WASHINGTON — Barack Obama and the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue issued greetings this week to Hindus worldwide in observance of the religion’s annual festival of lights known as Diwali.
“I want to wish a Happy Diwali to all those who are celebrating the festival of lights here in the United States and around the world,” Obama stated in a video message released on Wednesday. “For Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists, lighting the lamp—the diya—is a chance to remember, even in the midst of darkness, that light will ultimately prevail.”
Diwali is an ancient festival originating in India, and is considered the largest shopping season in the Hindu religion. In addition to hanging lights and sharing legends and mythological stories about battles between good and evil, Hindus offer prayers to one of more of their deities—most commonly Lakshmi, the “goddess of wealth.”
“I was proud to host the first Diwali celebration at the White House back in 2009,” Obama said in his recorded greeting. “And I know that Michelle and I will never forget the wonderful time we had celebrating Diawali in Mumbai with food, dancing and the company of friends.”
Obama has observed the Hindu holiday at the White House for the past six years, with Congress participating in the polytheistic day for the first time last year. As previously reported, legislators from across the country gathered on Capitol Hill in 2013 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. There has not been word as to whether Diwali will be observed by Congress this year.
However, as it did last year, the Vatican—the center of Roman Catholicism—issued a greeting to Hindus and called upon the world’s religions to coexist with each other.
“The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue joyfully greets all of you on the festive occasion of Deepavali,” the statement, signed by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, read. “May the Transcendent Light illumine your hearts, homes and communities, and may all your celebrations deepen the sense of belonging to one another in your families and neighborhoods, and so further harmony and happiness, peace and prosperity.”
The greeting also provided commentary on this year’s Diwali theme, “Fostering Together a Culture of Inclusion.”
“As people grounded in our own respective religious traditions and with shared convictions, may we, Hindus and Christians, join together with followers of other religions and with people of good will to foster a culture of inclusion for a just and peaceful society,” Tauran said.
However, some Christians have spoken out against about ecumenicism with other religions, including in America’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.”