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During the Hindu festival of Deepavali, the lamp has a profound meaning, full of symbolic overtones
It’s that much-awaited time of the year, when Hindu homes come alive with festivities, reaching a crescendo with Deepavali.
Beyond the external trappings of fireworks and fanfare, Deepavali, as the name indicates, is a festival of lights. Why is Deepavali so important in the Hindu calendar, and even more fundamentally, why is the lighting of the lamp such an essential aspect of nitya karma (daily ritual)?
The day starts for a number of traditionalists with the lighting of the lamp, be it the conventional diya or its more contemporary avatars (including electric look-alikes). For many, it is a habit or a rigorously upheld custom; for others, it is a moment of reflection or even refreshing start to yet another day with all its ups and downs.
As with every other tradition in Hinduism, the lamp has a profound meaning, full of symbolic overtones. The following invocation contains a few answers:
Asatoma sat gamaya
Tamasoma jyotir gamaya
Mrutyoma amritam gamaya
The verse is a prayer to lead mankind from illusion and ignorance to an understanding of truth, from darkness to light, and from fear and death to immortality. When this awareness dawns on man, he transcends his mere physical existence to perceive the Brahman or the Supreme Being.
During Deepavali, by lighting a myriad of lamps, every Hindu renews his prayers for an enlightened world.
Light, no doubt, is the basis of every civilization, ancient and modern, pagan and scientific. On a mundane level, it shows us the way to dispel darkness and carry on with our everyday life. On a symbolic level it banishes the inner darkness. By lighting the lamp, we hope to see clearly and strive for perfection both internal and external. The diya (clay container) is believed to metaphorically represent vairaagya; the wick stands for concentration, and the matchstick symbolises tatva gnana or spiritual awareness. The oil used to fill the lamp represents inner purity and love. Only when these four elements work in conjunction, can the lamp of wisdom be lit.
It is no less interesting to note that the flame of the lamp, no matter where it is located, is constantly directed upwards and thus also represents the path to wisdom, divinity and ultimately moksha or liberation.
Normally, the person who lights the lamp is the Griha Lakshmi or the woman of the house. She holds an important status for performing this daily ritual. With this simple act she starts the day, leading the way for other activities to follow.
Likewise in Hindu temples, the Garba graha (sanctum sanctorum) is small and dark, quite unlike the bright and lavish exterior. The deity is visible only when the aarti is performed. It probably denotes that man has to give up the external trappings and direct his mind inwards towards the garba griha of his heart, guided by the lamp of knowledge.
The camphor, which burns itself out in the process of lighting up represents our vasanas or desires. In doing so it gives forth the fragrance of love and service to mankind. During the aarti, we close our eyes, contemplate and bend down to look inwards at the Aatman within us. Self realisation comes with knowledge. The jyoti denotes the Aatman (the self) and the aarti signifies that we (Aatma) are a part of God (ParamAatma) and we should always contemplate (Dhyaanam) on him.
Caught up in the worldly rat race, we often forget to stop and ponder over life’s broader significance. Possibly for this reason, the Hindu calendar is dotted with numerous but very meaningful festivals. The legends of Narakasura, the dark demon ruler of Praagjyotisha Puram (land of darkness) and Ravana, the mighty king of Lanka reinforce these concepts of ignorance and knowledge. The ignorant is always re-born (Punarapi jananam punarapi maranam). God who is immortal is worshipped as Gnana Jyothi or Light of Wisdom. When Narakasura was killed, all those who suffered under him were overjoyed. Having led a life of darkness till then, both internally and externally, they celebrated the occasion by lighting lamps.
There is much significance in lighting lamps. The flame of one lamp can light an array of lamps. That one lamp symbolises the Paramjyothi (supreme effulgence). The others symbolise Jivana Jyothis (light in individual selves).
Year after year during Deepavali, we pray for the victory of good over evil and light over darkn