Celebrating Diwali and multiculturalism

If it were not for the gray, Pacific Northwest drizzle outside, one might think the people walking in to the Vedic Cultural Center wearing saris and salwar kameez were in India. But this is Sammamish, not New Delhi; As the Indian American families escape the cold and wet outside and pour into the brightly lit Hare Krishna vedic center, they prepare to symbolically celebrate victory of light over darkness--the basic message of Diwali, festival of lights.

Sanskriti Agarwal

Sanskriti Agarwal

If it were not for the gray, Pacific Northwest drizzle outside, one might think the people walking in to the Vedic Cultural Center wearing saris and salwar kameez were in India.

But this is Sammamish, not New Delhi; As the Indian American families escape the cold and wet outside and pour into the brightly lit Hare Krishna vedic center, they prepare to symbolically celebrate victory of light over darkness–the basic message of Diwali, festival of lights.

It’s this holiday, along with other traditions and values, that Muru Subramani, a Sammamish resident and CTO out of Bellevue, aims to hand down to his 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

“Veda means knowledge, so ‘Vedic Cultural Center’ means culture based on knowledge,” Subramani said. “Our ancestors gave us this knowledge, so it’s important for us to pass it on to the next generation.”

Subramani is one of many India-born members of the center raising multicultural children. These children are often the first generation in their families to be born in the US and develop an identity that is both American and Indian, Subramani said. They grow up in households that teach them to recognize important figures in their faith such as the handsome, blue-skinned Krishna, or God, as well as American icons like Mickey Mouse. They speak English predominantly, as well as Indian languages such as Tamil.

Unlike many of their immigrant parents, children of the vedic center get both American and Indian holidays.

Diwali, of course, being a major one. It lasts for six days and is celebrated between mid-October and mid-November. In India, it brings in a heavy shopping season.

People give gifts, don new clothes, and sing and dance to the music of drums and cymbals. Auspicious items are offered to Krishna: ghee lamps, incense, scented flowers and fruit as well as candles, which are also offered to everyone in the worship hall. The people hold their hands over the flames, murmur a prayer and then touch their heads, receiving blessings in return.

“Tonight, we’re celebrating when Lord Rama returned to the royal city of Ayodhya after defeating the demon, Ravana,” Subramani said on the first night of Diwali, Nov. 5. “It’s this victory that represents light and hope. It’s a new beginning, and a new year.”

The children revel in their new clothes for Diwali less than a week after celebrating Halloween, when they dressed up in costumes and a magician came to the vedic center.

Blending the two cultures is important, said Vraja Bhakti, principal of the vedic center’s children’s program. Bhakti said her two daughters who are in elementary school learn traditional Indian dances and music and their other activities include skiing and playing the piano.

This Christmas, Bhakti said she plans on having the 60 to 80 children at the vedic center make ornaments with writing from the sacred Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, to decorate a christmas tree. In previous years, the children used old CDs, representing chakras, to decorate the tree.

Although raising a child to be proud of their multiculturalism is important, it’s not always easy.

“For example, my daughter will often ask me why people call her an ‘Asian American’ as opposed to her classmates of European ancestry who are merely called ‘American,'” Bhakti said.

She said she reminds her children and the vedic center’s children alike, that being a part of diversity, being American and Indian at the same time, is actually quite special.

After the Diwali service, the children in Bhakti’s program play with sparklers at the entrance of the building, giggling and dancing after celebrating Rama’s victory. The next time they play with sparklers won’t be for a Hindu-based holiday–it will be to celebrate America’s independence in July.


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