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:
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.
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.
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.