Then and Now: Diwali in America

Anju Bhargava, an ordained priest, doing a prayer at home on Diwali as her grandson looks on. PHOTO: Courtesy Anju Bhargava

Diwali indeed is a joyous festival of lights, celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists (Dharmic traditions) and the festive spirit expressed by those of “any, all and no faith.” Though celebrated for different reasons, it has evolved from a pan-Indian festivity uniting multicultural diversity with worldwide cultures.  Today we see that festivity in every state across America.

What a difference there is in the way Diwali is celebrated in USA, in just two generations!  It was only after the Civil Rights movement in 1965 that Indians started trickling in, usually students, and here we are today, over 4 million strong.   By the mid-late seventies, the Indian new comers had begun to settle and start their families in the suburbs. We even had two Hindu temples built in the late 1970s – Queens and Pittsburgh.  By the 1980s, in the major metropolitan areas, today’s major Indian organizations had formed to bring the “desi” voice to the forefront.

In the early days, since the community was small, Diwali celebrations were just at home with family or a few friends who often would travel long distance.  Slowly the celebrations became community oriented.  Today not only do we celebrate in a grand style with thousands coming for the large celeboratory fairs, we have our own Diwali stamp, and many schools across the country are closed on Diwali day to commemorate the event.

Community celebrations for me started small, in Livingston New Jersey where we had moved.  I wanted my toddler daughter to grow up knowing the culture. So, in the early/mid eighties, a few us went through the Livingston NJ directory to identify Indian sounding names.  Turned out there were nearly 150 of us. Some of us met in the community center, to have our first celebration – Diwali.  It was a time of innocence, of our first ventures in developing our Indian American identities.  For our first Diwali in 1983, we developed a full program with dance, music, a Ramayana skit and a delicious potluck dinner contributed by each family.  Vasanti and Malini Parekh sang the appropriate bhajans to bring out the Ramayana story for the skit which I wrote and my daughter played the role of Sita.  Alka Sama taught joyful Garbha dance to the children. (She left us last year and we still miss her).

Our nascent Diwali organization effort led to the creation of Asian Indians in Livingston which worked to explain who we were to the mainstream community and to integrate us through activities such as marching for the first time in the Memorial Day Parade, participating in the Fourth of July celebration, becoming part of Livingston’s Interfaith Clergy Association, presenting our culture and festivals at the schools etal. Today the vibrant Indian community is well integrated in Livingston with many residents in leadership roles.

Our home-grown community Diwali made me understand that the very foundation of Indian civilization is based on the pluralistic acceptance embodied in the ancient Vedic scriptures; the oft used perennial Vedic saying: “Ekam Sat Vipra, Bahudha Vadanti,” meaning, “The Truth is One. The Realized Ones describe the One Truth in several ways.” Acceptance of this edict gives citizens space to express their differences while finding a common ground.

The strength of the Dharmic culture is the multitude of ways in which the Puranic (ancient traditional) stories and epics are brought to life through colorful festivals and selfless service (seva). These stories and epics bring to surface the deep philosophical truths of the ancient Hindu scriptures, known as the Vedas. The festivals often express the common Vedic tenets of Hinduism, and of other Dharmic cultures, making them accessible to people from all walks of life.

Diwali shares a special connection with American values as it exemplifies the ideals of “E Pluribus Unum,” or, “out of many, one.”  Today we see the manifestation of that connection nationally in our celebrations. For example, the South Street Seaport celebrations draw large crowds and are magnificent.

A 23-minute fireworks display took place at the end of the AIA-NY’s 35th Deepavali festival at South Street Seaport, Oct. 2, 2022, in NYC. Photo: courtesy AIA-NY

I remember distinctly when The South Street Seaport celebration was just an idea being explored.  Smiti Khanna called me one summer day in 1987 to explore an idea with her .   My office at 175 Water Street was very close to the South Street Seaport.  I immediately agreed to the invitation and we walked over to the space.  We both agreed it would be a great space and imagined where the stage and booths would be set up.  It is to AIA’s credit that succeeding leadership has not only continued with the celebration but taken it to such great heights

Festivals form a lifeline that binds the Hindu and Dharmic cultures to family, the community and to the country where they reside. Festivals connect and bring people together in camaraderie and service. Hindu festivals also reflect and sustain the underlying pluralistic values for diverse people to co-exist harmoniously.

Hinduism is the contemporary word used for the monotheistic “Sanatana Dharma” or Eternal Order. The joy and peace in human life is based on observance of this eternal order. In the Hindu approach, an integration of spirit, mind and body is emphasized for pursuit of happiness (ananda). Festivals play a very important role in Hinduism as they manifest this integration.

A festival is a joyful synthesis and expression of spirituality, religion, philosophy, culture, service and social values. The spiritual aspect is founded on the human instincts of joy and happiness. The philosophical aspect is grounded in the struggle between the forces of good and evil with the ultimate triumph of the former. This struggle and ensuing victory of good is to be celebrated and used as a reminder to us, and future generations, that selfless service, then and now, are an interwoven part of the traditions.

In bringing together people of all Indic traditions — Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and others — the celebrations of the different aspect of Diwali create an interlocked mosaic. Diwali unifies every religion, every home and every heart, and India transcends into a land of myriad lamps. Here in America, we are continuing this celebration marking it as a unifying pluralistic festival advancing our common values.  Our nascent Diwali celebration have come a long way to with multiple generations celebrating it together.

May the spirit of Diwali bring joy, health, wealth, prosperity, peace and spiritual enlightenment!




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