The Rich Traditions of Diwali

First published in the Richmond Times Dispatch, November 10, 2007

As the Hindu festival of Diwali began yesterday, Americans of Indian descent rejoiced in the recognition of their holiday in a measure approved by the House of Representatives.

The bill noting "the religious and historical significance of the festival of Diwali" passed by a unanimous vote last month in the full House. It was the first bill to pass the House recognizing a Hindu festival that is also marked by Sikhs and Jains.

Ramesh Rao, a Longwood University professor who was born in the South Indian city of Bangalore, was invited to the White House this week for a Diwali celebration. Rao, an executive council member of the Hindu American Foundation, also talked with the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently about the holiday.

Q. What is Diwali?

A. "Diwali [North India], and Deepavali [South India is celebrated in the month of Asweeja or Aswayuja [October/November], according to the Lunar calendar. It is a popular and important festival, celebrated all over India. Diwali, or Deepavali, literally means 'garland or row of lamps,' and signifies the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness."

Q. How is Diwali celebrated?

A. "Since India has such a rich, diverse cultural and religious/spiritual tradition, the festival is celebrated in the context of local and regional mythological and spiritual stories. In North India, it is celebrated in recognition of the return of Rama, his wife Sita, and Rama's brother Lakshmana, after a 14-year exile back to Ayodhya, the kingdom that Rama is to rule. Rama is seen as an 'avatar' of Lord Vishnu, the 'protector' in the Hindu trinity of Brahma [creator], Vishnu [protector], and Shiva [destroyer] of the universe. As you know, Hindu cosmology is rich, deep and accommodates an idea of the universe as billions of years old, and which keeps collapsing and expanding in an endless cycle. In North India, Diwali is celebrated over five days with each day connected to an individual symbolic story or event. In South India, Deepavali is celebrated over four days."

Q. Is Diwali celebrated by most Indians, regardless of faith?

A. "India is the birthplace of four religions: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. The Jains celebrated Diwali as the day their last Teerthankara [prophet] attained Nirvana -- or reached heavenly abode. The Sikhs have used Diwali as a day of celebrating an ancient seasonal festival for the purposes of teaching spiritual lessons to the Sikh faithful. Diwali/Deepavali is now a national festival, and the festival is marked by the exchange of sweets, the giving of gifts, and the lighting of firecrackers. Many of the ordinary Muslims and Christians join their Hindu friends and neighbors in celebrating the festival."

Q. Approximately how many people celebrate?

A. "India is a land of a billion people. Diwali is a national festival and is a national holiday. The Hindu Diaspora is about 5 million people spread all over the world. It is therefore gratifying that on October 29, House Resolution 747 was passed 358-0 recognizing the festival of Diwali in the United States."

Q. How is it observed?

A. "Hindu festivals are rich, colorful and vibrant and wrapped both in complex spiritual traditions and exuberant, folksy practices. Food is an important component in Hindu festivals, and Deepavali is no different. Each of the four days of Deepavali celebrations, I remember growing up in the southern state of Karnataka, there were different, special sweets that were prepared, and different deities worshipped. The first day of the festival, Naraka Chaturdashi, people wake up early, have ritual baths, wear new clothes, and light firecrackers at the crack of dawn. In the evenings, men and women join to array oil lamps in front of their homes and light them up. It used to be one of the most spectacular and beautiful sights. Now, unfortunately, electric lights, like Christmas lights, manufactured in China, have begun to penetrate the Indian market and one can see the dying of the beautiful tradition of lighting earthen lamps."

Q. Are celebrations in the U.S. different from those in India?

A. "Sure, yes. We do not have four or five days to celebrate, and there is no national holiday! In some states firecrackers are banned, and in most others one has to get special permission from the police to light firecrackers on the day of the festival. There are many traditional households in the U.S. where Deepavali is celebrated in the traditional format -- especially the worship of the deities, the cooking of special food, and so on. Earthen lamps are a rarity, and most Hindus celebrate Diwali in group settings in those cities where there is a substantial Hindu population."

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