On Nov. 10, the South Asian Association of Maine (SAAM) hosted a Diwali celebration in the ballroom of Estabrook Hall at the University of Maine. The celebration of lights brought together a large group of students and community members to share food, participate in games and learn more about the holiday.
UMaine’s celebration of Diwali included a ceremony of lighting candles, a wide variety of traditional food prepared by members of the SAAM and the community, as well as a presentation on the importance of Diwali in India and around the world.
Celebrations of Diwali have been documented for more than 2,500 years. The five days of celebration are observed every fall by four different religions: Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and, most prominently, Hinduism. While the mythology behind the celebration varies slightly among its observers, they all focus on the triumph of good over evil and a hope for success in the coming year.
Each day has different rituals and focuses on celebrating different elements of South Asian culture. In northern India, it is common for observers to light fireworks in celebration of Lord Rama, one of the incarnations of the god Vishnu, as well as buy gold and eat sweets.
In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there are close to four million Indians living in the United States. Despite the fact that only two percent of UMaine’s student body identify as Asian — according to College Board — events celebrating a wide variety of cultures play an important role in creating community on campus.
“Any time students from abroad or of a multicultural background attend an event like this, it gives an affirming message to students and provides a sense of belonging. It can be very gratifying for students to see themselves and their culture represented on campus,” Silvestre Guzman, the director of the Office of Multicultural Student Life, said.
Shweta Desai, a fourth-year financial economics student and the president of SAAM helped serve food and run the activities for the evening. When asked about the purpose of an event like this, she expressed a similar sentiment to that of Guzman.
“Hosting such an event widens the knowledge of people all around who are curious about the culture. It all helps everyone who celebrates Diwali not feel homesick during this festive time of the year … Everyone enjoys these events and the support we get when putting up the event is very much appreciated by the community,” Desai said.
Fazeel Hashmi, a fourth-year microbiology and molecular and cellular biology student said that the event also offers up an opportunity for students and the surrounding communities to engage in important conversations about cultures that are often underrepresented on the UMaine campus.
“It’s essential to have events, such as Diwali, on campus because it exposes students and the surrounding towns and cities to the cultural diversities of minority populations on campus,” Hashmi said. “It opens discussion about our diverse world and helps to break down any ignorances and misconceptions that some individuals may have. Events like Diwali allow us to celebrate our differences, learn about one another’s lifestyles and traditions, and [bring] communities together to enjoy one another’s livelihoods.”
This opportunity to engage with underrepresented cultures is one of the many ways education at UMaine extends outside of the classroom.