Thanksgivings is unique among holidays. It is not religious, nor does it commemorate a special event such as the birth of a nation, a national or religious hero or victory of a political struggle. It is singularly American, purely secular and totally non-sectarian. It conjures up images of the best in all other types of holidays and brings friends and family together in the most wholesome of social interactions, one of sharing a meal together.
The origin of this tradition goes back to the early European settlers and native Americans referred as “Indians” by the immigrants. President Abraham Lincoln saw the significance of this event as the epitome of the American experience and established it as a national holiday, thus giving the celebrations profound meaning and relevance.
It is tempting to draw parallels between American Thanksgiving and other similar celebrations in different nations and cultures. Such parallels help people understand different cultures and traditions, and recognize the common thread that binds the human species together.
However, it should be recognized that Thanksgiving is so uniquely American that it should be cherished as such, celebrated as is and enjoyed as one relishes a rare bottle of wine or chocolate by itself with none of its flavors diminished by other delicacies however grand in their own right.
I am often asked to give my perspective of Thanksgiving as an “Indian American” (an immigrant from the nation of India) in contrast to the “Indians” who partook in the original celebration. Is there a festival in India akin to Thanksgiving? What does this celebration mean to the Hindus? This article is an attempt to address these issues.
Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday in our family. Indian Americans embrace this festival with the same enthusiasm as others. This is the time to give thanks for life’s bounties -- material and spiritual – and relish the bonds of family and friends over shared meals. The menu might be a bit different. Many Hindus are vegetarians, and the turkey gets full pardon in Hindu homes. However, the meals are just as (over) filling and delicious. Adults look forward to this day as children do and enjoy it with gusto.
As an ancient culture with its roots in a rural agrarian setting, India has many festivals to celebrate the bounty of harvest, to commemorate a golden age in its history, often mythical – more wishful than real. A common theme in all the festivals is a meeting of family members who participate in festivities and meals. Prayers and rituals are a way of expressing their gratitude. In that sense it is easy to relate to the spirit of Thanksgiving and its universal appeal. There is no single celebration that parallels Thanksgiving but its spirit pervades all of them.
Deepawali or Diwali, which roughly coincides with Thanksgiving is certainly the biggest and the brightest of all Hindu festivals. It is the festival of lights marked by four days of celebration, with fireworks and fun. Differences in language, tradition and customs lead to variations in the way different parts of India celebrate it. However, what remains true and constant is the celebration of life, its enjoyment and goodness.
There are several festivals which mark the bounty of the harvest and arrival of New Year. Due to the numerous calendars, solar, lunar and a combination of both, followed by different regions, these festivals fall on different days of the year. Pongal, celebrated in Tamil Nadu, is the first to arrive in January followed by Basant Panchami in Bengal and several north Indian provinces. Ugadi, celebrated in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra is the last to arrive in April.
Upanishads, the ancient texts dating back to 1500 BCE, are sacred to Hindus. The following hymn from the Taittariya Upanishad is recited by Hindus before having a meal. This hymn symbolizes the spirit of Thanksgiving which is one of sharing and togetherness.
Om sahnAvavatu sahanOw bhunaktu
saha vIryam karavAvahai
tEjasvinA avadhIta mastu mA vidvishAvahai
Om shAntih shAntih shAntihi
Together may we flourish
Together may we be nourished
Together may we toil
May our journey be bright, filled with purpose
There shall be no ill will among us
Peace and tranquility be upon the earth