Diwali do da

Diwali: Festival of Lights

Neetha Gorla, a participant at UNR’s Diwali celebration, owns the Spice Rack Market, 1535 Vassar St., 682-4400.

Neetha Gorla, a participant at UNR’s Diwali celebration, owns the Spice Rack Market, 1535 Vassar St., 682-4400.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

It was Hunter’s and my pleasure to find Rajanji Zed standing at the entrance to the 2008 Diwali celebration on the fourth floor of the student union building at the University of Nevada, Reno. Zed is the famed American Hindu leader who’s spread Hindu fellowship from Sparks to the European Union. It was purely happenstance, Hunter and I didn’t broadcast our participation, in fact, I just happened to see the flier hanging in the India Kabab restaurant on Friday. But, as is often the case in these spiritual situations, we were totally welcome. And, I’ll tell you, as far as communion goes, this was some of the best communion I ever had—all vegetarian Indian food, just the right amount of spice. I’m going to keep my eyes open for Diwali celebrations come October next year. (This year, there were three Diwali events in Northern Nevada.)

So what’s Diwali, you ask? It’s kind of the Indian equivalent to Christmas, in that it’s the biggest celebration in the nation, and is celebrated in kind of a national style, not just Hindus but everyone—Sikhs, Muslims, Jainists, Christians—celebrates the day. That’s also the reason it doesn’t have a particularly spiritual vibe—so the different religions don’t clash. There’s gift giving, often packages of sweets or packets of dried food. Since the roofs on most Indian domiciles are flat, they’re good for competition among neighbors to see who can have the best fireworks display.

“People also light the roofs with little lamps with oil and a wick,” said Zed. “The whole city is lit.”

If you’re looking for a meaning for Diwali, it’s in celebration of Lord Rama’s victory over Ravana—basically the triumph of good over evil.

Much like Christmas in the United States, families get together, eat and gamble—often playing card games. I guess people in the United States are more likely to gamble on the football game or whether grandpa would make it to the couch before his post-Christmas meal nap began, but the comparison is there.

At any rate, in keeping with the family aspect of the holiday, we were soon joined by Zed’s charming daughter, Palkin Zeed, 23, a student at UNR who actually has a quadruple major: biology, material science engineering, philosophy and marketing.

Zed the Elder continued with his description of the Indian community in Reno. He said there are about 600 families, and that number includes Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and even a Jainist or two. (I’m not sure Jainist is the correct word. I mean practitioners of Jainism, one of the big four dharmic religions in India,)

Zed said people from India value education and business acumen, saying that many Indians in the United States are into software, many are professors or doctors, and they often own gas stations or liquor stores. The liquor store comment prompted me to ask where Hindus come down on alcohol. He pointed out that there is no leadership hierarchy in the Hindu religion—no pope, for example—and no single scripture to set the rules for Hindus.

“We don’t have many do’s or don’t’s,” he said. “Nobody to tell us what is right or wrong.” That’s to say, each Hindu gets to decide how they feel about alcohol.

Since Hinduism is such an individual religion, in India, Diwali isn’t generally celebrated in a group session like was practiced on the UNR campus. This turned out to be a more “India Pride” event with food, a fashion show and on-stage dancing, but I found the camaraderie among practioners of the various religions a remarkable parallel to the way we celebrate the “holiday season” in the United States.