10/26/2011 07:57 am ET Updated Dec 26, 2011

Diwali: Finding the Divine in Food, Friends and Family

The Diwali season is upon us -- five days of food, festivity, fireworks, friends, family and worship. For Hindus, Sikhs and Jains around the world these sacred days are not only a time of celebration and consumption (thanks to Diwali sales that make Black Friday look like window shopping), but one of reflection.

For the past eight years, my colleagues at the Hindu American Foundation and I have worked towards generating awareness of Diwali. From working on congressional resolutions recognizing the significance of Diwali, both in the House and Senate, to explaining Diwali in our FAQ; from promoting a National Teach Diwali in School Day to showcasing Diwali greetings from HAF's friends in interfaith, public policy and academia, we have sought to educate Americans at large about one of the Hindu community's significant holidays as well as raise the profile of the Hindu American community.

All of this has been fulfilling, yet I realized today, that while I know and understand why we celebrate, what I feel I've lost along the way is how to celebrate. As a child of immigrants raised in an extended family with parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles, often times under one roof, we celebrated Diwali as our family had for generations "back home" -- albeit with a few modifications to accommodate life in America. What never mattered, however, was what day of the week the holidays fell. Under my grandmother's watchful eye, the house was cleaned and decorated, friends and family visited and invited, alms given and each of the five days commemorated with a specific puja (ritual observance), special prayers and of course, festival foods -- everything on the appropriate day, even if it wasn't until after we returned from school and my parents from work.

But time, distance from family and the frenetic pace of modern life have taken their toll. In my home, my husband, two sons and I certainly celebrate Diwali, but at best, on the surface. We clean our home and perform a Lakshmi puja (ritual to the Goddess of Prosperity) on the first day, light up the house with diyas (clay lamps) on Diwali, and phone friends and family the day after Diwali to wish them a happy new year. But beyond that, this week will resemble most other weeks with a few special religious observances sandwiched between work, meetings, Tae Kwon Do and guitar lessons.

And then it dawned on me. Part of the reason my Diwali, or any other Hindu holiday for that matter, felt half-full is that while I've celebrated to some extent, a generic, ritual-focused Diwali, I've never noted or incorporated the specifics of my family's traditions. This a-ha moment resulted in a call to my father this morning and now he's busily preparing a list of a year's worth of holidays for me -- one that I am certain will be appreciated by my siblings, cousins and generations to come -- with details of what prayers my family recited, what foods they traditionally prepared and who they specially invited or remembered.

My father reminded me that my grandmother made it a point to donate a year's worth of pantry staples to families less fortunate than ours on the first day of Diwali; that on the second day we ate homemade rice pudding and pakoras with friends and family and remembered the selflessness of Lord Hanuman; and that year in and year out, we were invited by his sisters' families for dinner on the day after Diwali to kindle familial bonds. The conversation with my father reminded me that while the religious and spiritual aspects of Diwali are central to any observance, it is the connections made over food and face-time that make tangible God's greatest gifts -- that is the capacity to love and serve others and to recognize the Divine in us and all that surrounds us.

In honor of Diwali, here's a whimsical poem I wrote a few years ago on one of the origin stories of Diwali. Happy Diwali!

A time long ago, in a land far away
There lived a King Dasharatha who hunted night and day
Near a river in the forest, a doe did he hear?
But a fatal shot would cost one day his most near and dear

The king's arrow brought the end to a faithful son
Two blind parents cursed the king for what he had done
"So too shall you lose the one you love the most"
The king turned back home, prepared for this bitter dose

Many years later, the kind ruled fair and just
Three queens at his side, now heirs were a must
Special prayers brought the king four royal sons
All very good, but extra special was just one
Rama, the king's eldest, held promise to be the best
Favored he was, just a little above the rest

Noble and strong, all four sons grew
But then a seed of doubt was planted by a shrew
Poisoning a queen, she said,

"Your son should get the throne
Tell the King, not Rama, but Bharat must rise alone
Oh Queen, you saved his life once, the King granted you a boon
Tell the King to banish Rama and not a minute too soon
14 years Rama must go and Bharat should rule the land
And with Rama out of the way, the power will be in our hands"

To the queen's quarters, the King was called
And by what she demanded, he indeed was appalled
But a promise is a promise, a curse a curse
His dearest Rama to be banished? This shortly brought his hearse

"We too shall join," said Rama's bride and his brother
Shedding their silks and gold, they left with nothing but one another
For the next 13 years, these three nobles lived like sages
Until one day a demon came and changed were history's pages

Ravana had heard Rama's wife Sita was beautiful and fair
He decided he must have her to live in his lair
Sita, pure and loyal, her husband she'd never betray
So Ravana conned her to leave in the most devious way
Sita kicked and screamed as Ravana dragged her to his kingdom
Stashed away in a garden, demonesses blocking her every freedom

Meanwhile Rama and Lakshman searched high and low,
Asking every man and beast, growing worried with every "no"
Then along came a friend, strong and devoted
"My name is Hanuman. Your divinity is duly noted"

So many months passed; several schemes were hatched
Then a bridge of floating rocks and a monkey army dispatched
A heavy battle ensued, many lives were sadly lost
Good slaying evil, though high was the final cost
Rama soon slayed Ravana and rescued his beloved wife
Onward to Ayodhya, to restart their royal life

The residents rejoiced and lined up all the streets
With rows of earthen lamps, distributing snacks and sweets
Rama, Sita and Lakshman, their return was a time of elation
And so started Diwali, through the ages a celebration