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Om Sweet Om

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How’s this for an early Diwali gift for Hindu-Americans (and, perhaps, Hindus around the world): President Barack Obama lit a ceremonial diya (traditional candle) and delivered a characteristically smooth speech in which he declared that he was happy to join “some of the world’s greatest faiths” in celebrating a holiday that heralds “the triumph of good over evil.”

The ceremony – held Wednesday, October 14 in the White House’s stately (and aptly named) East Room – wasn’t the first time the White House held an official diya-lighting to honor Diwali, but it was the first one graced with the personal presence of the Commander-in-Chief himself.

And that, it seems, makes all the difference in the world.

To be fair, former president George W. Bush was the one who inaugurated the practice of a White House Diwali in the first place. But, fair or not, few remember or care about this bit of trivia; it was his conspicuous absence from the gathering year after year that many Hindus seemed to notice most. When they coupled Dubya’s failure to show up to the party with his uber-Christian leanings, some Hindus wondered whether the whole affair was a shallow overture, more of a diss than a distinction.

Two years ago, I attended the celebration myself. I have to admit, I was pretty stoked to find myself on the guest list. And standing in the stately (and ironically named) Indian Treaty Room wearing a dhoti (loose-fitting robes, often worn by Hindu priests), and anointed with bright Vaishnava tilak on my forehead, felt both exhilarating and disconcerting.

Here’s a nice group picture I found from that event:

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From left to right: Rukmini Walker (Krishna devotee and interfaith activist), Ishani Chowdhury (Policy Director, Hindu American Foundation), Vineet Chander (me), Anuttama Dasa (International Director of Communications for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). Personally, I think we were the sharpest dressed attendees.

Although a few of the women attending wore elegant saris, most of the other guests looked decidedly Washington DC – slightly wrinkled power-suit, loosened tie, the tell-tale harried-yet-sociable look of a lobbyist. As we sipped soft drinks and munched on catered vegetarian snacks, almost every conversation seemed to lead back to how disappointing it was that the President couldn’t be bothered to attend. My excitement began to wane. Soon enough, the president’s deputed aide arrived, and after a rather lackluster candle-lighting, delivered a speech that invoked Diwali but quickly launched into a gushing tribute to the US-India Nuclear Deal. My waning excitement just about sputtered out entirely, as I came face-to-face with my own naïveté: I had been expecting a spiritual celebration and a public acknowledgment of my faith; instead I got a front-row seat to an exercise in Indo-US realpolitik.

As exciting as the prospects of attending a White House Diwali had seemed, the reality didn’t quite deliver.

With this year’s celebration (which sadly I was not able to attend personally), things might be changing. Sure, on the one hand, the cynical side of me wonders how much the Diwali celebration was just window dressing for Obama’s decision to sign an order re-establishing the Asian-American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) advisory commission.

On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t won over by the president’s enthusiastic hands-on participation, flanked by traditional priest Pandit Narayanacharya Digalakote (sporting a huge tilak identifying him as a member of the Sri Vaishnava lineage, one of Hinduism’s most orthodox denominations) chanting Vedic mantras.

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President Obama lights the diya, flanked by Pandit Narayanacharya Digalakote, who chanted the prayer “asato ma sad gamaya…” from the Bá¹›hadāraṇyaka Upaniá¹£ad

For many of us, this wasn’t just some watered-down secular Diwali gesture; this wasObama making good on those words he spoke on a chilly January morningless than a year ago:

“We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.Weare a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, andnonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn fromevery end of this Earth.”

Ofcourse, we shouldn’t kid ourselves either. The Diwali ritual was a modestbullet-point on a very long list of very important things thatPresident Obama had to tend to on October 14. It was a nice gesture,but a gesture nonetheless. And in the final equation, Diwali is stillDiwali, and Washington DC is still Washington DC — White House diya-lighting or not.

Butfor Americans who are Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs — people whose sacreddays usually go ignored outside of our communities — havingPresident Obama wish us a “Saal Mubarak”, in person, was about the best gift wecould have asked for.   

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Weren’t at the White House on Wednesday? Here’s a video of the diya-lighting, including the killer performance by Penn Masala and President Obama’s AAPI speech that came before it. The Diwali-specific part is at 12:42.


Video courtesy of WhiteHouse.gov and YouTube. After the video playsthere may be several links presented to other videos. Om Sweet Om has no control over the selections presented and is notresponsible for their contents.

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