ORLANDO, Fla. – Every year, Hindus, Budhists, Jains and Sikhs around the world celebrate a festival of lights that goes back more than 2,500 years.
It’s known as Diwali, a festival Deepali Kanji looks forward to each October.
“I’ve gotten to celebrate this my whole life and it’s just been such a wonderful way for me to kind of connect again with some of the basics of what this festival is all about,” said Kanji, who was born in the U.S. “We really are trying to keep that connection of our roots and our ancestry to India, and I think it’s really important for us as first-generation Americans to feel that connection.”
In Orlando, it’s celebrated at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, their place of worship.
“At this time, we ask for light and positivity to come into our lives and that’s something we’re constantly striving for. So this festival really symbolizes that,” said Ashna Patel, a volunteer from India. “It really demonstrates unity when people come together to put together such a large event.”
As part of the festival of lights, the Mandir’s main stage is filled with a mountain of food known as Annakut. It’s an offering made by hundreds of volunteers that stay up through the night to prepare a variety of vegetarian delicacies.
“In our religion, we believe in Ahimsa which is nonviolence and having foods that are not harming to other creatures,” Kanji said. “They spend a lot of time really making sure that they’re putting in the devotion when they’re making these dishes.”
Ashna Patel explained that offering food to their god is a way to say thank you for the blessings received throughout the year.
But Diwali, Patel said, is also about bringing people together.
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“I think we need the message of unity more now than ever before. Using times like these festivals, like celebrations like these, to come together and maybe understand each other a little bit more,” Patel said.
For Kanji, the celebration gives her motivation to be a better person and neighbor.
“Really it’s giving us the ability to remember to ask our neighbor our friends or our family members, you know, check in on them, make sure that everything is going good but also that we’re doing what we can to make them happy,” Kanji said.
This year’s celebration will honor their former spiritual guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who passed away in 2016 leaving a legacy of compassion and love for one another.
“One motto that our former spiritual leader, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, lived by was in the joy of others lies (in) our own (hands), and that’s something we constantly strive to live by,” Patel said. “He’s really demonstrated and motivated us to do that. Whether it’s though philanthropic efforts or humanitarian causes, such as blood drives or food drives, helping during disaster reliefs, such as earthquakes, bringing us together as a community to take part in that.”
The festival of lights takes place at the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in Orlando on Wednesday starting at 1 p.m. It runs through 8 p.m. with a fireworks display finale.