White House Aglow as President Obama Celebrates Diwali

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President Obama receives a red shawl from Sri Narayanachar Digalakote, a Hindu priest from the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Maryland, at the Diwali celebration in the White House. Photo credit: Pete Souza

For the first time, a US President Participates in the Festival of Lights

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC, October 14, 2009 – In a one-of-a-kind gesture, sure to endear himself to all Indians, President Obama celebrated `Diwali’, the festival of lights, in the ceremonial East Room of the White House. It was a heartwarming sight: the leader of the free world lighting the traditional Indian lamp in the presence of a Hindu priest.

Obama noted how “Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, here in America and around the world, will celebrate this holiday by lighting ‘diyas’, or lamps, which symbolize the victory of light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance. And while this is a time of rejoicing, it’s also a time for reflection, when we remember those who are less fortunate and renew our commitment to reach out to those in need”, he told an eminent gathering.

It was actually Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush who began the tradition of celebrating Diwali at the White House, in 2003, but he never personally participated in the proceedings. Rather, the function was graced by members of his administration and held in a building adjacent to the White House.

This year was different. The ceremony in the historic East Room was one-of-a-kind with the presence of the president enhancing the significance of the event. Obama was his usual intelligent, articulate and confident self.

He seemed to relish the ceremony which began with a multilingual performance by the University of Pennsylvania a-capella group Penn Masala and concluded with an invocation by Pandit Narayanachar Digalakote from the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple, in Lanham, Maryland. The president greeted the priest with a traditional “Namaste” and listened intently when he chanted a Vedic mantra for world peace and prosperity.

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President Obama listens intently as Pandit Narayanachar Digalakote of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple, in Maryland, chants a Vedic mantra for world peace and prosperity at the Diwali celebration in the ornate East Room of the White House

And how can a Diwali celebration be complete without `mithai’ (sweets)? So beautiful red and gold boxes filled with sweets were placed on all the chairs in the East Room, kind courtesy of Mr. Shekar Narasimhan and the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple.

The president remarked that “while the significance of the holiday for each faith varies, all of them mark it by gathering with family members to pray and decorate the house and enjoy delicious food and sweet treats. And in that spirit of celebration and contemplation, I am happy to light the White House Diya and wish you all a Happy Diwali and a Saal Mubarak”, he said, to much applause.

The ceremony was attended by Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar and visiting Commerce Minister Anand Sharma. Among the Indian-Americans present on the occasion were Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, Dr. Rajwant Singh, Mr. Shekar Narasimhan, Dr. Sushil Jain, Dr. Kamala Edwards and Deepa Iyer.

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President Obama is flanked by members of his administration as he signs an executive order to restore the President’s Advisory Commission and White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders

The purpose of the event at the White House was two-fold: Obama celebrated the auspicious occasion of Diwali and signed an executive order to restore the President’s Advisory Commission and White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) which was created by President Bill Clinton some 10 years ago. The mission of the Initiative and Commission is to work with federal agencies and departments to improve the health, education and economic status of the AAPI population. Obama dwelt in some length on the Initiative underscoring its importance to the some 150 members of the Indian-American, Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities who had gathered at the White House.

He said, “It’s tempting, given the strengths of the AAPI communities, for us to buy into the myth of the `model minority’ and to overlook the very real challenges that certain AAPI communities are facing”. Among these he listed: health disparities like higher rates of diabetes and Hepatitis B; educational disparities like high dropout rates, low college enrollment rates; economic disparities like higher rates of poverty in some communities and barriers to employment and workplace advancement in others.

He mentioned how some AAPIs “have been victims of unthinkable hate crimes, particularly in the months after September 11 – crimes driven by ignorance and prejudice that are an affront to everything that this nation stands for”.

Obama lamented the fact that too often, AAPIs are lumped into a single category, so there are no accurate numbers reflecting the challenges of each individual community. He noted how “smaller communities in particular can get lost, their needs and concerns buried in a spreadsheet”. The White House Initiative would rectify this problem, enabling evidence-based research and data collection and analysis on AAPI communities so no one is invisible to the government.

The Advisory Commission and Initiative will be housed in the Department of Education and co-chaired by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke.

Before proceeding to sign the executive order, Obama remarked “it’s fitting that we begin this work in the week leading up to the holiday of Diwali – the festival of lights – when members of some of the world’s greatest faiths celebrate the triumph of good over evil”.

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