- First Lady Jill Biden thanked the Indian American community for helping “light our way forward, with courage and kindness, with persistence and faith, with love.”
A diverse group of more than 200 Indian Americans attended a Diwali reception at the White House on Oct. 24. Dressed in their festive best, officials, elected lawmakers, actors, activists and representatives of various organizations mingled with each other at the biggest Diwali celebration ever to be held in the White House. The crowd cheered as they took out their cell phones to capture the historic moment as President Joe Biden arrived on the podium with First Lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“The atmosphere was festive with beautifully dressed people, floral arrangements and lamps, and the cultural presentations,” Anju Bhargava, founder of Hindu American Seva Communities, told American Kahani. She said hosting the event in the main White House and opening up several rooms for the guests made it extra special. “It is also a sign that we have arrived, we are visible and we matter,” she said of the Indian American community. Bhargava was a member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnership.
Similarly, Sunita Viswanath, co-founder and executive director of Hindus for Human Rights, and founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, told American Kahani that she had “a wonderful time,” at the celebration. “There were many old friends and colleagues in attendance including progressive priests Pandit Raja Bhattar and Pandita Pratima Doobay, and fellow Sadhana board member Tahil Sharma.” Viswanath said she spoke “to many people during the evening, people I didn’t know, and found that people in general were open to the idea of a progressive Hinduism that stands against the Hindu right.” This she said gave her hope that “there may be many people in the Hindu diaspora who are hungry for a progressive and inclusive Hindu space.”
Vermont State Sen. Kesha Ram, in a Facebook post, articulated what the White House Diwali event meant to her. “While the “Festival of Lights” is celebrated by over a billion Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs around the world, I often found myself struggling to explain its significance to my peers when I was younger,” she wrote. “It was not seen in Hallmark movies and there were no Diwali greetings plastered on store windows,” she added. “Younger me could have never imagined that one day I would be celebrating Diwali in the White House with the President, First Lady, and Vice President. Not only that, but to have a Vice President who herself could reflect on a childhood filled with Diwali traditions of sparklers, oil lamps, and exchanging sweets meant a great deal.”
Several members of South Asians for America also attended the event. In a statement sent to American Kahani, National Director Neha Dewan said the invitation to the White House Diwali “was truly gratifying and a sincere validation of all of our continued collective efforts.” She called it “the largest gathering ever of South Asians representing so many faith communities come together in the White House to celebrate Diwali, a testament to the Biden Administration’s commitment to inclusion and diversity.” SAFA has been working to mobilize the South Asian community to be the margin of victory to help elect Biden and Harris. Since then, the group has “continued to mobilize the South Asian community nationwide for the 2022 midterm elections.”
First Lady Jill Biden thanked the Indian American community for helping “light our way forward, with courage and kindness, with persistence and faith, with love.” Quoting Rabindranath Tagore she said: “The sky is flushed with the dawn and my path lies beautiful. Ask not what I have with me to take there. I start on my journey with empty hands and [an] expectant heart.” She continued; “Today, we come here with empty hands and expectant hearts, surrounded by each other’s light. And though at times we will travel through the darkness, we never walk alone. Our paths are bright and glorious as we shine together.”
In his address, Biden thanked the community for making the festival of lights a joyous part of American culture. “We are honored to host you. This is the first Diwali reception of this scale in the White House ever to be held. We have more Asian Americans than ever before in history and we want to thank you for making the Diwali celebration a joyous part of American culture,” Biden said.
He reflected on the contributions of the South Asian community through the pandemic and in American life. “South Asian Americans reflect the soul of who we are as a nation, whether helping us emerge stronger from this pandemic, building an economy that works for everyone, or serving and protecting our communities and our country.
The President also took a moment to acknowledge British conservatives electing Rishi Sunak as the next Prime Minister of Britain, even though he flubbed the name calling him “Rashid Sanook.” The teleprompter didn’t help.
Harris recalled “fond memories” of celebrating Diwali as a child. Like many of you, we would go to India about every other year, avoiding monsoon season, and we would go for Diwali … My mother would give us lit sparklers, and we would go into the streets to celebrate this very important occasion.” She said the holiday represents hope to her. “Diwali reminds us to see the light in our world, in each other, and in ourselves.”
After opening remarks by the First Lady and Vice President Harris, the President took the podium. He invited the children of Congressman Ro Khanna, (D-Calif.) to the stage. “That’s my impression of light,” he said.
The reception was also marked by cultural events, including performances by sitarist Rishab Sharma and the dance troupe The Sa Dance Company.
Some of the high-profile attendees included White House Staff Secretary and senior adviser to the president, Neera Tanden, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthy (D-Ill.), Maryland Lt. Gov. Candidate Aruna Miller, Edison, New Jersey Mayor Sam Joshi, Hindu American Foundation director Suhag Shukla, actors Kal Penn, Asif Mandvi, Poorna Jagannathan. Sendhil Ramamurthy, Sheetak Sheth, and singers Jay Sean and Falu.