10/25/2013 11:52 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Diwali: Garlanding the Light of Diversity


When my parents first came to the United States in 1968, the population of immigrant Indians was very small indeed. In my father's recollection, there were only three Indian immigrant families at the NIH and each came from different states in India and spoke very different languages. Despite these differences, which in India would have meant that they would not have likely befriended one another, the families bonded. Given the microscopic size of the fledgling community, geographical and linguistic differences were largely ignored. Instead a pan-Indian, and sometimes pan-Hindu, sensibility was welcomed with open arms. Members of this modest and budding community, and in other centers where Indians congregated or were employed, saw beyond their internal geographic, linguistic, and religious differences to embrace a pan-Indian identity.

There were no grand Diwali celebrations at that time, no community events, no trans-national celebrations. Families celebrated in the privacy of their own homes with sweets, good food, and the like. These semi-private gatherings, of course, were the forerunners, the seeds, of the enormous Diwali events publicly celebrated today.

But first, what is Diwali?

Diwali in India

Diwali, also known as Dipawali, is perhaps the most important and most widely celebrated festival in India and in the Indian diaspora. Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and even some Buddhists celebrate Diwali in India and in the diaspora. In fact, it has become such a pan-Indian celebration among Diaspora Indians that some Indian Christians in the diaspora have used it as a framework within which to initiate a Christian festival.

What, you may wonder, is Diwali? And how are so many able to celebrate it?

"Diwali" means "Garland of Lights." Garlanding is an act of reverence in India. It is a way of welcoming and honoring someone publicly -- it is part of a reception ritual deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. There are as many narratives about the meaning and significance of Diwali as there are Indians. In some sense, it is a framework for celebration. Different religious traditions in India each fit their religious themes and narratives into Diwali. Some Hindus, for example, believe Diwali to be the return of Lord Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, from 14 years of exile. His exile is believed to be an essential component in a grander narrative concerning the victory of dharma (variously understood as virtue, righteousness, duty) over adharma. Other Hindus believe it to be the celebration of the killing of the asura (demon) Narakasura by Lord Krishna, another avatar of Vishnu. Still other Hindus envision Diwali as an opportunity to celebrate and worship Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. And these retellings do not account for those Hindus who think of things more abstractly -- that Diwali is the victory of knowledge over ignorance.

In many ways the multiplicity and variation of Diwali resembles the Vedas, the body of orally revealed texts around which all Hindus orient themselves. While the texts are static, their interpretations are wide-ranging, prima facie contradictory, and accepted nonetheless. (In fact, the dialogue between Hindus about the diverse meanings and implications of these texts is itself unifying...)

But the interpretations and significance of Diwali is not limited to Hindus and Hinduism. I once received an unexpected call from my wife's relatives on Diwali. When I answered the phone I was greeted with a celebratory "Happy New Year!" After thinking about it for a minute I realized that it was, in fact, New Year's Day for Jains who celebrate the attainment of nirvana by Mahavira Jina, one of the most important figures in Jainism!

Sikhs also celebrate Diwali at the same time as they celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas, "The Day of Liberation," to commemorate the release from prison of the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind Ji in 1619 CE.

Now these are just a few of the many Diwalis and they do not include the regional retellings and narratives that offer variants on these various variegated frameworks. Diwali has been an opportunity in India to celebrate pluralism, to celebrate plurality, to celebrate diversity, to celebrate unity, and, simply, to celebrate.

Diwali in the Diaspora -- and especially in America

While the Diwali celebrations are grand and are acknowledged at the national level in India and these days at the trans-national level, they were very small affairs indeed. In fact, even after my parents left the NIH in 1971 for the State University of New York at Stony Brook in Long Island, a critical mass of Indians and Hindus had not yet been reached. There were still no sizable celebrations. The population of Indians and Hindus in Long Island continued to grow and, in a decade, doubled in size from four or five families to about 10. Still, there were not enough Indians to have pan-Indian celebrations. Rather, the families in the area still invited one another for small house parties. My father has a brief entry in a November 1972 diary entry that they were invited to an intimate Diwali gathering along with four other families. But even then, it is noteworthy that the parties and informal gatherings transcended linguistic, geographical, caste, and even religious boundaries. What brought these people together was a sense of pan-Indian first generation immigrant identity. Many even used the pluralism as an opportunity to teach and share their regional customs, religious practices, and cuisines. These were the seeds for the pan-Indian gatherings that we see and enjoy today.

As the size of the individual communities grew, so did the size of their celebrations. By 1978 the population of Indians in the United States had reached sufficiently high numbers that these once small events became large, publicized, celebrations of Indian religions and ethnicity.

These events are especially important in the University settings, where second-generation Indians and Hindus converge and coalesce. Many, for the first time, come across the diversity of Indians and its critical mass. The celebration is this both a way to unify the Indian community and to showcase ethnic, racial, and religious pride. Students, often with the help of local Indian communities, offer a festival of lights, music and unity -- not unlike the ones that will be celebrated across America in colleges and universities in the next few weeks.

Diwali, Diversity, and Diffraction

These are some of the ways that the diverse Indian community in the Diaspora has sought and embraced unity and a unified identity and simultaneously celebrated diversity.

Diwali is now a tradition that is celebrated by most Indians in the diaspora, regardless of religious, ethnic regional, and other contextual differences. It is easily acculturated and re-contextualized because so many Indian religious traditions share it, yet differ on the narratives associated with it. The variation in its significance and origins makes it an ideal candidate for unifying Indians, for creating a new and more ecumenical narrative among Indians, and for framing an acceptable Indian nationalism.

While the other festivals have been celebrated throughout the Hindu diaspora, the malleability of the Diwali narrative and its pan-Indian nature has made it syncretistic. Diwali is thus especially useful as a means for Diaspora Hindus to invent and institute an imagined community, and to reimagine themselves in the Diaspora.

Hinduism is like a rainbow in a sun shower: It is sunlight that is refracted and reflected into a continuous spectrum of colors that suddenly becomes visible, and that is wonderful to see. From one perspective it seems unified yet from another it seems infinitely diverse. Diwali, as it has developed in the Hindu Diaspora, is a dispersive prism that permits one to observe the unity in the diversity and the diversity in the unity.