Diwali: Hindu Festival of Lights

The following is an excerpt from A YEAR IN MISSISSIPPI edited by Charline R. McCord and Judy H. Tucker

Diwali: Hindu Festival of Lights
Seetha Srinivasan

In November 2003 President George W. Bush inaugurated the tradition of marking at the White House Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, with the aim of respecting the faiths of all U.S. citizens while also acknowledging the growing presence of Indian Americans (most of whom are Hindus). President Obama has continued the practice, and, in fact, he, First Lady Michelle Obama, or Vice President Joe Biden has attended the annual White House celebrations of Diwali.

Diwali is the one festival that is celebrated across the length and breadth of India, and migrants inevitably mark the festival in their new lands. The calendar of India’s major faith, Hinduism, is marked by a plethora of festivals. While people may immediately associate each festival with rituals and special foods, the festivals are an important way of teaching and transmitting the tenets of Hinduism. Behind each festival is a morality tale that illustrates one or more aspects of Hinduism and reminds celebrants of the values and truths they are to embody in their daily lives. Different festivals are celebrated with differing degrees of enthusiasm, but all Hindus venerate Diwali almost equally.

The festival is rooted in the epic Ramayana, and stories from it are in the very DNA of Hindus and integral to Indian culture. Diwali marks the triumphant return of Lord Rama, an incarnation of the Divine, to his kingdom after being unfairly banished from it for fourteen years. The story of Rama’s trials and tribulations in exile, the many ways in which his faith was tested, his conquest of these, and his triumphant return to his kingdom to take his rightful place on the throne, are the subject of the Ramayana. The scripture exerts significant theological and ethical influence on the Hindu tradition. The personages in the Ramayana exemplify such attributes as faith, love, compassion, friendship, fidelity, filial piety, courage, and forgiveness, and from a very young age Hindu children are told stories from the epic to inculcate in them these values and teachings of Hinduism.

All of India commemorates the story of the Ramayana when it celebrates Diwali with special sweets and foods, gifts of new clothes, fireworks, and oil lamps that illuminate dwellings, the last symbolizing the victory of light over darkness, good over evil. (The festival is also called Deepavali, which means “row of lights.”) Diwali falls between late October and early November, the precise date determined by the lunar calendar that guides Hindu religious activities.

As one travels in India from north to south and east to west one encounters different languages, cuisines, and cultural traditions. The tie that binds is the religion of the majority, Hinduism, notwithstanding variations in how it is practiced. So it is no surprise that while Diwali is important in uniting Hindus, there are differences among communities of what each may consider of particular importance. For instance for some groups in western India, Diwali marks the start of a new financial year and prayers to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, play a more important role than in other communities. In some south Indian communities the first Diwali that a married couple spends together is considered particularly auspicious, and the couple is feted by both families. In parts of north India the burning in effigy of Ravana and other demon figures in the Ramayana marks the culmination of the Diwali festivities. Diwali celebrations are further evidence of Hinduism’s remarkable unity and its ability to absorb a diversity of practices.

Hence it is almost a given that of the many festivals on the Hindu calendar the one that all Indian migrants would choose to celebrate in their adopted homeland is Diwali. In the country they had left, Diwali was very much a celebration restricted to family and close friends. A festive spirit, however, permeated the air, and it was as if everyone was agog with anticipation and all of India was rejoicing. In a distant land with just a few Indians scattered in towns and cities, the festive air had to be re-created by families coming together. Among the earliest celebrations that I know of were from the early 1960s in university communities where the mostly male graduate students marked the day by preparing special foods as best as they knew and, bravely, inviting fellow students and mentors to partake of it.

Whatever the size of the community, memories of celebrations back home served as a common bond, and members tried to keep fond traditions alive to the extent possible, from gatherings in homes to larger venues as communities expanded.

When my husband, Asoka, and I moved to Jackson in 1969, there were only about eight Indian families, but we still marked Diwali in different homes by preparing special foods and having “fireworks” by giving children sparklers that were saved from July Fourth celebrations. India’s diversity was represented in microcosm in the families, and it was evident in the cuisine that is particular to the regions of the country from which the families came. We received gifts of clothes from parents or relatives in India (new clothes are a must for Diwali), and as we reveled in our finery and good food we invariably reflected on the grander celebrations (and better prepared food!) we had all left behind. And what memories they were: the aroma of the dishes and snacks particular to Diwali, newspaper and store advertisements for Diwali fashions and sweetmeats, buildings illuminated for the occasion, the sounds and smell of fireworks that signaled the holiday, and on the day of Diwali the excitement of wearing new outfits to visit family and close friends. We also knew that Diwali in India would be celebrated on the date designated in the calendar and not, as we did, on the closest Saturday to accommodate the U.S. work week.

As the Indian community in Jackson grew, it began celebrating Diwali in spaces around the city and with more formal programs. An elder would tell the story of the reason for the celebration, and young artists would share their talents. Some families chose to have a celebration in their homes as well as participate in the broader festivities. In our home the nature of gifts also began to change as our sons grew less than eager to receive clothes. So we adapted traditions, and the first year we did so the Walkman players were a big hit!

Diwali celebrations also began to be an opportunity for Indian Americans to share their traditions with the larger community, and members began inviting their other American friends. Some already knew about Diwali; others welcomed the chance to experience a different culture and cuisine. Reports grew of the exuberantly enjoyable evenings, of delicious food, of women in clothes with iridescent colors, and soon people began to ask if they could attend Diwali celebrations.

Inevitably the celebration of Diwali evolved to ensure its relevance to the ever-expanding Indian community. In the early years the participation of youngsters was usually confined to piano or violin recitals. With the growth of the community, there was the opportunity to learn Indian music and dance, talents that were then showcased during Diwali. Performances of folk dances, parades of various styles of Indian dress, enactments of the story of Rama, all began to be popular features. Varieties of music and dance, including Bollywood styles, began to manifest themselves and had wide appeal. Visitors from India might be surprised to see how the rituals of Diwali are practiced in a new land, but it is just this realization that traditions must evolve that keeps them relevant to people growing up outside of India and ensures that centuries-old beliefs are transmitted in a vital way. Diwali celebrations will doubtless continue to evolve, but what is important is that the reasons for them endure.

Soon Diwali celebrations included invitations to Jackson community leaders and elected officials, and the narrative was raised to a whole new level. Neither the Indian hosts nor the visitors lost the chance to make remarks, and they did so even as the audience grew increasingly restless and wanted to return to the festivities and the food. With larger numbers came more resources, and the community graduated to catered food. The dresses of performers and the set-up became more elaborate, and everything began to have less of a downhome, impromptu feel. Longtime Jackson residents were relieved they no longer had to prepare food and then stand in serving lines with aprons donned over their beautiful saris, relieved also that the responsibilities for the evening’s festivities were shared among a larger group. Yet a small part of them regretted the cohesion and simplicity of past Diwalis.

In 1999 the Hindu community in Jackson built a temple in Flowood, and Diwali festivities had a permanent home, another twist in the new world since in India Diwali is not celebrated in temples. The temple, however, allowed the community the assurance of having a space that was its own and no longer did it have to consider each year where the Diwali celebration would be held. The temple also made it possible to add activities that could not occur elsewhere, like burning in effigy the demons in the Ramayana.

Jackson’s Diwali celebrations begin with a Lakshmi puja, worship of the goddess of prosperity. The temple priests lead the attendees through the prescribed rituals ending with the aarti and the distribution of prasad. Aarti is the placing of an oil lamp on a platter and moving it in a clockwise direction in front of the temple’s representation of Lakshmi. Some attendees take turns with the platter before Goddess Lakshmi, while others are content to put their palms over the flame and touch it to their eyes and over their foreheads, symbolizing their reverence and adoration. In front of the goddess are plates of sweets and savories prepared by devotees in their homes. This is prasad and is offered at the end of the service. Devotees accept the prasad with gratitude for it symbolizes the grace of God.

Since the evening is as much about fellowship as it is about worship, the puja is followed by, in Indian parlance, a cultural program that allows community members to display their talents. Elements of the program may vary from one year to another, but performances of dance and music in a multiplicity of styles are a staple. Then comes dinner, whose tempting aromas have been wafting forth, and finally a fireworks display far, far removed from the meager sparklers of yore.

The Indian community in Jackson is now so big that there are some who choose not to attend the festivities at the temple, preferring to have their own at home. Regional differences inevitably have reared their head, and people may squabble about the best way to do one thing or another. But the celebration of Diwali itself endures, as will the somewhat fractious land from which it comes. The Ramayana plays such a foundational role in the religious and moral education of all Indians that they will take the desire to celebrate this festival wherever they may go.

Between January 1987 and July 1988, India’s national television network broadcast on Sunday mornings in a series of 78, 35-minute episodes the story of the Ramayana. On those mornings it was as if time stood still as the entire subcontinent clustered around television screens. Anybody familiar with Indian streets will marvel at the phenomenon of life slowing down as Indians were transfixed by the dramatization of an epic that is in the fiber of their very being. In fact the stories told to illustrate the grip of the serialization are the stuff of urban legend. Is it any wonder then that the people of this land take with them to wherever they find themselves this story and its celebration?

So each year in the fall, before the holiday season of the larger community, Indian Americans have a festival that they can call their own, that brings their community together, and reminds them of their roots. Diwali celebrations play an important part in the efforts of immigrant parents to keep alive the values of their faith and to ensure that the teachings of their traditions are passed on to succeeding generations. And even as the celebration passes on to future generations an important part of what defines them as Indian Americans, it also allows them to share something of great value to them with the larger community. For all these reasons and desires the Hindu festival of lights will be a part of Indian communities wherever in the world they may be. With its unique yet universally resonant Diwali celebration, Jackson, Mississippi, is no exception