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President Obama Attends White House Diwali Celebration

By: on Oct. 17, 2009
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President Obama lights the diya, flanked by Pandit Narayanacharya Digalakote, who chanted the prayer "asato ma sad gamaya..." from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad

Barack Obama has become the first US President to personally attend a celebration of the spiritual holiday Diwali, at a ceremony held in the White House on October 14th.

For Vaishnavas, Diwali heralds the victory of Lord Rama 'considered to be God himself' over the demon Ravana, and his return to his kingdom Ayodhya. Obama acknowledged this in a video on the site whitehouse.gov, saying, “Diwali marks the return of Lord Rama from exile when small lamps lit his way home. The lighting of these lamps continues today, marking the celebration as a time of reflection on the year gone by; and a time to pray for a good year to come.”

The Diwali ceremony was held after President Obama signed an Executive Order restoring the White House Advisory Commission and Interagency Working Group to address issues concerning the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. The brief affair began with a performance by the Hindi a-capella group Penn Masala, and ended with a Sanskrit invocation by a priest from the local Shiva-Vishnu temple.

The East Room celebration was attended by a mixed crowd of Americans, Indians, and Asian-Americans. India’s Commerce Minister Anand Sharma and Ambassador Meera Shankar dropped by, as did several Indian-Americans in administrative positions in Washington.

“This coming Saturday, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, here in America and around the world, will celebrate this holiday by lighting diyas, or lamps, which symbolise the victory of light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance,” Obama said at the event.

He added: “And while this is a time of rejoicing, it’s also a time for reflection, when we remember those who are less fortunate and renew our commitment to reach out to those in need.”

The President then lit the traditional lamp with a candle as the temple priest chanted Asatoma Sadgamaya, a short invocation from the Upanishads meaning “Lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to liberation.”

Obama listened intently as the priest ended his invocation with “Om Shanti Shanti.” He then returned the priest’s “Namaste” with folded hands and shook hands with him. Before leaving, he greeted everyone with “Happy Diwali” and “Saal Mubarak.”

Despite the short duration of the ceremony, this is a positive move by America’s leaders towards accepting and honoring the varied spiritual cultures that reside in their country.

And it’s an attitude that may have been lacking in the past, as evidenced by one of the event’s more memorable exchanges.

One journalist called out to Obama: "Thank you Mr President, for being the first president to come to the Diwali ceremony."

"Yes, isn’t that something?" Obama shot back.

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