Indian Student Alliance to host Diwali


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The festival is as epic as the stories and events that preceded it centuries ago.

According to the Hindu fable Ramayana, Diwali — the festival of lights — commemorates the return of Lord Raama, his wife the Goddess Sita, and his brother Lakshama to the kingdom of Ayodhya after 14 years of exile in the forest by the demon king Ravana.

To others, it is the celebration of the slaying of the demon king Narakasura by Lord Krishna.

Whatever the interpretation or celebration, the five-day festival is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains around the world to commemorate the victory of good over evil from either mythology or history.

For logistical and timing reasons, the celebrations in the United States are not as glamorous and prolonged compared with those in India. Diwali was officially on Oct. 17, but the UI Indian Student Alliance will celebrate on Saturday.

A catered dinner will begin at 5 p.m., and performances — showcasing everything from Bollywood dancing to a playful skit describing the origins of Diwali — will start at 7 p.m.

Last year, the event hosted more than 750 people. Sponsored by numerous UI organizations, Diwali has been one of the university’s largest diversity events for more than a decade.

Unlike traditional practices in India, however, the event will not conduct any prayers associated with any religious affiliation. Indian Student Alliance Vice President Kavin Sundurum said his organization aims to enlighten the international community on Diwali’s significance.

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“People tend to focus on the spirit of the event rather than the religious aspects,” the UI sophomore said. “[Diwali] gives you a type of cultural resiliency. You can be in any situation and still celebrate Diwali.”

However, given India’s immense size, it might be hard for an outsider to identify the significance or recognize the origins of the event.

“[India is] diverse in a way that it’s hard for most Americans to imagine,” UI anthropology Assistant Professor Meena Khandelwal said, describing the country’s vast linguistic and cultural diversity and variety of customs. Diwali also marks the beginning of the financial new year, Khandelwal said.

Diwali celebrations in India are generally extravagant. From small villages to big cities, the nonstop bang of fireworks are heard everywhere. The massive consumption of sweets such as Gulab-Jamun and Ladoo evokes the goodness of the fest. The offerings of pujas — prayers and gifts to the gods Ganesh and Lakshmi — and the lighting of diys, clay pots lit by a white cloth in oil to mark the return of Raama, are among traditional practices.

“It is all magnanimous,” UI chemistry graduate student Ashish Datt said. “It’s so intense that everyone cherishes it no matter their religion. It’s an expression of wow, a festive fever.”

Datt, a native of New Delhi, India, said Diwali is also important because it is India’s only holiday not celebrated under a full moon.

For others, such as UI sophomore Roma Kaleka, the festivities have a more somber meaning.

“It’s basically our independence day,” said Kaleka, a double major in business and biology.

As Sikhs, a religious minority in India, her family celebrates Diwali as the release of the sixth Guru Hargobind Singh Ji and 52 other Sikh prisoners from the oppressive Muslim Mogul Emperor Jahangir in 1619. For Sikhs, it is a story of the struggle for freedom in the modern era.

Even as her family celebrates in the same manner as do Hindus and Jains, for Kaleka, Diwali has a different meaning.

“It’s a different purpose of why we do it,” she said. “It’s something to celebrate but not go crazy.”

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