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28 January, 2012

In Indian Culture Why we do light a lamp?

In Indian Culture

Why do we light a lamp?

       In almost every Indian home a lamp is lit daily before the altar of the Lord. In some houses it is lit at drawn, in some, twice a day – at dawn and dusk and in a few it is maintained continuously (akhanda deepa). All auspicious functions and moments like daily worship, rituals and festivals and even many social occasions like inaugurations commence with the lighting of the lamp, which is often maintained right through the occasion.

• Why do we light a lamp?

       Light symbolizes knowledge and darkness, ignorance. The Lord is the “Knowledge Principle” (chaitanya) who is the source, the enlivener and the illuminator of all knowledge. Hence light is worshipped as the Lord Himself.

        Knowledge removes ignorance just as light removes darkness. Also knowledge is a lasting inner wealth by which all outer achievements can be accomplished. Hence we light the lamp to bow down to knowledge as the greatest of all forms of wealth. Knowledge backs all our actions whether good or bad. We therefore keep a lamp lit during all auspicious occasions as a witness to our thoughts and actions.

       Why not light a bulb or tube light? That too would remove darkness. But the traditional oil lamp has a further spiritual significance. The oil or ghee in the lamp symbolizes our vaasanas or negative tendencies and the wicked, the ego. When lit by spiritual knowledge, the vaasanas get slowly exhausted and the ego too finally perishes. The flame of a lamp always burns upwards. Similarly we should acquire such knowledge as to take us towards higher ideals.

       A single lamp can light hundreds more just as a man of knowledge can give it to many more. The brilliance of the light does not diminish despite its repeated use to light many more lamps. So too knowledge does not lessen when shared with or imparted to others. On the contrary it increases in clarity and conviction on giving. It benefits both the receiver and the giver.

Lighting the Lamp

       Called deepak in Sanskrit, meaning lamp, a lighted oil lamp is considered a sign of auspiciousness and goodness.  Light is considered as a symbol of auspiciousness, prosperity and abundance in the Indian tradition.  Light is also associated with brightness of mind and understanding.

       Oil lamps are commonly used in Hindu temples as well as in home shrines.  Generally the lamps used in the temples are circular, either hanging or with a stand, having grooves for five wicks.  They are made of metal and either suspended on a chain or screwed onto a pedestal.  There will usually be at least one lamp in each shrine, and the main shrine may contain several.  Usually only one wick is lit, and all five are lighted only on festive occasions.  

When to lit a Lamp?

       In the home shrine, the style of lamp is usually different, containing only one wick.  There is usually a piece of metal that forms the back of the lamp.  In many houses, the lamp burns all day, but in other homes, it is lit at sunrise or sun set or both the times.  In some houses, the lamp in the home shrine is supposed to be lit before any other lights are turned on at night.  Rows of earthen lamps are lighted on the occasion of Deepavali festival.

       A hand-held oil lamp and incense sticks (lit from the lamp) are also used during the puja ceremony.  In the North of India, a five-wick lamp is used, usually fueled with ghee.  On special occasions, various other lamps may be used for puja, the most elaborate having several tiers of wicks.

Types of Lamps

       In South India, there are few types of oil lamps (called vilakku) that are common in temples and traditional rituals, some of the smaller ones are used for offerings as well:

1)  Deepalakshmi

       It is a brass lamp with a depiction of goddess Sri Lakshmi over the back piece, they are usually small - sized and have only one wick.

2)  Nilavilakku

       It is a tall brass or bronze lamp on a stand where the wicks are placed at a certain height.

3)  Paavai vilakku

       It is a brass or bronze lamp in the form of a lady holding a vessel with her hands.  This type of lamp comes in different sizes, from small to almost life-size.  There are also large stone versions of this lamp in Hindu temples and shrines of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, especially at the base of columns and flanking the entrance of temples.  They have only one wick. 

4)  Thooku vilakku

       It is a brass or bronze lamp hanging from a chain often has multiple wicks.

Oil lamps were a part of various traditions and cultures around the world, until electric lights became popular.  The earliest known oil lamp can be dated back to the Chalcolithic Age, about 4,500 to 3,300 BC.  Today, their use is limited to only a few homes, more often only for visual appeal.

Why a lamp?

       Today you have electric lights so you may wonder why a lamp.  But imagine just a few hundred years ago, there was no possibility of doing anything indoors without a lamp.  Historically, the lamp was an essential part of our homes because of two reasons.  One, there was no electric lights.  Two, homes were built from organic material so people couldn't afford to open up huge windows.  Generally, the houses in ancient times were dark inside.  Even today, have you seen that old homes in villages and slums are generally dark?  So a lamp was kept even during the day, and a place of worship was created around it.

       It is a part of tradition that to create the right kind of atmosphere, the first thing that you do is light a lamp.  Of course, because of all our problems today, because our nails are long and polished,m we can't do this, so we use electric lights.  But those of you who light a lamp, if you simply be there around it, you will notice it makes a difference.  You don't need to believe in any God.  It need not even be dark, the lamp need not be a visual aid, but do you notice it makes some kind of a difference? This is because the moment you light a lamp, not the flame itself but around the flame a certain electric sphere will naturally happen.


       Where there is an etheric sphere, communication will be better.  Did you ever sit around a campfire in your life?  If you did, you would have seen that stories told around the campfire always have the maximum impact on people.  Have you noticed this?  The story tellers of yore understood this -- stories told around the campfire are always the most effective stories.  Receptivity will be at its best.

       So, if you want to start anything, or you want to create a certain atmosphere, a lamp is lit.  This comes from the understanding that when you light a lamp, apart from the visual aspect, it fills the whole place with a different kind of energy.  Lighting an oil lamp has certain implications.  The use of certain vegetable oils, especially if you use sesame oil, castor oil or ghee [clarified butter] to light a lamp, it exudes positivity.  It has its own field of energy.

       Fire itself is a source of light and a source of life in many ways.  Symbolically, we have always seen fire as the very source of life.  In fact, your life itself is referred to as fire in many languages.  "The fires of life" within you keep you going.  The Sun, the very source of life on this planet, is just a fireball, isn't it?  Whether you light an electric lamp or you cook at home with whatever kind of stove, or the internal combustion engine in your car, it's all still fire, isn't it?  Everything that is driving life in this world is fire.  So fire is seen as the very source of life.  It also creates field of energy around itself, and above all it creates the necessary atmosphere.  So when you light a lamp before you start your day, it is because you want to bring the same quality into yourself.  It is symbolism; it's a way of invoking your own inner nature.


       Whilst lighting the, lamp we thus pray (in Sanskrit):

Deepajyotihi parabrahma
Deepa sarva tamopababa
Deepena sadhyate sarvam
Sandhyaa deepo namostute

Meaning of the prayer:


I prostrate to the dawn/dusk lamp;
whose light is the Knowledge Principle (the Supreme Lord),
which removes the darkness of ignorance and
by which all can be achieved in life.

Which else shall beautify a home
But the flame of a lovely lamp?
Which else shall adorn the mind
But the light of wisdom deep ?
---- Swamy Chinmayananda

       Thus this custom contains a wealth of intellectual and spiritual meaning.

Source: Excerpts from the Book on In Indian Culture Why do we … by Swamini Vimalananda & Radhika Krishnakumar.

22 January, 2012

The Austerity of Bhrigu (A Story from Taittiriya Upanisad)

Swamy Jyotirmayananda

    An ancient illustration of the practice of mana (reflection) is found in Taittiriya UpanisadBhrigu approached his father, Varuna, as a spiritual preceptor and asked to be taught about Brahman.  In response, his father declared, "Brahman is That from which the world has proceeded, That by which the world is sustained, and That into which the world dissolves.  So practice austerity and reflect, my son, and discover what Brahman is."

       Following his father's instruction, Bhrigu practiced reflection for a year on what he had studied in the scriptures as well as his own experience.  Then he returned to his father and eagerly stated his conclusions:  Matter is Brahman.  The entire world emanates from matter; matter sustains it; into the matter the world dissolves."  Hearing this, Varuna quietly replied, "Continue practicing austerity and reflect, my son.  Austerity is Brahman."

       Bhrigu continued the practice of Manana, and after another year of practice he returned to his father with the conclusion that prana is Brahman.  Matter in itself is blind and inert, but a subtle energy, or vital force (prana), moves and sustains every atom and electron in the vast universe of matter.  Again Varuna, with a twinkle in his eye, told his son to continue practicing austerity.

       Upon further reflection, Bhrigu realized that there must be mind behind prana.  The world is not in a state of disarray or chaos.  There is a tremendous intelligence behind everything.  Bhrigu therefore announced to his father that mind is Brahman.  Still unsatisfied with his son's level of realization.  Varuna sent Bhirgu back to continue the practice of manana.

       Upon deeper reflection, Brighu realized that intellect or vijnana was higher than the mind, which ever fluctuates due to sensory input, thoughts and desires.  It is intellect, vijnana that has the ability to organize and direct the thoughts in a particular way.

       The teachings of the scriptures describe the whole universe resting upon the hoods of Sheesha, the cosmic serpent, which is symbolic of the cosmic mind.  And the thought waves of the mind are the hoods of the serpent, or cosmic mentation that  sustains the universe.  Not a single atom, a single particle of matter moves without the operation of Divine intelligence, "Intellect is Brahman."  But again, Varuna instructed his son to continue reflecting.

       As his practice deepened, Brigu was led to inquire what exists beyond the intellect.  He realized that a deeper part of his being, the unconscious, continues to exist during deep sleep.  Further, the bliss of Brahman diffuses through the veil of the unconscious since the ego is temporarily absent in deep sleep and one is closer to God.

       Going beyond the unconscious plane of ignorance through the experience of samadhi or super consciousness, Bhrigu had a direct experience of the bliss of Brahman--the true nature of Brahman. When he relayed to his father that ananda, or bliss, is Brahman, his father became extremely happy, and told Bhrigu that it was no longer necessary to practice austerity.  By negating each  previous level of understanding, his reflection had finally led him to the highest experience of Brahman.

       In Vedanta, these levels are theoretically referred to as annamaya kosa (food sheath), pranamaya kosa (the vital sheath), manomaya kosa (sheath of the mind and senses), vijnanamaya kosa (sheath of the intellect and ego and finally, the bliss sheath (anandamaya kosa).  In each stage of austerity, Bhrigu had to step beyond his current level of realization, and when he had fully transcended or negated the physical, vital, mental and intellectual sheaths, he achieved pure bliss.  He simply and spontaneously experienced the pure bliss that is the very nature of Brahman.

       This story from the Upanishads highlights the need for sustained and patient reflection in the life of an aspirant.  Through manana, you are propelled into a deep process of vicara or inquiry into "Who am I?"  Your mind begins to enjoy probing into the nature of the individual soul (jiva) or the reality within you, as well as into the nature of the world around you.  Gradually you come to know that the reality underlying your personality as well as the vast universe is the non dual Self, Brahman.  That Brahman is the only reality, internally and externally.  As this understanding grows, your link with the go is increasingly weakened until, eventually, it dissolves completely in the Bliss of Self-realization.

Soure:  Excerpts from the article written by Swami Jyotirmayananda.  International Yoga Guide January-March 2003, Vol.40:5-7.

14 January, 2012

MANTRAS FOR PEACE - Invocatory Prayer Part 1

Invocatory Prayer in Sanskrit

Om Sahanavavattu. 
Sahanau bhunaktu . 
Saha viryam karavavahai.
Tejasvni navadhitamastu ma vidvisavahai.
Om santih santih santih

Meaning of the Mantra

Om May (He) protect us both (teacher and student).  
May (He) cause us to enjoy. 
May we strive together. 
May our study become brilliant. 
May we not become disputatious.

Om Peace Peace Peace


       This prayer is chanted both by the guru preceptor and the sisya disciple before starting the study of the scriptures.  There are other prayers as well.  The chanting of the invocations invocatory prayer helps to claim the mind and tune in the subtle intellect for comprehending the philosophy ingrained in the scriptures.

       The human intellect is of two distinct types viz., gross and subtle.  When your intellect engages its discriminating faculty in the realm of the terrestrial world it is said to be 'gross.Gross intellect thinks thoughts pertaining to the world.  It discriminates between the pairs of opposites all within the boundary of this world.  It could range from the simplest discrimination of a dog between its master and a stranger to the finest discrimination of a scientist in nuclear technology.  But all of them are still classified as 'gross' because its field of operation is the terrestrial world.  When however your intellect crosses the boundary of the terrestrial world and conceives the possibility of a transcendental Reality, it is called the 'subtle' intellect.  No other creature except a human being can posit the transcendental Reality.  The subtle intellect is the discriminating faculty which contemplates upon and distinguishes the transcendental Reality from the terrestrial world, discerns the difference between Spirit and matter, between Atman (Self) and the world you experience through your material equipments.

       The common man engages his gross intellect in the affairs of the world practically day long.  He hardly uses his subtle intellect.  It is therefore important to invoke and tune in his subtle intellect for understanding the deeper import of the scriptures.  This is achieved by chanting the invocatory prayer.  The prayer starts with Om which represents the supreme Reality, the goal of all spiritual pursuits.

       The protection sought by the teacher and the taught is only a temporary safeguard against any disturbances that may prevent their study.  The prayer is not to be understood as beggary, an outcome of lethargy.  Neither the teacher nor the student means to avoid action and begs the Lord to take care of everything.  Both of them will be engaged in deep study and reflection.  Hence, their request to the Lord is to protect them during the period of study from any disturbances.  This line conveys their spirit of surrender to the supreme being and their earnestness for study.

       In the next two lines they pray for enjoyment and exertion.  Spiritual study can bring about results only when the preceptor and the disciple put in their best efforts.  They exert their maximum to teach and to learn the knowledge respectively.  the teaching and the learning are thoroughly enjoyed by both.  Spiritual study ought not to be a drudgery.  With the right attitude the study becomes a pleasure.

       The next line speaks of the goal of spiritual study.  The aim of the spiritual study is the unfolding of the supreme  Self.  The supreme Self within is at present clouded by vasanas/desires.  The study, reflection and the meditation of the knowledge contained in the scriptures help the seeker to exhaust his vasanas/desires and bring out the brilliance of the Self within.  This idea is indicate by praying for brilliance.

       In the last line the teacher and the taught pray that there be no hatred between them.  This appeal is necessary because spiritual knowledge is difficult to administer, difficult to comprehend and that leads to a lot of controversy, arguments and bitterness.  The prayer is meant to caution both to avoid such a contingency by being humble and refrain from egoistic and dogmatic assertions.

       The three sources of disturbances are:

1.  Adhidaivikam (cosmic disturbances)

2.  Adhibhoutikam (environmental disturbances)

3.  Adhyatmikam (inner disturbances)

       The first type of disturbance is from the phenomenal powers like lightning, thunder, rain, earthquake, etc.  Hence, the first santih is chanted loudly

       The  scond type is the environmental disturbance like noise around, animals prowling, insects crawling etc.  The second chant is softer than the first to indicate that it is directed to the environmental disturbances.

       The third type is disturbance springing from one's own body or mind like sickness, worry etc.  The last chant is therefore in whispers directed to the inner disturbances.


       The invocatory prayer when sincerely and repeatedly chanted prepares a proper mental climate for spiritual study and reflection.

Source: Excerpts from the book on THE SYMBOLISM OF HINDU GODS AND RITUALS by AParthasarathy.