WASHINGTON — Approximately two dozen U.S. Congressmen and women recently participated in the first-ever observance of the Hindu festival of lights, known as Diwali, on Capitol Hill.
The observance was a bi-partisan effort organized by Democratic Representative Joe Crowley of New York and Republican Representative Peter Roskan of Illinois. Both men co-chair the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans.
“I think it is a testament to the growth of the Indian-American community,” Crowley told the Roll Call.
Legislators from across the country gathered as diyas were lit and a Hindu priest chanted Vedic mantras. Special jasmine garlands were distributed to attendees, who also were marked with the traditional red tilak on their forehead.
Among the attendees was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“I have come here to say Happy Diwali,” she told those gathered, according to the Huffington Post. “[The] United States owes a great debt of gratitude to India. Because our civil rights movement was built on the non-violent movement in India. Martin Luther King studied there, spoke there. We are blessed not only by that legacy, but also by the presence of so many Indo-Americans in our country.”
The event was praised by Barack Obama, noting that he has observed Diwali at the White House for the past five years.
“For the Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists celebrating Diwali this weekend, the Festival of Lights reaffirms the things in life that matter most,” he wrote in an official statement recognizing the occasion. “Contemplation and prayer remind us that that people of all faiths have an obligation to perform seva, or service to others. And the flame of the diya or lamp, reminds us that light will ultimately triumph over darkness.”
“Here in the United States, Diwali also reminds us that our nation is home to many faiths and traditions, and that our diversity makes us stronger, which is why I’m proud that this year Democrats and Republicans in Congress joined together for the first-ever celebration of Diwali on Capitol Hill,” Obama continued. “Over the last five years, Michelle and I have been honored to have the chance to observe this ancient holiday, both at the White House and in India, and we wish all those celebrating this weekend a Happy Diwali and Saal Mubarak.”
As previously reported, this past November, America elected its first Hindu to the United States Congress. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, stated following her win that she hoped that her presence in Congress would cause others to understand and embrace Hinduism in America.
“It is clear that there needs to be a closer working relationship between the United States and India. How can we have a close relationship if decision-makers in Washington know very little, if anything, about the religious beliefs, values, and practices of India’s 800 million Hindus?” she asked. “Hopefully the presence in Congress of an American who happens to be Hindu will increase America’s understanding of India as well as India’s understanding of America.”
However, others have expressed concern in the past about Hinduism being represented and proliferated in the nation’s capital.
In 2007, when Hindu Rajan Zed was asked by Senate Majority leader Harry Reid to open the Senate with prayer, the occasion was met with protest from attendees in the balcony, as a man could be heard declaring, “Lord Jesus, forgive us for allowing the prayer of the wicked. This is an abomination in Your sight. This is an abomination! You shall have no other gods before Me!” Police escorted the protesters out of the room, and later charged them with disrupting Congress, a misdemeanor.
Zed’s prayer began with, “We meditate on the transcendental glory of the deity supreme, who is inside the heart of the earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of the heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds.”