Diwali marks most important Hindu celebration of the year

Thursday, November 8, 2007 | 5:24 p.m. CST; updated 12:59 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

COLUMBIA — It’s Anoop Jain’s first Diwali celebration so far away from home.

Though it’s his second semester at MU, Friday marks the first time he’ll celebrate the family-oriented “Festival of Lights” more than 8,000 miles away from his family.

Diwali events in Columbia

Diwali ceremony

WHEN: 6:30-8 p.m. Friday WHERE: Shanthi Mandir, 2006 Holly Ave.

Diwali dinner and dance

WHEN: 6-11 p.m. Saturday; dinner starts at 7 p.m. WHERE: Brady Commons, MU

“At Diwali, it’s expected that all family members are there, or that they come home,” said Jain, a computer engineering master’s student. “If I were in India now, I would be with my mother and sister, helping them in the market.”

The Hindu festival of Diwali, also spelled Deepawali, is as important to Hinduism as Christmas is to Christianity, said Hema Srinivasan, a mathematics professor at MU and event coordinator at Shanthi Mandir, Columbia’s Hindu temple. Almost everyone in India, regardless of religion, celebrates some form of Diwali, though the stories and rituals vary depending on the region.

“If you had to pick one holiday that is celebrated in all of India, this would be it,” Srinivasan said.

Traditionally, Diwali is a five-day-long celebration chiefly praising Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth, and rejoicing in the triumph of light over dark and the emergence of wisdom. The main celebration day, Diwali, is the festival’s third day.

And though not all of the rituals are possible in the U.S., many Hindus still follow their traditions as best as they can.

Families come together to eat, shop, pray, exchange sweets and practice puja, the Sanskrit word for worship. Diwali is also an opportune time to buy new clothes and household items.

“It is traditional that you get new clothes,” Srinivasan said, making a comparison to Christmas. “We should wear something new on Diwali. I try to do it for my kids too. I usually have something new that I keep to wear for Diwali.”

But the trademark of the festival of lights is the light itself.

“We put candles all over our homes,” Jain said. “To try to light up every part.”

Families traditionally light hundreds of diyas, or shallow earthen lamps filled with oil, to illuminate their homes on Diwali, an effect similar to Christmas lights, said Bandhana Katoch, president of MU’s Cultural Association of India. They conduct ceremonies and shoot off fireworks in the evening.

Katoch only uses one or two candles — her family in India would use 200 or 300 diyas.

Her first year at MU, Katoch’s roommate bought about 50 candles, spread them around the house and lit them at about 6 p.m. But Katoch’s friend didn’t count on how long lasting U.S. candles are, and Hindus believe you can only blow out a candle when you’re in mourning.

“At about 12, 12:30, we were all getting sleepy, but we knew someone had to stay up to watch the candles,” Katoch said. “It was 4:30 before the last candle finally went out.”

Hindus also believe their Gods and ancestors come to their houses during Diwali. They conduct ceremonies to their ancestors, inviting them home and offering them food, then asking them to return peacefully to the afterlife.

For the Gods, worshipers mark a path of symbols representing footprints, made from colored rice powder, from the door of the house to the shrine, showing the Gods the way to their offering. Katoch draws the symbols on paper instead of using colored rice powder so she doesn’t ruin the carpet.

The U.S. also can’t duplicate India’s festive atmosphere.

“If you went in any Indian market, you would know the difference,” Jain said. “Everything is lit up and everyone does puja in the shops. All parts of life are touched by this celebration.”

And as Columbia’s Indian population has increased, so have the opportunities to celebrate Diwali as a community. This year, Hindus can attend a worship ceremony and celebration at the two-year-old Shanthi Mandir. Everyone in the community is invited.

“Compared to the way things are done in the temples in India, this involves everybody a lot more,” Srinivasan said. “Everybody can participate, everyone can read the chants and handouts.”

The Cultural Association of India is also co-sponsoring a Diwali celebration. The event includes a dinner, performances and a dance.

“We try to imitate (Diwali in India) as much as we can,” Katoch said. “We can’t really light candles or fireworks because it’s a fire hazard. But we try to do pretty much everything else.”

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