With the Upcoming Christmas, Does Diwali Hold the Same Significance for Indian Americans?

Diwali in America

The Indian diaspora has firmly cemented a place for itself in the West. Not only are they heading small businesses and companies, but are headlining movies and have entire streets and neighborhoods dedicated to them. Over the years, they have left an indelible mark in US society and culture. Thus, it is not surprising that the US has one of the biggest Diwali celebrations outside of India.

Diwali, the festival of lights and one of the major festivals celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and some Buddhists, is observed all across India and other parts of the world. Over the years, it has become a major festival in the US as well, with the White House celebrating it. 

Diwali symbolizes the spiritual “victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. It is widely associated with Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, with many other regional traditions connecting the holiday to Sita and Rama.

For the unversed, back in India, in the north, a common tale associated with Diwali is about King Rama, one of the incarnations of the god Vishnu. According to folklore, Diwali marks the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya along with his consort Goddess Sita after defeating the mighty demon king Ravana. In the south, Diwali is popularly linked to a story about the Hindu god Krishna, a different incarnation of Vishnu, in which he frees some 16,000 women from another evil king.

Representative Pramila Jayapal at the Indiaspora Diwali event.

Days ahead of the festival, several US officials at the White House and well as lawmakers celebrated Diwali with Indian ex-pats. This year, the annual reception, hosted by the Indian diaspora, also honored some of the top Indian Americans in the Biden administration, including Vice Admiral Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Neera Tanden, Senior Advisor and Staff Secretary to President Joe Biden.

Over the years, a growing Indian immigrant population has been celebrating Diwali, going all out to replicate the massive festivities from their motherland. The scale of celebrations has gotten so big that popular US tourist spots like Disneyland and Times Square get painted in vibrant Indian colors. 

However, even as the Indian diaspora celebrates the Festival of Lights in the West, are the second and third-generation youngsters living there interested in Diwali? Or are they more tuned to US holidays like Halloween and Christmas?

Colleen Taylor Sen, in her book Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food In India has written that massive emigration from the subcontinent to the US, began only in the 1830s with the introduction of indentured labor. This means that a festival like Diwali is being celebrated in the US for close to two hundred years. And while the initial settlers wanted to stay strong to their roots through music, art, and culture, the years have seen a trickling down of that zeal, with youngsters nowadays identifying more with the west than the country from where their forefathers came.

Professor Rimjhim Banerjee, a resident of Gainesville, Florida, and a teacher of Business Administration at Santa Fe College says that Diwali is celebrated in different ways in Gainesville.“I am sure people do personal celebrations”, she says adding that in a broader sense the Indian Student Association at three universities have a Diwali cultural show while the Indian Cultural and Education Center has a Celebration of Festival event sometime in November-December where they celebrate different festivals during this period- Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Eid, Kwanzaa. 

However, when it comes to the second and third-generation Indians in the US, Professor Banerjee feels that they are perhaps a bit removed from the festival that is so widely celebrated in the land of their ancestors. “They are interested when there are fireworks involved,” she reveals. The professor firmly believes that youngsters are more interested in Halloween and Christmas as it resonates more with their sensibilities and social setting.

Sohinee Dey, who lives in New York too opines the same. “I came to the US with my husband when my daughter was a baby. For her, she has never experienced the cultural ethos of Kolkata, or North India, where Diwali is a huge deal.”

According to Dey, the formative years for her daughter have been spent with children in the US, who have a different cultural ethos. “As such, while she is curious about Diwali, she is more interested in the treats she gets during Halloween, or the prospect of getting a gift from Santa Claus.”

According to research, minorities like Indian-Americans and South Asians have striven for decades to be part of the melting pot that is America. With each passing generation, youngsters get more anglicized with a regular influx of western culture and sensibilities, in turn getting further removed from their own cultural ethos. 

A Pew Research study based on the 2010 US Census, 18 percent of Indian-Americans identified themselves as Christians, 51 percent as Hindus, 10 percent as Muslim, and 1 percent identified as Sikh. And while the majority still identify as Hindu, most of the Indian-Americans, according to the study, whether religious or secular, are keen on celebrating the joyfulness and the “spirit” of giving, during Christmas.

Despite that, interestingly, Diwali at Times Square in New York City still remains the world’s largest such celebration outside of India. And even though the younger generation may be a bit removed from the social and cultural significance of the Indian festivities, both Rimjhim and Sohinee agree that the Indian diaspora does everything that can be done to keep the significance of Diwali etched in the collective consciousness of future generations.


Umang Sharma is a media professional, avid reader, and film buff. His interests lie in making the world a better place through the power of the written word.


 

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