Dispelling Darkness During Diwali: The Subtleties Of Lighting A Lamp
Diwali actually starts with lighting a lamp on the south side of the house. Sesame oil or ghee is the most suitable medium for lighting a lamp that has a pointed end where the wick is placed in an extended position.
There is a reason behind nuances of lighting lamps, which this article explains.
Deepavali is a festival that is observed all over India with a lot of fervour. Today when one asks the lay person what Deepavali means, the first answer one gets is that this is the festival of lights.
Probing further, if one were to ask “why does one light lamps?” the answer one is likely to get is that it is to dispel darkness or ignorance. Further questioning relating to how the lamps help to dispel ignorance is likely to result in confusion. Delving deeper into Deepavali as it is celebrated in most parts of India, we see that there are three specific events that generally take place over three days - Naraka Chaturdashi, Lakshmi Puja that takes place on Amavasya, and finally Bali Padyami. All the days are spent in the joyous company of family and friends, sharing food and sweets.
While all this enjoyment is good, one should also search for the deeper truth beyond the revelry.
What benefit one gets from the celebration of a festival depends upon the level at which the celebration is done. All festivals are symbolic, with deeper meaning that needs to be understood.
Deepavali actually starts with lighting a lamp on the south side of the house on Trayodashi the thirteenth day of the second half of the lunar month, the southern direction being the domain of Yama according to Vedic scriptures. The common misconception is that this is to ward off death!
However death is the inevitable truth and has to be faced by everyone. So what is it we are really trying to ward off? The Vedas say tamasoma jyotirgamaya, mrityorma amrutamgamaya. The amruta mentioned here is not freedom from death, as is often loosely translated, but a state where there is no change of form. So the lighting of the lamp on Trayodashi starts with this symbolism. Next is Chaturdashi the fourteenth day of the second half of the lunar month, the day Krishna got rid of Narakasura. Let us examine the name Narakasura. This is not his real name; it is a moniker that this asura was given to indicate that he is one who gives naraka or suffering to other people. So, on the first day of Deepavali one lights a lamp to symbolise thankfulness to Krishna for getting rid of those people who are responsible for our suffering and people around us. So, if this has to happen, when we light that lamp we should say there are those people who ‘appear’ to give suffering to others. We can only say ‘appear’ because we don’t know the reality and our perception may be distorted. We are essentially saying “please protect us from such people or forces.” Only after this happens can the way be cleared for Lakshmi to come into our lives.
We do Lakshmi puja on Amavasya day. Why Amavasya? Amavasya is when the moon is at its smallest. There is no moonlight or reflected light from the sun on this day. Moonlight symbolises what is reflected from one’s mind. In reflected light one can imagine things to be the way one would like them to be, not as they are. When that reflected light is at its lowest is when Lakshmi comes. Lakshmi not only represents wealth but blessings in eight different forms. We pray that with all the forms of blessings that Lakshmi gives us, we can see in the correct light.
On the next day, we celebrate Bali Padyami. Bali, contrary to popular lore, was not an evil man. He had in fact taken an oath to grant whatever any Brahmana might ask of him. However, this came from the arrogance that he thought he had so much to give. Also, he had an ulterior motive - he did this because he wanted to be in Indra’s position. That is why Vishnu came as a small boy, Vamana and asked Bali for three steps of land. Actually, Bali’s teacher Shukracharya advised against honouring this request; however, Bali ignored even his guru! Of course, Vamana then appeared as Trivikrama. So when we light the lamp of knowledge on Bali Padyami, we should ask ourselves “what did Bali actually see?” What does it mean when Vamana turns into Trivikrama? What Bali saw was that in one step Trivikrama covered the whole earth. So, he saw Vishnu in everything on earth. In the second step he saw Vishnu covering everything in the antariksha - the heavens and other spiritual worlds as well. So, Bali saw only Vishnu in the entire known universe. There was nothing left in the universe where Bali didn’t see the lord’s feet. Then Trivikrama asked him “where can I place the third step?” The ultimate offering to god is one’s own atma. So, Bali offered himself, finally, and said “let Vishnu pada be on me.”
Interestingly, by offering himself to Trivikrama, he got everything he had originally desired as well! Furthermore, Bhagavanta tells him that when he has difficulties, symbolised by naraka, he will be there guarding Bali, so that he will not suffer. So, when we light a lamp on Bali Padyami, this is the thought process we should have.
The cultures of the east pay a lot of attention to lighting lamps. The question one might ask is “what symbolism were people trying to incorporate into the diya or earthen lamp.” Why not light a candle or use a metal container for the lamp? One can light a wick in an infinite number of shapes. Similarly a jiva can be given a body in many different forms. Thus, it is one’s good fortune that one has a human form as sadhana sharira namely, a body that can enable spiritual progress. This body is represented by the clay diya. The rim of the diya is mostly circular symbolising the dharma chakra. Our wise ones wanted us to think about the dharma chakra and that dharma should be an integral part of the aspirant at all times. However, not all round vessels can be diyas.
We don’t light a lamp in an earthen pot. What makes a diya sadhana sharira is the pointed end in one portion of the rim. This single point represents the focus of the aspirant. If this pointed end helps the wick face upwards then and only then is the container suitable for lighting a lamp. No one lights a lamp in an earthen pot because there is no point of focus. Whenever one lights a lamp the wick is always placed at the pointed end, and extended a little beyond the lamp. This is so that the light that burns is not inside the lamp, it is just outside and dispels darkness beyond oneself. Extending the symbolism further, if one looks at the chakras in the human system, the sahasrahara is actually just outside the physical body indicated by the measure dashangulam.
The three major states of being are awake, sleeping, and dreaming which happen naturally. However, the fourth state turiya which exists a little beyond the natural states can only happen if that point toward Bhagavantha or the lord is present. The wick represents time or lifespan. Just having a body and existing in the three normal states is not good enough. No one knows how much time one has or how long the wick will burn. Often people do things to try and extend their lifespan. This is like trying to extend the wick. The better thing to do is not extend the wick but extend the portion of the wick outside the lamp. This is the only true measure of how long the light will sustain.
A philosophical question that arises is whether it is the oil in the lamp or the wick which is burning. The answer is both. Oil is derived by squeezing a substance hard. Only those things, which have the ability to feed themselves to the wick so that they will light up and sustain the light when brought in contact with the wick, are used in a lamp. The oil in the lamp provides the sustaining power. The wick needs to be able to absorb the oil. If the oil cannot provide the sustaining power the wick will not be able to burn very long. You see this in spiritual aspirants also who get very excited for a few days but disappear at the first sign of difficulty, basically not having the sustaining power.
Finally, there needs to be a way for lighting the wick. In the lakshadeepa utsav in Karthik masa we see that one lamp is used to light another lamp. This symbolises that only a guru can light a lamp in a shishya. Without another lamp that is already burning, having all the other ingredients of the new lamp is pointless. Some force unseen has to bring an already lit lamp and light this one. If the soul or jiva actually turned into light symbolised by the wick turning into energy and lighting its surroundings, that in the end is what we refer to as moksha; this small light becoming one with the largest light. When we say merge, we are talking about the knowledge and consciousness being similar in nature to the lord and thereby enjoying eternal bliss.
Lamps Lit With Oil And Ghee
The shastras tell us that if one uses groundnut (peanut) oil, the energy that comes from that favours asura shakti. This is simply because anything that exists underground can never see light. What is the point in taking something that has always been in darkness and squeezing that to get light? Light from such a lamp can only increase darkness in a spiritual sense. Thus, such a lamp would only go to forces that exist in ajnyana.
The shastras also say that using sesame oil is better. Sesame seed comes in two forms white and black. If one has ever observed a shraddha we use sesame seed to offer tarpana to our genetic ancestors. The spiritual aspirant has another set of ancestors from the lineage of his gurus. The white sesame seed is representative of these ancestors. Thus, the oil that comes from the sesame seed, which is symbolic of squeezing all you have learned from the spiritual lineage, also burns and gives light. This energy goes to devata shakti.
The ultimate lamp is where the medium is the ghee. However, you cannot get ghee from squeezing anything. Where does ghee come from? The starting point is milk which symbolises true knowledge from the Vedas. For the milk to be turned into solid curds, solidified knowledge, a drop of curd, which is the guru upadesha has to be applied. This solid knowledge, when applied in daily life or churned yields navaneeta or true bhakti which is symbolised by butter. This too has tamasic and rajasic components. When bhakti or butter is heated – represented by challenges and difficulties in life, and the tamasic and rajasic components are separated and filtered out, leaving behind ghee. This ghee is added to the clay container - the sadhana sharira, causing the wick, the lifespan of the aspirant, to be dipped in it. When the wick is extended just beyond the lamp, that is when one lives beyond oneself, the lamp burns bright giving true light. This light is true ythartha jnyana. This, the wise ones say, reaches Bhagavantha. Once the lamp is lit and extends beyond oneself, that is the only thing which will light another lamp and continue the cycle. This is the adhyatma in lighting a lamp and in Deepavali. I hope and pray that this adhyatma will be in our hearts as we light that lamp this Deepavali. Let a million lamps be lit and the darkness go away.
(The above article was transcribed and extracted from talks given by Prof P R Mukund. Transcription and editing was done by Dr Anand Gopalan, Shyam Ananthnarayan and Dr Vanditha Mukund).
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