|Ganga Aarti during Kumbh Mela 2013|
In Indian Culture
Why do we do aarati?
Towards the end of every ritualistic worship (pooja or bhajan) of the Lord or to welcome an honoured guest or saint, we perform the aarati. This is always accompanied by the ringing of the bell and sometimes by singing, playing or musical instruments and clapping.
It is one of the sixteen steps (shodasha upachaara) of the pooja ritual. It is referred to as the auspicious light (mangala niraajanam). Holding the lighted lamp in the right hand, we wave the flame in a clockwise in a circular and vertical plane at the lotus feet, then two at the navel, once over the face and finally seven times around the whole body to light the entire form of the Lord.
In Sanskrit, aarati is called nirajanam, meaning: to fully illuminate Lord. Each part is revealed individually and also the entire form of the Lord. As the light is waved we either do mental or loud chanting of prayers or simply behold the beautiful form of the Lord, illumined by the lamp. We experience an added intensity in our prayers and the Lord's image seems to manifest a special beauty at that time. At the end of aarati we place our hands over the flame and then gently touch our eyes and the top of the head.
Why do we do the aarati?
Having worshipped the Lord with love - performing abhisheka, decorating the image and offering fruits and delicacies, we see the beauty of the Lord in all His glory. Our minds are focused on each limb of the Lord as it is lit up by the lamp. It is akin to silent open eyed meditation on His beauty. The singing, clapping, ringing of the bell etc., denote the joy and auspiciousness which accompanies the vision of the Lord.
Aarati is often performed with camphor. This hold a telling a spiritual significance. Camphor when lit burns itself out completely without leaving a trace of it. Camphor represents our inherent tendencies (vaasanas). When lit by the fire of knowledge which illumines the Lord (Truth), our vaasanas thereafter burn themselves out completely, not leaving a trace of the ego which creates in us a sense of individuality that keeps us separate from the Lord. Also while camphor burns to reveal the glory of the Lord, it emits a pleasant perfume even while it sacrifices itself. In our spiritual progress, even as we serve the guru and society, we should willingly sacrifice ourselves and all we have, to spread the "perfume" of love to all.
We often wait a long while to see the illumined Lord but when the aarati is actually performed, our eyes close automatically as if to look within. This is to signify that each of us is a temple of the Lord - we hold the divinity within. Just as the priest reveals the form of the Lord clearly with the aarati flame, so too the guru clearly reveals to us the divinity within each one of us with the help of the "flame" of knowledge (or the light of spiritual knowledge). At the end of the aarati, we place our hands over the flame and then touch our eyes and the top of the head. It means - may the light that illumined the Lord light up my vision; may my vision be divine and my thoughts noble and beautiful.
Philosophical meaning of 'aarati'
The philosophical meaning of aarati extends further. The sun, moon, stars, lightning and fire are the natural sources of light. The Lord is the source of all these wondrous phenomena of the universe. It is due to Him alone that all else exist and shine. As we light up the Lord with the flame of the aarati, we turn our attention to the very source of all light which symbolises knowledge and life.
Also the sun is the presiding deity of the intellect; the moon, that of the mind; and fire, that of speech. The Lord is the supreme Consciousness that illumines all of them. Without Him the intellect cannot think, nor can the mind feel nor the tongue speak. The Lord is beyond the mind, intellect and speech. How can these finite equipment illumine the infinite Lord? Therefore, as we perform the aarati we chant the following prayer:
Na tatra suryo bhaati na chandra taarakam
Nemaa vidyuto bhaanti ktoyamagnih
Tameva bhaantam anubhaati sarvam
Tasya bhaasa sarvam idam vibhaati.
Translation in English
He is there where the sun does not shine,
Nor the moon, stars and lightning.
Then what to talk of this small flame
(in my band)!
Everything (in the universe) shines
only after the Lord,
And by His light alone are we all illumined.
In ancient temples of India, hardly any daylight reached the inner recesses of the garbha gruha. The darshan of Lord was made possible with divas. To have the darshan of all parts of Lord, the divas - lights were held near each part.
Lord has graced all life on earth by the gift of the panchabhutas - the five elements. To maintain stability He created pruthvi - the Earth. He gave jal or water for life to flourish. He gave tej - light in the form of sunlight and moonlight, as well as agni - fire to cook and the jathar agni - digestive fire to digest food. He also gave vayu - air as a medium for breathing and for holding prana - the vital air. For movement He gave avakash-akash - space or ether. To remember our debt to Lod, we represent the panchabhutas - five lements at His feet in aarati, by offering their symbolic representations.
Sound is a part of akash or space. Therefore, the drum, bell and the words (lyrics) Sun in aarati are symbols of akash. The dhoop or smoke from an incense stick is a symbol of vayu - air. The flame of divo is a symbol of tej (light). The water in the conch shell is a symbol of jal (water). By doing the dandvat pranam the pruthvi (earth) element is symbolically offered at Lord's lotus feet. In this manner, aarati is a symbolic offering of the panchabhutas - five elements to Lord.
In some temples, the aarati is performed using five objects which symbolically represents the panchabhutas - five lements:
1. flower - pruthvi (because smell is an attribute of pruthvi).
2. water in a conch shell - jal.
3. divo - tej (light)
4. chamur (wisp) - vayu.
5. whitecloth - akash (space).
By performing aarati using these articles in the above sequence, people feel that they have offered the panchabhutas - five elements at Lord's feet.
(1) Excerpts from the book on "In Indian culture Why do we" written by Swamini Vimalanda and Radhika Krishnakumar.
(2) Excerpts from the book on "Hindu rites and rituals" by Sadhu Mukundcharanandas.