Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Festival of Lights

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog
Centre Daily Times, Nov 12, 2007

This past week, my husband, daughter and I celebrated Deepavali (also known as Diwali) – the Festival of Lights.

For most of the 900 million Hindus around the world, and for 2 million Hindu Americans, Deepavali is a major festival, spread out over five days, and celebrated with special prayers and rituals, lights, decorations, fireworks and of course food.

It is also a day of significance for around 4 million Jains the world over - as the day on which their founder, Mahavira, attained salvation. It is also a day of importance for around 23 million Sikhs the world over, as the day when one of their religious leaders, or Gurus, attained freedom from captivity.

Deepavali, which gets its name from the Sanskrit Deepa, meaning light, and Avali, meaning row, celebrates the victory of Good over Evil, which is symbolized by bringing light into darkness. The word is today also shortened to Diwali in many parts of India.

In Mumbai (Bombay) where I grew up, schools were closed for about 10–14 days. Adults got a day or two off work. Deepavali day at our house started with a ritual bath in the morning before sunrise, with special oil massages before the bath. This was followed by the bursting of fireworks, and a day of fun and festivity. Rows of clay lamps were lit on our window sills and doorways, and neighbors, friends, and family exchanged homemade sweets and snacks with each other.

In State College, we celebrated the holiday this year by lighting lamps at home, preparing special food on one day, bursting fireworks after dinner with friends on another day, and then celebrating on a third day, with an evening of performances and dinner, organized by the Hindu Students Council on Campus.

The celebrations put together by the Hindu Student Council, a Penn State Student group, were especially touching to the heart. The event provided a common space for those celebrating the festival, in the midst of a larger community, whose calendar and rhthyms of life, do not include Diwali.

The diverse performances - which included a skit, dances, chanting of prayers, and vocal and instrumental music - gave both the performers and the audience an opportunity to pause and create a special memory, while commemorating their own cultural and religious traditions.

And it also provided a wonderful opportunity to share these traditions with those who were of different ethnic or religious origins. And there are surely few ways better than sharing music, dance and food - as first steps for building bridges between people in an atmosphere of respect and celebration.

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