Diwali, the festival of lights, is the best known of Hindu festivals in the United States. The legends connected to the festival are different for different religions, including Sikhs and Jains. The annual observance demonstrates the rich history and traditions of the Hindu faith and provides an occasion for the followers to remember their many blessings and celebrate their hope for a brighter future.
Across the U.S., in cities with significant Indian American populations, Diwali Melas have become very popular and attract large gatherings of young and old. The organizers arrange for many fun-filled activities, stalls of Indian sweets and handicrafts, showcasing the best of Indian culture. Effigies of Ravana, etc., are also burnt to give historical perspective to the event and customary fireworks are displayed to add splendor to the festivities and increase public participation.
Diwali celebrations are also popular amongst Indian students at universities throughout the nation, bringing Indian student groups together and helping them stay connected with their culture and traditions.
In 2003, President George W. Bush agreed to the long-standing demand of the Indian community and celebrated Diwali at the White House in the presence of several invited Indian community leaders. Although the president never participated in the Diwali festivities, yet it became an annual tradition at the White House.
In 2009, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to light a "diya" oil lamp in the presence of a Hindu priest, in a White House ceremony for the festival of lights. To show the growing clout of the Indian American community, in 2010, the vice president led the commemoration. And in 2011, President Obama again lit the White House diya while a Hindu priest chanted slokas, or prayers. In 2016, lighting the diya in the Oval Office of the White House, President Obama said, “On behalf of the entire Obama family, I wish you and your loved ones peace and happiness on this Diwali.”
The U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives in October 2007 unanimously passed Resolutions 299 and 747 respectively, recognizing the “religious and historical significance of the festival of Diwali.” The passage of the resolutions may be symbolic, but it is a testament to the increased awareness of the Indian community in America. The U.S. Congress celebrated Diwali, for the first time, on Oct. 29, 2013, amidst chanting of Vedic mantras by a Hindu priest. Over two dozen influential lawmakers along with eminent Indian Americans gathered at the Capitol Hill to light the traditional diyas.
On Oct. 5, 2016, the U.S. Postal Service fulfilled the long-standing demand of Indian Americans, and released a Diwali postage stamp commemorating the festival of Diwali. The dedication ceremony took place at the Consulate General of India, New York, in the presence of Consul General Riva Ganguly Das, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Diwali Stamp project chair Ranju Batra, US Postal Service vice president for mail entry and payment technology Pritha Mehra, India’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, and many members of the local Indian American community.
GOPIO Int’l executive trustee