Thursday evening my teenage daughter asked me to help her review for an AP U.S. Government exam on the Bill of Rights. That she was studying the first amendment and the freedom of religion seemed fortuitous: the following morning I was to board an early morning flight from our home in Memphis, Tennessee, to Washington to celebrate the festival of Diwali at the White House with the president of the United States.
Like Christmas and Hanukah, Diwali is the most auspicious holiday of over a billion Hindus, Jains and Sikhs all over the world. And now there are over 2 million followers of these eastern religions in America. That the president would take time from his schedule to honor this sacred day was deeply meaningful to us.
Our family belongs to the Jain community, which has over 100,000 followers in North America and 6 million in India. Few people know about Jainism, a religion with a simple message “Live and Help Live” and three core principles: nonviolence, non-absolutism and non-materialism.
I see a thread connecting the principles of my faith with my life here in America, and indeed with events around the world. Mahatma Gandhi learned about nonviolence from his mother who was a Jain follower. Martin Luther King, in turn, learned nonviolence from Gandhi – and this spring the young protesters in Tunisia and Egypt followed their predecessors’ playbook of nonviolence strategies to bring freedom and equality to their part of the world.
There are other aspects of my faith that I believe could help my country during this time of political division. Like other religions, we seek compassion and forgiveness.Non-absolutism encourages us to be open-minded to the faiths, traditions and, yes, political views of others. The Jain fable of six blind men and the elephant, teaches us that no single person has the complete truth, yet Truth only exists in our collective thinking. Non-materialism encourages Jains to differentiate needs from wants and to reduce financial inequalities, much like the demands of the Occupy movement.
All of this was in my mind when I attended the Diwali ceremony at the White House. President George W. Bush was the first to acknowledge Diwali in the White House, but President Obama is the first to personally join in the celebration. At the ceremony, the first Hindu Chaplin from the U.S. Army welcomed us and introduced her commander in chief. With grace and bowed head, President Obama greeted a saffron clad priest, and lit a diya, a traditional lamp, much like he lights the White House Christmas tree.
With his simple gesture and his presence at the event, Obama accomplished something for me personally that no individual had done on that level. By respecting my faith, he deepened my faith in our nation and our Constitution.
Arriving home I told my daughter, who had done well on her exam, that the greatness of America is not only that it provides freedom to practice religion but that it celebrates all religions. Being at the White House with the President this Diwali. I felt the first amendment come alive.