WASHINGTON, DC, November 28, 2013 (Hindu Students Association, report by Ramya Ravi, co-founder and the National President for the Hindu Students Association):
Since its inception, the Hindu Students Association has strived to have an active voice on the national platform on behalf of first and second generation Hindu young adults. This year, we were committed to take that voice to our nation's capital. And so, on the morning of November 5th, I found myself on the way to Washington D.C. with Varun Mehta, HSA co-founder and director, to celebrate Diwali at the White House with the First Lady, Michelle Obama.
As my cab driver weaved through traffic, I found myself reminiscing over the many milestones HSA has achieved over just a few years. To date, HSA has opened over ten branches, met Hindu dignitaries like Swami Satguru Bodhinatha and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and successfully produced content in various mediums explaining Hinduism for the general public. HSA's achievement of its goals in education, awareness, and networking were made possible by the vigilance and commitment to our mission displayed by HSA members across the county.
A slew of questions rushed to my head as my cab came to a halt. Who will be present? What ceremonies will occur? Will we get to meet the President? How has the first family celebrated Diwali through the years? What are other initiatives that they support to benefit the Hindu community? I felt nervousness and excitement at the same time. It was one of those inspiring, yet humbling moments where I saw my identities as a Hindu and an American coming together.
After many levels of security screenings, Varun and I arrived at the doorsteps of the White House where we were welcomed by the Army Guards and the White House staff. Entering into the front hallway, I was moved by pictures of the First family and national treasures. I found myself in the presence of over 80 national Hindu leaders meeting one another and wishing each other a Happy Diwali; it was simple yet heartwarming. Those present included members from the Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities who had excelling in their respective fields including Judge Ravi, Kiran Ahuja, and Lieutenant Col. Chaudhary.
Once we were seated, the First Lady addressed the audience directly on the reason for the Diwali celebration. She spoke of her vision of a White House that could be seen as welcoming to Americans from all paths and walks of life. "Diwali," she reminded us, "is a time for contemplation and reflection. And as we light the diya -- the lamp -- we recommit ourselves to the triumph of light over darkness, of good over evil." In her heartfelt speech, she turned to pay respects to the lives that were tragically lost in the Oak Creek Wisconsin Gurudwara shooting and the importance of preventing future tragedies through a sense of community and togetherness. Ms. Kiran Ahuja, the director of Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative, gave a few remarks following the First Lady about the event and the AAPI initiative that has been put in place by President Obama to bring in South Asian perspectives into the White House.
Finally the time came for the First Lady to light the White House diya. As priests from the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple recited mantras, Varun and I bowed our heads in reverence for God. While repeating the mantras, I reflected on how I had celebrated Diwali this year. Only a few days before, I had celebrated with my family at our temple with offerings of food prepared by my mother. Later, I had celebrated with the local community with a havan at University of Texas at Austin, followed by fireworks provided by the local HSA branch. Finally, I was here sharing a palatable sense of spirituality with prominent members of the Hindu, Sikh and Jain community, and with the national community as a whole. It was a personal blessing and a humbling experience to be able to celebrate Diwali not once but thrice this year with my loved ones, my community, and now even with members of various other religious traditions.
Finally, the program concluded with a few short songs from the band Gold Spot. One of their pieces titled "Diwali" filled the room with merriment as the audience broke for dinner to mingle with the speakers/officiators and other attendees. My final thoughts were how comfortable I was in this moment as my two worlds of being an American and a Hindu overlapped. However, as HSA leaders, we know that the importance of our attendance at this event reached beyond witnessing the coming together of these two worlds. Celebrating Diwali at the White House with the First Family will create countless opportunities in the future for our members in the country's capital and will help pave the road to creating a strong Hindu youth voice within the Asian American community and the nation at large.