After the first ever Diwali celebration at the Pentagon in 2012, the Pentagon's Chaplain's Office knew one thing: they were going to need a bigger room.
"The chapel was packed," said Col. Thomas Waynick, Pentagon Chaplain, about the event. "We knew we had to find a bigger place. We received great appreciation from many of our Hindu Servicemembers. Several commented that they had never in their career had a military-sponsored Diwali festival to honor their faith."
This year, nearly 300 Servicemembers, Families, and friends came together to celebrate Diwali in the Pentagon auditorium with a lively observance that outlined the meaning of the holiday through traditional Hindu blessings and Indian dances. Among the many participants, Ms. Heidi Grant, Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for International Affairs and Brigadier General A.K. Dhingra, Military Attaché from India were in attendance.
"What a wonderful festival this is, with the universal theme of light overcoming darkness," Chaplain Waynick said during the opening remarks.
Though there are many different religions in among Indian cultures, Diwali is one celebration that brings many Hindus together. Celebrated on November 3, 2013, the observance is also known as the festival of lights and includes lighting candles, fireworks, and exchanging gifts and sweets. Diwali celebrates the light of knowledge and truth overcoming the darkness of ignorance. As part of this concept, Hindus celebrate the idea of oneness amongst all people, a truth which can be realized through knowledge and understanding.
Acharya Anant Sharmaji, a religious leader with the Chinmaya Mission Washington Regional Center highlighted this concept during his keynote speech at the Pentagon celebration.
"You need to have the vision not of division but of oneness," Sharmaji said. "Whenever you see difference, there is a problem."
Sharmaji spoke of the current society as one in which people focus on differences. As examples, he listed Democrat and Republican, 1% versus 99%, and different skin colors.
The Hindu faith tradition highlights a journey to overcome ignorance and suffering by seeking the truth through knowledge and understanding.
"If there is one truth, the truth can be dressed up in different forms," Sharmaji said.
With bright colors and lively songs, four classical dance performances showcased different aspects of Hindu beliefs within Indian culture. Ankle bells accentuated the precise poses and graceful movements of traditional South Indian dances. Nine year old Nina Chaudhary, daughter of Air Force Lt. Col. Ravi Chaudhary, performed a classical dance called "Kuchipudi," which is from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and popular throughout Southern region of India. After the dance Nina presented a flower bouquet to her teacher and touched her teacher's feet to take blessings. This represents the Indian culture of respecting teachers. Nina demonstrated that military children can preserve their Family's culture even if they move every three years from installation to installation all over the globe.
"This was Nina's first large solo performance as a Kuchipudi dancer, and the culmination of three years of disciplined training," Lt. Col. Chaudhary said. "Mom and dad were very proud, and it was especially heartwarming to see the focus of the event turn to military children. It takes a lot of hard work and commitment by military families to preserve cultural traditions, but the results are astounding."
North Indian cultures were represented with Bhangra -- a style of dance that celebrates the harvest. Five men led a lively performance in which traditional dance moves and saps (lattice clappers made of wooden sticks) synchronized with a mash-up of contemporary hip hop music including a sample from "Gangnam Style," a song by the rapper Psy.
The military gained its first Hindu chaplain in 2011. Army Chaplain (Capt.) Pratima Dharm has since worked with her husband Raj Rajendran to establish The South Asian Military Families Support Network (SAMFSN). With an estimated 1,100 active duty Hindu Servicemembers and many Hindu civilians working for various branches of the military, SAMFSN's mission is to promote cultural and inter-faith understanding within the Armed Forces.
"Celebrating Diwali in the Pentagon carries with it a greater meaning--our nation's military might is ever undergirded by the foundational values of tolerance, inclusion and unity," said Lt. Col. Chaudhary. "Diwali itself is a celebration of the values we hold dear as Americans; the victory of light over darkness… knowledge over ignorance, and the pathway for freedom, truth and unity."
The second annual Diwali celebration at the Pentagon offered an opportunity to bring people from many cultures, religions, and branches of service together to grow in understanding of the Hindu faith and South Asian cultures while sharing in a festival that promotes oneness.
"That is the universal philosophy of the Hindu faith: oneness," Acharya Sharmaji said. "Forget all the differences in this world. See the oneness. And then the world will be a wonderful place."
Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) civilian & Pentagon Chapel Hindu lay Leader Mr. Hitul Thaker organized and emceed the 2013 Pentagon Diwali celebration.
"It has been such a cherished honor and gracious opportunity to serve Department of Defense and the Hindu community in spirituality, values, and friendship," Mr. Thaker said. Regarding the appreciation of servitude, Mr. Thaker said, "Always remember what Swami Vivekananda said -- 'Awake and Arise.'"