughter, and how to integrate the worlds of Halloween and Hinduism for her.



I was discussing this with a Christian colleague yesterday, and he
asked what I thought about having kids dress up as Hindu deities. I
have to admit, his question caught me off guard. A bindi-wearing Indian Princess is one thing, but dressing up like a goddess…?

The
more I thought about it, though, the less sure I became of how I felt
about the whole thing. Would it be a celebration of Hinduism’s rich
imagery, or a mockery of faith? Would it provide a chance for Hindus to
share their faith and beliefs with others, or just fuel stereotypes and
marginalize Hindus? And how would the Hindu kids themselves feel about
it, anyway?

girl dressed as krishna.jpgOn the hand, there is precedent for dressing
up as deities in Hinduism. Many parents dress their children up as Lord
Krishna on Krishna Janmashtami. Ramleela — dramatic re-enactments of
Lord Rama’s epic pastimes — also involve children and adults donning
costumes to depict figures such as Lord Rama, the brave Hanuman, or the
dastardly demon king Ravana. There’s even a Bengali tradition of
dressing up as the goddess Kali — blood-red tongue, carrying a
machete, and wearing a garland of skulls — for the holiday of Kali
Puja every October/November; undoubtedly, the closest direct link
between Halloween and Hinduism I’ve found yet .

child dressed as durga.jpgAnd  some
Hindu temples have started using Halloween as a way to connect Hindu
kids withe their culture. Our local Krishna temple in New Jersey is
hosting a children’s costume contest on Halloween, where the kids are
invited to depict any character from Krishna’s life story.

On
the other hand, does it make a difference when the Hindu deity costume
is taken out of the  context of a Hindu holiday (or a temple-sponsored
costume pageant), and mapped on to the American Halloween mainstream?
Does it denigrate Hinduism to have a portrayal of Lord Krishna
soliciting candy door-to-door alongside Spiderman or Harry Potter? Are
we putting divinity in the same character as fictional superheroes or,
worse yet, freaks and creatures that only get to come out into the
light of day once a year? And what does that communicate about Hinduism
among other faiths? How would we feel about children dressing up like
Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed for Halloween?

child-dressed-as-hindu-god.jpgAnd what if Hindu
costumes became popular enough to attract the attention of non-Hindus?
Does that change things? Is it okay to wear a costume depicting the
goddess Kali because you think her look is “gruesome” and “cool” even
if you don’t believe in her?

Heidi Klum Hindu Goddess Halloween.jpgHollywood actress Heidi Klum seemed
to think so
last year, and got slammed for it. In a thoughftul blog
post about the bruhaha
, Sayantani Dasgupta tried to articulate why
Klum’s costume choice rubbed her the wrong way:

…I realize that my anger at Heidi’s choice of costume is not about religion as much as it is about racism.  Kali
is a living goddess – living in the sense that she is actively
worshipped as a manifestation of the feminine force which can take life
as well as give it.  Kali is living in that her symbolism
- whether as a goddess of ferocious destruction or of redemptive change
- is integrated into the culture of an entire subcontinent.

Despite Heidi Klum’s obvious confusion, Kali is neither a plastic skeleton nor a dime store pirate.  She is not a saucy serving wench nor a vixenish she-devil.  By
turning a religious and cultural symbol into a freakish if dramatic
Halloween spectacle, Klum has enacted the most base sort of cultural
appropriation.

As much as I’d love to see more integration on October 31, I can’t help but share Dasgupta’s concerns about turning a religious and cultural symbol into a freakish spectacle.”

I’m still undecided about “Hindu-izing” Halloween. What do you think?

Oh,
and in case you were wondering, my daughter will be dressed up as a
chubby little pumpkin for her first Halloween this year. Or maybe, just
maybe, an Indian Princess.
 



  • Your Name

    Dear Vineet, I grew up Episcopalian, but I never celebrated Halloween. My best friend’s mom was murdered on Halloween when I was just a small child. Eventually, I went on a spiritual journey that led me to the Hindu faith, and I still stayed away from Halloween, my children did resent it; but I kept them safe from poisoned candy, and I feel I kept them from pretending to be something they are not. I think some holidays are more a personal choice rather than a religious one. I think Halloween is on the top of that list. And, now that my children are grown and they have chosen their own path, they have differing faith than my own. I do still celebrate Christmas w/ my eldest daughter as she is raising her children to be Christian. I will humbly respect my daughters faith, still my holiday cards are purely about Peace and Joy for the Holidays. I will not impose my beliefs, but I do have a problem with my grandchildren trick or treating. I have expressed my concerns to my daughter, but the choice is hers. I just wish she would not take my grandchildren to strangers houses for candy, as that is how my friends mom died. The only resolve I do have in this matter is that my daughter inspects the candy her children get. Still, I do not think it is worth the risk. I say, if you really want your children to have all those sweet treats, why not just buy them yourself, why risk what a stranger might do? I also think American children have become too accustomed to receiving something for nothing, be it trick or treating, over-indulgent parents and or grandparents, or parents who give their children everything and anything just to passify them. It’s sad really, it seems many young people today feel they are entitled to things they never worked for. And I believe that Halloween contributes to this problem. Sorry for ranting. Peace be with you…

  • http://reluktantwarrior.blogspot.com/ LinZi

    When you are considering whether or not a costume of a God or Goddess would be categorized with “freaky or scary” costumes of Halloween, keep in mind that not ALL Halloween costumes worn by kids are chosen to be scary or freaky! Often When I was a kid, I picked costumes based on characters I really liked (Pippi Longstocking or Punky Brewster). Lots of children pick costumes of things they LIKE rather than just scary things, atleast where I grew up. If my child wanted to dress as Hanuman, Shiva or Saraswathi, I would help them make a really cool costume, and when people ask “what are you?” they can explain how cool the God or Goddess is and a little about it.
    Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, because it doesn’t take itself seriously… Halloween is about playing around, dressing in costumes, and eating too much candy… (ouff). Halloween has evolved a lot from it’s original style (dressing up to scare away demons) and become a modern holiday that we can alter in different ways to our own preferences. :)

  • Your Name

    Vineet Chander ji,
    I think the issue boils down to the secular versus the sacred. If the costume is to emulate and imbibe the sacred, I am all for it; if it is to downgrade the sacred to the secular, it would be an unhealthy folly. In the Hindu way of life, the sum total purpose of life is to transform one’s everyday life towards the divine, and oneself become the divine too, since That alone is the real peace and the real happiness (indeed Happiness). Training the mind in that direction – through daily activities, food, dress, words, and thought – is central to the way Hindus live admist their secular pursuits. For example, we are taught that the flowers we use in the pooja are sacred, they are given to us at the end of the pooja as prasad, yet a day later we throw them away. Training the mind to walk towards the divine here is real the purpose, and not the analysis of the flowers. This is the idea behind all Hindu activities and rituals – daily bath, eating, pooja, temple visits, homa-yajna, discourses and discussions, etc. The sanskaar ceremonies (including marriage) too re-enforce this “towards-the-sacred” purpose only.
    I doubt this mental upliftment will happen with the Hindu God/Goddess dresses during the Halloween unless the most involved (particularly the parents) in such activity see these dresses with the divine insights. In the present USA or the West, deeply in materialism, this is very unlikely. So, it is better not to denigrade the sacred to the level of the secular. This may change may be 100-200 years later if the wise keep at it.

  • purushottam das

    in brief it is nice as a child to dress up as krishna or Rama, but to go on the streets for trick or treats is surely a denigration of hindus values. lord is not a beggar and to depict them as beggars is denigration of hinduism.

  • http://ht LinZi

    But Putushottam ji, Trick-or-Treating is not begging in any sense.
    When I lived in Bihar, on Holi we traveled to the neighboring houses and everyone gave us sweets in celebration of the holiday. I think if you see trick-or-trick as begging, then this should also be begging.
    But we can look at it as what it really is: people celebrating a holiday by sharing sweets with their family and neighbors!
    The whole “trick-or-treat” saying is a tradition, but the “tricks” themselves are much like things in Indian holidays too, here a trick would be putting toilet paper on a tree or another silly thing. On Holi don’t people sneak up and put colors on their friends? Some even hide somewhere and pour colors from the roof.
    Do people not offer prasad to the Gods and Goddesses?

  • Your Name

    Halloween as a holiday where kids go around wearing costumes and getting candy is, of course, a wonderful thing.
    Not so wonderful is the tradition from which Halloween comes…which is deeply connected to European witchcraft and Satanism.
    So, your parents instincts about all the ghosts and goblins may not be far off.
    As far as dressing up children as Hindu saints and gods? I am sure that is fine in the context of a religious ritual. In a secular American holiday which is about kids eating candy???
    Is that really respectful to Hinduism?
    I am not so sure. When kids dress up like Gandhi for Halloween (and I have seen it) are they doing it to honor Gandhi, or because being a kid and pretending to be bald is funny? Of course…it is because dressing up like an old bald guy wearing (what they perceive to be) silly clothes is funny.
    So, whether we would like it to be different or not, it promotes mockery, not just “good fun.”
    If you have underlying respect for something and also want to joke about it, that is fine. But your audience must have the same respect.
    If not, you create problems.

  • LinZi

    I think people here are making some silly assumptions about Halloween. If a child dresses up as a firefighter or a cowboy, or a character from a book, is that child automatically MOCKING firemen, cowboys, or the character? Obviously not. I don’t hear kids going around like “yeah I’m a firefighter, hahaha, firefighters are dumb/weird/crazy” Most kids who choose this costome would probably say “Firefighters are cool! I want to be one when I grow up.” People also wear scary costumes like vampires or witches, but they usually pick one or the other… either something scary, or some character they LIKE (princess, firefighter, police officer, historical character, etc)
    So if someone dresses as Gandhiji why is the automatic assumption that is he MOCKING Gandhiji rather than admiring him. I guess you are a glass is half empty kind of person?
    And regards to this “Not so wonderful is the tradition from which Halloween comes…which is deeply connected to European witchcraft and Satanism.”
    Umm, so what? So hundreds of years ago people believed ghosts and goblins came out on this day and they dressed up to scare them away. Does anyone believe that now? No. People think it is a fun holiday to dress as someone different them yourself and celebrate with family and friends. I don’t see anyone going around worshiping Satan. Sure it is a holiday were people enjoy looking scary, but what is wrong with that? People do not believe in it seriously, it is a way of having fun. So I don’t think Halloween should be taken as a serious satan worshiping witch-craft related holiday. Take it as what people celebrate it as: fun!

  • Emmajay

    This is a very valuable article!
    As to how Hinduism relates to Samhain (the correct name for the festival which is now celebrated with plastic pumpkins and junk food) I have always found a strong affinity there. Samhain is the old New Year. The time when the veil wears thin between the worlds and we can meet with and celebrate our ancestors. The Koreans call it Chu-sok, the Mexicans call it el dia de los muertos. Day of the Dead. Hindiam also celebrates the truth that things created are also destroyed, that death isn’t the end of things. So… quite a strong link.
    As to whether to dress up as Kali-ma – well, as a Pagan mom, my little one stuck to the likes of Spiderman and Han Solo. It would be ok to wear something reminiscent of a deity (I sometimes henna my hair in honour of Bride) but I don’t think I’m comfortable with treating my deities as costume party fodder. If you would like to celebrate Samhain with us, tell a happy story to your children of a relative who has passed over. As long as their name is spoken with love, they are not dead.
    Happy Divali and Happy Samhain!

  • camelia willam

    Hallloweem.
    Well, our Halloween this year was a strange one.
    I won’t say it was a non-event, but it went from being an entrenched tradition to…
    well, let’s say a scattering and a smattering.
    Every year, for as long as we’ve had children, we’ve spent Halloween at my parents.
    Portable dog fencing
    portable electronic dog fence

  • Nate

    Actually, I don’t think I’d mind seeing little Hindu deities running around….kids, not adults. It gives Hindus the chance to really explain their faith. It’s like when I saw a kid dressed as a Buddha, my Buddhist friend wasn’t offended but instead saw the opportunity to share Buddha’s teachings with the young pre-teen kid. The kid loved it and even said one of the reasons he had chosen the costume was because he was fascinated with Buddhism, but didn’t really know anyone (until that moment) who actually was a Buddhist. I have Christian friends who use the time to dress up as martyrs and saints from the Christian tradition. They love when people ask them “who or what are you supposed to be?” It opens the door to a conversation that probably wouldn’t otherwise happen on Halloween.
    And maybe it’s just because I live in Oklahoma and people are sensitive around Christmas time. People don’t want to dress too scary if they hand out candy because they want to make sure kids have a good time. Most businesses decorate and hand out candy. We have a local event downtown where organizations, businesses, etc come together to hand out candy, play games, have costume contests, and even a parade in which all who want to participate can. But also living in Oklahoma means the enormous number of churches and people who are anti-Halloween. They often hold events at their churches simply called “Fall Festivals”. They view Halloween as Satan’s holiday…or a solely Pagan holiday that Christians shouldn’t participate in. So they plan events not only for their own church goers, but also to invite the community so as to hopefully “save” them. The conflict here isn’t between different cultures or religions, as Halloween is often a time to dress up in what inspires you (even Jesus costumes aren’t unusual). People get together and have a good time. I know lots of adults who purposely choose costumes that require people to ask “who are you supposed to be” because it then encourages conversation and discussion about the topic. Of course there are the folks who like to just be scary or just be silly, and kids just want to dress up as their heroes or favorite characters. It can be not just a fun time, but a great time to really educate people…and because it is Halloween it makes you seem less uptight….unless you are one of those groups that holds a “Fall Festival” instead of celebrating Halloween, then you are viewed as uptight and far too serious.
    And don’t get me wrong, parents still take their kids to these Fall Festivals to trick-or-treat for candy….unless it’s been advertised that they won’t have candy.
    Coming from an interfaith family where a person is raised to find their own religious path (dad: Jehovah’s Witness, mom: Disciples of Christ, me: Hindu, sister: Agnostic, cousin: Atheist, cousin: Buddhist, aunt: Baptist, and so on), we often take the advice from my maternal grandmother: “All holidays are about family and coming together as family. They are reasons, excuses even, for bring families together. You can take any holiday, bring the family together, and find valuable meaning for life in it.” My grandmother was notorious for finding holidays in the year just to bring the family together, to give presents, to teach a moral, spiritual, or life lesson. So even though we walk different religious paths, we come together and often discuss together what the holiday means to us. In some ways that has made me appreciate the holidays a lot more and not to commercialize them and think of them only as materialistic. If we don’t have the money for some aspect of a holiday (gifts, costumes, treats, etc) it’s not a big deal, because it isn’t about the stuff, the value of the holiday comes from the family and the open discussions about what the holiday symbolizes and means to us. I sometimes think that if everyone approached holidays like this that they might not take all the materialistic aspects of the holiday so seriously, but instead will find value and meaning beyond the stuff, too.

  • http://www.cornershower.org/ nick

    People also wear scary costumes like vampires or witches, but they usually pick one or the other… either something scary, or some character they like firefighter and police officer . Corner shower

  • Jessica Green

    What a valuable blog you write! Thank you. From the comments, you certainly connect with people & get them talking.
    What struck me about what you wrote is not about Halloween per say, but that you are so obviously a bridge between two cultures. You grew up with a quest many of us don’t know: how to hold on to your traditional values while adopting completely new ones. I hope your parents are proud and that you are happy!

  • http://www.cornershower.net Mandy

    “What kind of depressing holiday is this supposed to be, anyway?”
    I tend to agree with your mother on this one! I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween.

  • http://www.halloweencostumesale.com/ scary costumes

    I think these are some Indian Gods getups. These are looking so historical and holy. But this is not the thing for which I am surfing. I want some scary costumes.

  • Pingback: Hinduism and Halloween

  • Cambria Rhay

    I think it would be a refreshing culture change to Hindu-ize Halloween. I
    don’t think that dressing up as symbols for Halloween would be
    inappropriate as long as you’re doing it the right way. I would love to
    have my kids go to school and see other kids incorporating their culture
    into Halloween. It gives them a chance to experience culture in a way
    they probably won’t get living in the suburbs.
    Cambria Rhay | http://www.instantdogfence.com/dog.html?cat=113

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