By Lauren Markoe
The holiday of Diwali is celebrated this week by Hindus all over the world, including an estimated two million in the United States. Many Hindus in the U.S. say Americans don’t know what Diwali is all about and they’re working to change that, Religion News Service reports.
They’re encouraging fellow Hindus to be a little more open about their celebrations — to tell friends, colleagues and their children’s teachers that Diwali is a big deal within Hinduism, the world’s third largest religion. For starters, it’s a religious celebration of the Hindu New Year, like Rosh Hashanah’s commemoration of the Jewish New Year, with a festival of lights thrown in. On a deeper level, Diwali celebrates the triumph of good over evil.
“Someday it’s my hope that you’ll say, ‘It’s Diwali,’ and the boss will say, ‘Oh, OK, you’ll take the day off,'” said Suhag Shukla, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation. “That’s progress — the feeling that as a Hindu, you don’t have to explain.”
Dr. Rasik Shah, a pediatric lung specialist in New York City, said he used to be a little shy about taking Diwali off. “But over time,”he said, “I have been a little more bold, a little more vocal.” Often, he said, he’ll have to explain it.
Celebrated by Hindus and some Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, Diwali draws on the legends of each religion. One of the most popular legends marks the return of Hinduism’s Lord Rama from banishment. According to the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, Rama destroys a 10-headed demon. As he returns home, villagers lay out lamps to light his way. The name “Diwali” means “row of lights.”
Most of India, where 80 percent of its 1.2 billion people are Hindu, is off for Diwali. Families pray at Hindu temples, and deliver their best dishes to friends. At Diwali parties, there’s dancing, variety shows and fireworks.
In the United States, the celebrations are more subdued, given the relatively small Hindu population and — as many Hindu Americans point out — stringent laws on fireworks.
Many U.S. Hindus don’t take the holiday off, even the key day, which falls on 26 October this year. And that’s just fine with most Hindu “pandits” or priests, including Muralidhara Bhatta, the spiritual leader of Durga Mandir, a Hindu temple in Fairfax, Virginia.
Bhatta expects a crowd at the temple on 26 October, but in his and many other American Hindu temples, the biggest celebrations will occur over the weekend, when he expects more than 1,000 people. “What we want is people’s involvement,” said Bhatta. “So we’ll celebrate in a different way.”
Vivek Dwivedi, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) engineer who lives in Maryland, said he will observe Diwali by taking a half-day off, going to temple for prayers, decorating his house with Christmas-style lights, and visiting friends and family.
NASA and the federal government are good about allowing people to use earned personal days to celebrate religious holidays, Dwivedi said. Still, he added, it would be nice if more Americans knew a little about his religion and culture.
Part of the problem may be that non-Hindus haven’t bothered to learn, but it’s also Hindus themselves, he said. “I don’t want to blame the Hindu community, but maybe Diwali should be advertised better.”
Diwali was featured in 2006 in an episode of the hit television series “The Office,” which centered on the boss’s clueless attempts to get his employees to appreciate Indian culture. The White House first celebrated the holiday in 2003, and President Barack Obama in 2009 became the first U.S. president to attend the festivities. Shukla called the gesture significant. “It sends a message that Americans of all faiths and of no faith are being acknowledged,”Shukla said.