I attended my first Diwali experience in the town in which I live a few weeks ago. It was an ornate, yet relaxed celebration that brought together many of the local Indian families as well as an overflow of non-Indians to celebrate the Hindu New Year. Known as the “festival of lights,” Diwali is a celebration honoring the victory of good over evil, or light over darkness. Though one of the largest Hindu festivals, Diwali isn’t exclusive to Hinduism. Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist religions also recognize the festival in varied ways.
In the Hindu tradition, the festival begins by paying tribute to Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, and Maha Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. I have been a student and practitioner of yoga for several years, and through this time, my interest in Indian culture and the symbolism in yoga has grown. I chant mantra daily, I sing Kirtan as often as I can, and I read sacred texts of yoga that originated in the Hindu culture, but I’ve never considered myself a Hindu. I suppose to an outsider, it could appear that I conduct my daily rituals and worship under the auspices of Hinduism, but my belief is that these practices are sacred and supersede any formal religion. So I’ve never considered the practices I do “Hindu.”
The Diwali celebration added support to the idea that the spiritual aspects of different beliefs can far surpass the “religious” doctrine. As the group was chanting bhajans (prayers) to Ganesha and Lakshmi, I was drawn in. The size of the group had grown over the course of the afternoon to close to 100, and even though the bhajans and rhythms were unfamiliar to most, the energy of the event was palpable. It reminded me of my brother’s Greek Orthodox wedding several years ago. Although the sanctuary was foreign, with painted murals of many unfamiliar and haunting faces, and the ceremony was Greek to me (literally), the sacredness of joining my brother and sister-in-law in spiritual union was unquestionable. Maybe the jewel in the heart of these rituals is that through surrender to the experience, the spirit emerges without boundary or denomination.
The Hindu’s seem to get that. In my study of yoga, as limited as it may be, there is no disparagement of other religions or faiths. Perhaps that’s what draws so many to its customs and practices. So here I was, drawn by the hopes of starting my new year off right into the Diwali Puja (ceremony). I was immersed in the energy of the group as well as the energy of my own children who had joined me at this celebration, when I heard the leader of the puja mention a name that seemed somewhat out of place in the midst of this joyful celebration. In heavily accented English, the fellow said, “and now we will read a letter about Diwali from President George W. Bush.”
My thoughts were immediate and in this order: “What?” “Well, ok, if anyone needs obstacles removed and good fortune granted it’s probably him.” Needless to say, while I was lost in my own thoughts, I missed the content of the letter itself. I was roused back to the present by applause. Applause? For a letter from the president wishing them a happy Diwali? It was clear that I had missed something, so I shrugged it off with the mental note to Google it later. The rest of the evening was a continuation of the jubilation and beauty that began the afternoon. The ceremony ended with a puja and an offering followed by the most wonderful multi-course Indian meal I’ve ever eaten. What a great evening!
After the chai tea caffeine high and the sugar rush wore off, and I finally got my little one’s to sleep, I sat down in front of the computer to find out what connection the United States government and Diwali shared. As it turns out, the White House has been celebrating Diwali for five years, but this is the first year that it has been nationally recognized. This November both the Senate and the House of Representatives adopted a resolution honoring the Diwali festival. The resolution “recognizes the religious and historical significance of the festival of Diwali; and in observance of Diwali, the festival of lights, expresses its deepest respect for Indian Americans and the Indian diaspora throughout the world on this significant occasion.”
The importance of this resolution can be distilled down to the recognition of diversity. The representatives and senators that supported the resolution all commented on the importance of diversity and its recognition in the structure of our country. So here I was, Middle American white girl with her two white children in the middle of a sea of spices. People of all shades of ocher and brown dressed in as many and vibrant colors as the rainbow welcomed my family with open hearts. Everyone, regardless of race or religion, was invited to dance in the traditional dances receive the blessings of the deities that were being honored. And, though the resolution is a symbolic one, what it symbolizes is the essence of the yoga philosophy, the synthesis of culture and beliefs into acceptance and union.
The goal of Yoga, and the birthright of every individual, is to realize the spiritual unity behind all the diversity in the entire creation and to live harmoniously as members of one universal family. – Sri Swami Satchidananda