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Divali in the White House?

When Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to celebrate Divali in the White House in 2009, he sent a message to South Asian Americans that they are a part of the American national narrative. His actions were not only about lighting lamps and the remembrance of Indic myths, but they were also about the political recognition of an influential minority group in the United States. The President lighting the Divali lamps at the White House signified a public display of the expanse of American diversity. It was a milestone marking the recognition of South Asian-Americans as Americans and it was feted on the Internet and social media as such.

In 2017, President Donald Trump chose not to commemorate Ramadan with Eid al-Fitr celebrations at the White House. While campaigning for the presidency in 2016, he chose not to commemorate Divali and it remains to be seen whether he will continue the tradition of celebrating Divali in the White House. These presidential decisions signify much more than personal affinities, preferences, and religious convictions. Rather, they are means by which the American people, through the actions of their elected leaders, determine whether Hindus and Muslims are included as Americans within the American national narrative.

In the United States, cultural and religious festivals have become a visible means through which minority groups demand recognition in the public sphere. When government officials respond by acknowledging a particular culture’s celebrations, they offer recognition and effectively weave those cultural and religious expressions into the collective national narrative. In the political sphere, recognition is the first step toward representation, which guarantees rights and protection under the law. Governmental acknowledgments of particular cultural and religious celebrations make distinctions between insiders and outsiders to the national narrative.

Public festivals also unite diverse factions within minority communities and create positive relationships with surrounding communities. Divali is often celebrated through large-scale cultural events wherein the South Asian American community presents itself to its neighbors. Divali celebrations showcase bhangra dance troupes, classical Indian dance and music, vendors, and elaborate feasts. Large-scale Divali cultural exhibitions invite outsiders to learn about and appreciate South Asian cultures, to develop respectful relations, and to include South Asians in their understanding of what it means to be American.

President Barack Obama receives a red shawl from a Hindu priest at the White House prior to the 2009 Diwali festival of lights ceremony. Pete Souza, Executive Office of the President, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The lights of the autumnal festival of Divali illuminate many different stories, each of which belongs to a specific South Asian geographical region and religious tradition. Some Indian Hindus light the way home for Sita and Ram as they return to the mythic kingdom of Ayodhya after fourteen years in exile and a mighty battle with the demon Ravana, as told in the epic, The Rāmāyana. Others remember the ancient conversation between Yama, the god of Death and Nachiketa, from the Kaṭha Upanisad. In this famous scripture, Yama explains that only the internal essence of self, the Ātman, defeats death. Still others recall that the five nights of Divali begin when Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is born from the gods (Devas) and demons (Asuras) churning of the ocean of milk (samudra manthan), which creates the drink of immortality (amrita). It concludes when Lakshmi marries her consort, the god Vishnu. Most religions include celebrations aimed to incite a successful harvest and Divali is mentioned as a harvest festival in both the Skanda and Padma Purāṇas. Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and the Newar Buddhists of Nepal each have their own stories that inform their Divali celebrations.

Rajasekhara wrote in the Kāvyamimāṃsa (9th century) that people applied a new coat of whitewash to their homes and lit lamps each year at the time of Divali. Today, South Asians emplace themselves within Indic traditions by cleaning their homes, applying a new coat of paint, and lighting lamps and candles for Divali. It is an auspicious time for new purchases, from clothes to appliances, cars, and gold jewelry. Today, its lights range from traditional diyas, camphor flames in small clay cups, to strings of electric lights, and of course – fireworks.

Although Divali honors multiple mythical stories that vary by region and religion, it also unites diverse South Asian religious communities in the common celebration of the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance. From the sidewalks of Los Angeles to the rooftops of Mumbai, Divali lights eclipse the darkness and newly whitewashed walls shine with optimism as communities come together to celebrate these victories. In celebrating this common thread, South Asian communities acknowledge their shared stories and histories and build communal solidarity through Divali celebrations.

Divali provides opportunities to build communal solidarity in the midst of diversity through the celebration of the triumph of goodness, light, and knowledge. As we sculpt our definitions of who we are as Americans through our daily actions and those of our elected officials, we could take a lesson from such a celebration.

Featured Image credit: diya necklace, Divali 2013, India. Ramnath Bhat, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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