(NINA LIN / THE STATESMAN)
Students celebrate India’s “Festival of Lights” at the Charles B. Wang Center. (NINA LIN / THE STATESMAN)

With roughly two weeks’ notice, Stony Brook University celebrated Diwali, India’s “Festival of Lights,” Monday night at the Charles B. Wang Center.

The cultural event, sponsored by the Center for India Studies, the Faculty Student Association and Campus Dining Services, was celebrated in three parts.

The first two parts of the celebration–the Pooja Ceremony and the Light Procession–took place in the Wang Center Chapel and circled the building, while the Jasmine food court’s Curry Kitchen organized a three-course vegetarian dinner and dancing festivities.

Distinguished Service Professor S.N. Sridhar, the director of the Center for India Studies, was impressed with the event’s turnout. “At short notice, people came from all walks of life,” he said.

“There was a great deal of goodwill and they had a great time. It was a very uplifting experience,” he continued. “Diwali is extremely important, the most important festival in Indian culture and a very happy festival.”

The celebration began with the Pooja Ceremony at the Wang Center Chapel, where Sridhar highlighted the symbolic, spiritual and historic significance of the event. He spoke of Diwali’s key celebrations, namely “the victory of light over dark, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance,” the multiple incarnations of Hinduism’s god, Rama, Krishna and Vama and the popular goddess of wealth, Lakshmi.

Sridhar also spoke about the five days of Diwali: Dhanteras, a celebration of wealth; Naraka Chaturdashi, when the Hindu god Krishna defeated the demon Naraka and freed more than 16,000 women; Lakshmi Puja, the goddess of wealth worshipped; Bali Padyami, when Emperor Bali visits the earth; and Bhai Duj, a day for sisters, who then invite their brothers to their homes.

After a recital of the prayer “Om Jai Jagadish,” the attendees celebrated light firsthand as they received electronic candles and circled the Wang Center in rows for the event’s second stage—the Light Procession. Sridhar emphasized that this action was important for its relation to the spiritual and symbolic representation of light in Hinduism. He later noted additional examples of this significance, like candles being lit instead of blown out to celebrate birthdays and gods being worshipped with lights.

The third and longest event began at Jasmine’s Curry Kitchen, where traditional Indian vegetarian dishes and the specialty rose extract drink “rose sharbat” were served to a full house. After dinner, the university’s cultural folk dance crew—Stony Brook Bhangra—performed.

Curry Kitchen owner and operator Chanda Vaz was pleased with the dinner stage, especially considering that the event was only decided upon roughly two weeks ago.

“I think we did a very good job in a very short space of time,” Vaz said. “We had two weeks of operation and we maxed the house, so what else could you ask for?”

Vaz, the founder of the New York City-based restaurant, organized the event’s meals, which were vegetarian as per Hindu tradition. The menu included two appetizers, six entrees, salad, two desserts and the aforementioned rose sharbat.

“Because it’s a celebration,” Vaz hoped to showcase a variety of rich Indian dishes “like panir [makahani], which is like a chicken dish but vegetarian,” Vaz said. “As an operator I missed out on all that when I was at university.”

“When we had a Diwali, we didn’t have anyplace to go besides campus because my house was [so far] away, so we couldn’t go back home for Diwali,” she continued. “So I wanted to give the students a home away from home.”

Students such as FSA Student Manager Nikolay Bogomolov helped set the dinner and promote Diwali around campus. The FSA sent out a press release for the Diwali celebration just last Tuesday, Oct. 29,  so organizers had roughly a week to promote the event.

“We had to put up signs over campus, we sold the tickets at various dining locations,” Bogomolov said. “I know that Curry Kitchen is sponsoring the food part of it, so they promoted it on their Twitter account and other things.”

Bogomolov said there were also plans to celebrate Chinese New Year, although they are currently “still in the works.”

Sridhar saw the Diwali celebration as a continuation of the Center for Indian Studies’ emphasis on mutual understanding between the university and the Indian-American community. The event follows the center’s record $5 million dollar donation ($2.5 million from donors, matched with a Simons Foundation Challenge Grant), the largest ever to an American public university’s Indian studies program.

“People are realizing that, in this globalized world, you have to know a lot about other cultures and work with them as equals,” Sridhar said. “The courses that we teach and the programs that we do are one way in which we contribute to that general awareness, so our students can be competitive with others.

“Because other universities are doing other things, there’s a mad scramble,” he continued.

A student of Sridhar, sophomore anthropology major Iain Mawhinney, attended the event as an extra-credit assignment, and found it interesting “to get in touch with [aspects of] Indian culture that you don’t get in class,” although he admitted he could not keep up with Stony Brook Bhangra’s performance.

“I didn’t know there’d be so many people from so many walks of life here,” Mawhinney said.

Sridhar likewise appreciated the event’s broad appeal and traced it to Hinduism’s culture of inclusivity and non-discrimination.

“What’s interesting about Diwali is that it is celebrated by people from all classes: educated, non-educated, rural, city, children, grown-ups, businessmen, religious people, non-religious,” Sridhar said. “Hinduism is a very inclusive religion. It doesn’t believe in conversion and exclusivity.”

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