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story.lead_photo.caption Karthik Thotakura holds out one of the sparklers lighting the night at a Diwali gathering in Little Rock on Tuesday. - Photo by Francisca Jones

This week, Hindus worldwide celebrated Diwali, known as the faith's festival of lights, with firecrackers, gifts and sweets in the holiday that above all celebrates the triumph of good over evil.

A small gathering of friends and family from the Hindu community marked this year's Diwali together Tuesday at a home in Little Rock with the bright colors of traditional Indian dress, plates of homemade sweets and talk of carrying on tradition.

"We have a lot of festivals, but Diwali is the biggest deal of all," said Viji Sridharan of Little Rock. "It's like Christmas."

Diwali commemorates the welcoming back of Lord Rama, an incarnation of Krishna, after his 14-year battle and eventual victory over Ravana, who is said to have kidnapped Rama's wife, Sita.

Members of the faith also believe that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, will visit homes that are well-lit during Diwali.

According to the Pew Research Center's global religious landscape study released last year, Hinduism is the world's third-largest religion. Fifteen percent of the world's population identifies as belonging to the religion, and 95 percent of its devotees live in India. Hindus make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to the center's 2014 U.S. religious landscape study.

Sridharan, a radiation research scientist, said while there were as few as 50 Hindu families in Little Rock in the 1980s, there are now more than 1,000.

Jains and Sikhs -- religions which developed from Hinduism -- also celebrate Diwali, but for different reasons. Members of the Jain religion believe that Diwali is the time during which the spiritual teacher Lord Mahavira attained nirvana. For Sikhs, Diwali marks the release of Guru Hargobind, the sixth guru of the faith, along with 52 other Hindu royalty members, in 1619.

Committee members of the religious nonprofit, the Hindu Temple of Central Arkansas -- a group of people that includes Sruthi Kanuru of Little Rock and Sridharan, one of its founding members -- have been working for the past few years toward the construction of its own temple and cultural center, which would be Little Rock's first Hindu house of worship. Construction began in October on Vijayadashami, the end of the faith's annual Navatri celebration, and is expected to be completed by fall 2019.

"We are providing [our children] with a platform to celebrate," Sridharan said. "The temple is a chance to teach them our traditions and faith because we don't want them to be stranded or blindfolded to how we live our faith."

"We want all our kids to know our traditions, and to carry them on to the next generation," said Bindu Siddamreddy, a neurologist. "Being here [in the U.S.], we don't want to lose our culture."

While there is no limit in India to the firecrackers that split the air with noise and smoke -- with the exception of a temporary ban on their sale in parts of the country last year -- the community's Diwali celebrations in the Little Rock area are adjusted to adhere to noise and safety restrictions.

Members light and situate displays of candles mixed in with clay lamps from India, known as diyas. And although there is currently no burn ban in Pulaski County, festivals and other celebrations limit the pyrotechnics to sparklers -- which the children love, Bindu said -- that punctuate the night air and lend festivity to the occasion.

The nonprofit also held a puja, or Hindu worship service of rituals, prayers and songs, at Grace Presbyterian Church in Little Rock on Wednesday, but other pujas have been held at the site of the temple's groundbreaking, at the site where a figure of Lord Balaji, the avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, will be located. Ten to 12 other Hindu gods also will be represented at the temple.

"Once we get the temple, everyone can go there and celebrate," Kanuru said. "Togetherness is the main thing -- celebrating in cultural harmony together. The festival is celebrated with pomp and show mainly for that reason."

Devotees light earthen lamps on the banks of the River Sarayu as part of Diwali celebrations in Ayodhya, India, on Tuesday.
Photo by Francisca Jones
Figures of Lord Rama (left) and his wife, Sita, overlook a Diwali gathering Tuesday in Little Rock. The couple is featured in the Hindu epic poem Ramayana, and Rama’s return from rescuing Sita from abduction by the demon king Ravana is central to the holiday celebrated by Hindus worldwide.

Religion on 11/10/2018

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