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Christmas, Yom Kippur and, increasingly, the Eid celebrations after Ramadan are ingrained in the national consciousness as days of significance. An understanding exists that these days are infused with a significance that transcends orthodoxy and somehow corrals even the casual observers. Churches, synagogues and mosques see their flock at their fullest and penance is followed by celebration, piety with parties.
The Dharma traditions as diverse as they are, find common ground in a celebration that will make stars a bit harder to see as South East Asia whites out the night sky. For tonight, over a billion Hindus, Jains and Sikhs from India to Singapore and Nepal to Sri Lanka (and America!) are literally turning on the lights. Cities are bedecked with lights and rows of small earthen lamps are arrayed across homes to celebrate the festival of Diwali.
Indian dancer, Khyati Mehra performs during a pre-Diwali celebration at the central jail in Amritsar on October 23, 2011.
A contraction from the Sanskrit word Deepavali, that literally means rows of earthen lamps, the day has varied religious significance for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. But the metaphysical import is the same across all traditions: let the lighting of the Diwali lamp illuminate and vanquish the dark forces–the vices–that abound in the recesses of the intellect. The light symbolizes the victory of knowledge over ignorance, and goodness over evil and awakens an an awareness of God in every life.
Diwali is celebrated over two weeks, and is a period of extended holidays in Southeast Asia. The merriment is as ubiquitous and palpable as the last two weeks of December here, but too easily becomes a blip in the lives of Hindu Americans. Absent a concerted effort to mark the days by celebrants, Diwali easily slips by in the routine humdrum of daily life.
This week, the U.S. Senate, that otherwise seems inordinately occupied by the drama of inaction, came together to pass a resolution recognizing the spiritual and historic significance of Diwali to Dharma adherents by unanimous consent. A similar resolution passed both congressional houses in 2007, and the latest version introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (R-NJ) and co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx.) and Sen.Mark Warner (D-Va.).
As Sen. Cornyn told the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) that worked with the Senate offices to pass the resolution, “The message of tolerance, compassion, and victory of goodness over evil taught by Diwali presents reason for us all to celebrate, regardless of our religious or ethnic background, and as Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and others come together to celebrate the festival of lights, we are reminded that as Americans, we cherish our right to freedom of religion.”
The White House will host a ceremony marking Diwali this week–Hindus will hold their breath that the President will make an appearance as he did in 2009–and again Diwali will take another step closer to the American lexicon. It is the latter goal that drives advocacy groups such as HAF (Disclaimer: I sit on the Board of Directors) to work to pass resolutions and create toolkits for parents to use at their children’s school.
Students put the finishing touches to a rangoli, or a mural made out of coloured powders, at a school ahead of Diwali festival celebrations in Jammu October 24, 2011.
For when Diwali matures beyond an interesting, exotic blip on the calendar, and into a day of palpable import in the lives of more than two million Americans, in the mainstreaming of a festival will lie the narrative of assimilation of Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. This quest for Diwali resonates with the very American ethos of pluralism, and Hindus today will invite all Americans to join in a celebration that epitomizes the ancient Sankrit paean to peace:
From the Unreal, Lead us to Truth;
From Darkness, Lead use to Light;
From Death, Lead us to Immortality.
Aseem Skuhkla is associate professor in urologic surgery at the University of Minnesota medical school. Co-founder and board member of Hindu American Foundation.