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Diwali Celebrations at The White House

As the priest chanted "Asatoma Sadgamaya," President Barack Hussein Obama, with a bow and a namaskar, reverentially lights the Diwali "diya" at the White House, making this year's Festival of Lights historic and heartwarming for Indian Americans across the country Amidst sacred chants, a diya was lit. But this simple act, repeated across the world as Hindus celebrated Diwali, was so much more special. This was at the White House, and it was none other than President Obama who was lighting the diya. It was historic and it was a first. On Oct. 14, in the East Room of the White House, Obama lit a ceremonial lamp in the presence of 200 Asian Americans, with a Hindu priest chanting sacred lines from the Upnishadas.

It was the first time that a U.S. president attended Diwali celebrations at the White House. Though the tradition of hosting Diwali began under the Bush administration, the function itself was held in the Indian Treaty Room of the Old Executive Building with an administration official presiding. This year, Obama changed all that.

And the significance of that was not lost on members of the Indian-American community, some of whom attended the event. There was a sense of pride and admiration for the president among those who attended. Many remarked about the ease with which the president chatted with the priest and lit the diya. "It was surreal him standing next to the priest, talking to him," Hrishi Karthikeyan, an Obama supporter and guest at the Diwali celebration, said about the president. "I had to pinch myself several times to believe what I was seeing." (See accompanying story.) The formal ceremony began with Narayanachar L. Digalakote, a Sanskrit scholar and ordained Hindu priest of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lantham, Md., chanted "Asatoma Sadgamaya," the sacred text from the Upnishadas, seeking divine guidance to move from the unreal to the real world, from darkness to light and from the corporeal to the immortal.

When the president walked in he greeted the priest in the traditional manner, with a namaskaar. After lighting the diya, the president spoke greeting the community on the occasion of Diwali. "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 symbolize the victory of light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance. 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 said. "While the significance of the holiday for each faith varies, all of them mark it by gathering with family members to pray and decorate the house and enjoy delicious food and sweet treats."

Then came the punch line: "And in that spirit of celebration and contemplation, I am happy to light the White House Diya, and wish you all a Happy Diwali, and a Saal Mubarak." Thunderous applause followed as the diya was lit. As part of the celebration, the University of Pennsylvania a cappella group, Penn Masala, presented a multilingual performance of the song "Ayesha." DJ Rekha was also in attendance. Shekar Narasimhan, a Democratic National Committe member and the Maryland temple provided sweets for the guests a box containing the sweets was placed on each chair. The function was organized by Kalpen Modi, associate director for public engagement at the White House, who is perhaps better known as Kal Penn, the star of the "Harold &Kumar" movies.

Among the guests were longtime Democrats like Dr. Sushil Jain, Kamala Edwards and Rajwant Singh; Indian Americans in the administration, including Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra; Obama's close friend and U.S. Ambassador to Belize Vinai Thummalapally; Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preeta Bansal, general counsel and senior policy adviser at the Office of Management and Budget; Assistant Secretary of State Richard Verma, Ro Khanna, deputy assistant secretary for domestic operations of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service, International Trade Administration; Rajiv Shah, undersecretary for research, education and economics in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who was on the podium next to the president during his speech, as was Thummalapally; well-known Democratic Party activist Suneeta Leeds, recently appointed member at-large of the Democratic National Committee; younger activists like Hrishi Karthikeyan, director of South Asians for Obama, a group that was very active in the presidential campaign; Subodh Chandra, former Cleveland law director; Anurag Varma, Reshma Saujani and heads of several nonprofits focused on the South Asian community; Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar and Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, who was in the United States for an "an official bilateral visit."

Obama chose the auspicious occasion to sign a White House initiative reestablishing the Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders created by President Clinton 10 years ago. "I think it's fitting that we begin this work in the week leading up to the holiday of Diwali the festival of lights when members of some of the world's greatest faiths celebrate the triumph of good over evil," he said. Obama touted his close ties to the community: "And on a personal note, when I talk about America's AAPI communities, I'm talking about my own family: my sister, Maya; my brother-in-law, Konrad; my beautiful nieces, Suhaila and Savita; and the folks I grew up with in Indonesia, and in Honolulu, as part of the Hawai'ian Ohana, or family."

He praised the AAPI community for its contributions and acknowledged that many in the community still face barriers. "Some Asian American and Pacific Islanders, particularly new Americans and refugees, still face language barriers. Others have been victims of unthinkable hate crimes, particularly in the months after September 11th crimes driven by ignorance and prejudice that are an affront to everything that this nation stands for." That, he said, was a key reason he was reestablishing the advisory commission. That, and to ensure that "we're living up to our nation's ideals; to ensure that we can each pursue our own version of happiness, and that we continue to be a nation where all things are still possible for all people."

Diwali at the White House was a surreal event for some of those present in the East Room of the White House on Oct. 14. For several of them it was the first time they were attending the celebration, for others, who had been there during the Bush years, it was like comparing apples to oranges. For years, Indian Americans who came to celebrate Diwali at the White House requested the sitting president to attend. On Oct. 14, they got their wish when President Obama stepped up to light the diya to launch the celebration. In earlier years, the Diwali celebration was held across the road in the Old Executive Building and was more a community event. President Bush's political strategist Karl Rove officiated. Not many of the older generation were present at this year's celebration, but mostly presidential appointees and younger Obama activists from the Asian community attended the function and the signing of the executive order reviving the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

The community as a whole is bursting with pride seeing the president listening attentively to Sanskrit chants from a priest dressed in Indian attire, and exuding a natural ease with a different culture rather than a cultivated exterior. "Living in Washington and doing the kind of things I do, you get jaded," Suneeta Leeds, an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee and among the top strategists and fundraisers told News India Times. "Even if you are jaded, it made you sit up and say 'Wow'."Leeds laughed remembering she got a peck on the cheek at the event as the President entered and shook hands with some of those present. "Happened to be at the right place at the right time I think," she said. "There's no question the bar has been raised," said Toby Chaudhuri, a Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House staffer. "It was less a community event and more an opening of the White House to the world, a completely different kind of event." Chaudhuri has attended several such functions in the past. Not only was it webcast on the White House site, but also telecast through several media outlets including C-SPAN and Politico.com.

"As an Indian American there are very few things which match seeing an American president lighting a diya with spiritual chanting in the background," Anurag Varma, counsel at the lobbying firm Patton Boggs and vice president of the Indian American Leadership Initiative, told News India Times. He has been to several Diwali dos as well. Reshma Saujani, an investment banker in New York and a longtime Obama supporter, echoed Varma's sentiments. "By inviting us to his home, he showed his commitment to building a community of all people regardless of race and religion." When he walked into the East Room, the atmosphere was "electric" and even those who were not Indian or Hindu were caught up in the moment, Varma said.

Deepa Iyer, who heads the nonprofit South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, was among the fortunate ones able to shake the president's hand. And Suneeta Leeds, a top Democratic Party operative, got a peck on the cheek from th president. The refrain from all those News India Times spoke to was that it was "very special," and not just because the president was there. "It was the way he spent the time giving the speech, lighting the diya in a way that was very familiar to him," Iyer said. "He seems very much at ease talking about other faiths, when he was talking about Diwali for instance." For Hrishi Karthikeyan it was his first time at the White House, so he had nothing to compare the Diwali event to, but he sensed a lot of pride in those around him. For him, it was the wonder of it all.

"There were multiple times when I told myself and those around me -'I couldn't believe an American president talking so knowledgeably about our culture'," said Karthikeyan, national director of South Asians for Obama and a lawyer for the National Basketball Association. "It was surreal him standing next to the priest, talking to him. I had to pinch myself several times to believe what I was seeing."

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