Diwali, the festival of lights, is the best known of Hindu festivals in the United States. The legends connected to the festival are different for different religions. According to Ramayana, one of the most important epics of the Hindu religion, Diwali commemorates the return of Lord Rama with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman, from his 14-year exile after killing the demon king Ravana. Thus, it symbolizes the victory of good over evil and is celebrated with great fervor by one and all. The celebration includes visiting temples, performing Lakshmi puja, exchanging greetings, sharing sweets with loved ones, attending cultural and talent shows, musical concerts and social parties, besides lighting candles, earthen lamps and firecrackers where permissible. The annual observance demonstrates the rich history and traditions of the Hindu faith and provides an occasion for the followers to remember their many blessings and celebrate their hope for a brighter future.
Sikhs celebrate Diwali as it marks the return of the sixth Guru, Hargobind Rai to Amritsar after he was freed from the fort of Gwalior by Emperor Jahangir in October, 1619, where he was imprisoned along with 52 Hindu Kings who were incarcerated as political prisoners. When the emperor decided to release the Guru, the latter managed to get all the Hindu kings freed at the same time. Guru Hargobind became known as the “Bandi Chhor” (Deliverer from prison) and the event is celebrated as the Bandi Chhor Divas. The Guru arrived at Amritsar on the Diwali day and the HarMandar (Golden Temple) was lit with hundreds of lamps to celebrate his return. Every year, the Golden Temple is illuminated in a spectacular display and fireworks are displayed to commemorate the memory of Guru’s return. Sikh temples across America hold religious gatherings to remember the legacy of their Guru who fought for social justice and got freedom for people who belonged to a different faith.
In cities with significant Indian American population, Diwali Melas have become very popular and attract large gatherings of young and old. The organizers arrange for many fun-filled activities such as magic and puppet shows, henna painting on palms, stalls of Indian sweets and other eatables, handicrafts and other trinkets besides showcasing the best of Indian culture. If legally allowed, the effigies of Ravna, etc. are burnt to give historical perspective to the event and customary fireworks are displayed to add splendor to the festivities and increase public participation.
New York chapter of Association of Indians in America (AIA) organizes probably the largest Diwali Mela outside India with an estimated attendance of over 100,000 people during the daylong event at the South Street Sea Port, Manhattan. The association also arranges extravagant display of live fireworks illuminating the east river and New York city skyline. Times Square, New York is a popular tourist destination. In 2013, Diwali was celebrated there for the first time. Indian Americans from the tri-state area flocked in thousands to see the day-long extravaganza, showcasing Indian culture, cuisine, music and fashion. Nita Bhasin, president of ASB Communications, who organized the event, arranged for Bollywood celebrity actor Ranbir Kapur and music director Shankar Mahadevan who sang for the audience. She also provided entertainment with live Indian dances and music throughout the afternoon. Dallas Indian Cultural Society, in 2007, organized Diwali Mela celebration of epic proportion at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Texas. The founder, Satish Gupta, prefers to call the celebration, “spirit of India” which attracts 40,000 to 50,000 people who get glimpses of the rich Indian culture at play, including the traditional staging of Ram Lila and burning of Ravana’s effigy. It was a mammoth event, unique with no parallel to it in the United States. The society has been organizing the Mela annually sometimes excelling their prior year performance by attracting more people and adding more attractions.
There are about 100,000 Indian students from India in various universities in America. A large number of Indian American students are also enrolled in American universities. Diwali celebration in Duke, Princeton, Howard, Rutgers and several other university campuses brings various Indian student groups together and helps them stay connected with their culture and tradition.
In 2003, the President of the United States agreed to the long-standing demand of the Indian community and celebrated Diwali at the White House in the presence of several invited Indian community leaders. Since then, Diwali festivities at the White House have become an annual tradition which also shows the growing clout of the Indian American community in the United States. The US Senate and the House of Representatives in October 2007 unanimously passed Resolutions 299 and 747 respectively, recognizing the “religious and historical significance of the festival of Diwali.” The passage of the resolutions may be symbolic, but it is a testament to the increased awareness of the Indian community in America. In 2009, Barack Obama became the first US president to light a “diya” oil lamp in a White House ceremony for the festival of lights. In communicating his warm greetings at the occasion, he remarked that Diwali marked the return of the Lord Ram from exile when small lamps lit his way home. In Jainism, the occasion celebrates the attainment of Nirvana by Lord Mahavir while in Sikhism, Diwali is a celebration of freedom for Guru Har Gobind, the religion’s sixth guru. In 2010, the Vice President led the commemoration. In 2011, President Obama again lit the White House Diya while a Hindu priest chanted Slokas, or prayers.
The U.S. Congress celebrated Diwali, for the first time, on October 29, 2013, amidst chanting of Vedic mantras by a Hindu priest. Over two dozen influential lawmakers along with eminent Indian-Americans gathered at the Capitol Hill to lit the traditional “diyas”. The event was organised by the two Co-Chairs of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, Congressmen Joe Crowley and Peter Roskam in recognition of increasing presence of the Indian-American community.
—Inder Singh is Chairman of GOPIO, Global Organization of People of Indian Origin. He was GOPIO President from 2004-09. He was NFIA president from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96. He was founding president of FIA, Southern California. Inder Singh can be contacted by telephone at 818-708-3885 or by email at
1 South Asian Times, Issue 24, October 3-9, 2009