Lighting the Inner Lamp : Rethinking Diwali in ecological context

A lamp lit in front of a deity. PHOTO : Courtesy gausanchennai. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Diwali, as the festival of light is known, is a term shortened from Deepavali which means a row of lamps. Deepavali is a festival when the dark night is lit up with a series of lamps.

The lamp has always been considered a very important symbol in Hinduism and many prayers are dedicated to it.

शुभं करोति कल्याणमारोग्यं धनसंपदा ।
शत्रुबुद्धिविनाशाय दीपज्योतिर्नमोऽस्तुते ॥
Shubham Karoti Kalyaannam Aarogyam DhanaSampadaa,
ShatruBuddhiVinaashaaya DeepaJyotirNamostute.

I bow down to the flame of the lamp which brings auspiciousness, health, prosperity and which destroys hostile feelings.

Dedicated to the lamp, this is a regular prayer in many Indian households in the U.S., even today, who maintain the tradition of lighting a real lamp in the mornings and evenings still exists.

With or without any prayers, the lamp has been a symbol of everything good, everything positive in Hinduism. It has been a symbol of life.

Another beautiful invocation to the lamp in the Hindu scriptures invokes the spiritual aspect.

दीपज्योतिः परब्रह्म दीपज्योतिर्जनार्दनः ।
दीपो हरतु मे पापं दीपज्योतिर्नमोऽस्तुते ॥
Deepa Jyotih ParaBrahma Deepa JyotirJanaardanah |
Deepo Haratu Me Paapam Deepa Jyotir Namostute ||

I bow to you, O flame of the lamp! You are the supreme ‘Brahman’! You are Vishnu! May you rid me of my sins, O flame of the lamp!

The living flame of the lamp, called ‘Brahman’ in this prayer, is the central flame holding all life within it, in Hindu cosmology. Individual souls are all part of that central flame and merge with it after bodily death. Praying to the flame of the lamp is thus praying to the ultimate life-force. The flame is also called Vishnu, who, in Hindu trinity, is the sustainer of life. And so, the flame of the lamp, representing the soul, is also the sustainer of life.

The lamp represents life-force even in Navratri rituals of lighting a lamp inside an earthen pot with holes. The earthen pot is symbolic of the human body. The holes allow air to pass through, symbolic of ‘pranavayu’.  A little bit of grain to stabilize the lamp is symbolic of nourishment to the body. But the pot comes alive only when a lighted lamp, representing the soul, is placed within. And thenceforth, it is only expected to ‘let it shine’!

If a single lamp represents all this, imagine then a row of lamps! That would be a gathering of all that is good within each soul, multiplied by the many lamps. With so much spiritual glow, life would automatically light up with positivity and good.

And, as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, and later Aristotle, said, ‘That which is Good is also Beautiful’. Deepavali, a row of lamps is thus all that is good and all that is beautiful and positive.

The lighting of lamps, the bowing in respect to honor light on a sunless and a moonless night seems to be an extension of worshipping the life-force, the ultimate element of the Universe.

Worshipping the River Ganga at Haridwar. PHOTO: Courtesy pavankunar. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The lighting of the lamp also comes as a prescribed ritual in the midst of so much talk about preserving the environment and nature. Our Indian ancestors, showing great wisdom long before the modern day destruction of nature set in, believed in respecting nature. Translated in everyday life, this took the form of worshipping the tree, the river, the mountain, the ocean, the air, the sky, the earth.

There have been times and places in history when nature worship was frowned upon. However, writers like E.M. Forster have written about the great connection to nature, in ‘Howard’s End’, ‘The Story of a Panic’, ‘The Other Kingdom’ and more. The poets of the Romantic Age of English Literature – Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Blake and Coleridge – have all written deeply philosophical poems about nature. The native Indians have been known to have a great connection to nature.

But this love and respect for nature seems to be lost today. If Indian scriptures can boast of this awareness, there is also a feeling of shame today for having trashed this great intelligence! Avenues with two hundred-year old trees with intertwined branches forming natural arches have been wiped clean in the name of development. Rivers that are prayed to are also defiled. And air is not even paid attention to. The whole world which is material and physical seems to be busy attending to its own interests.

How would the soul shine through in such an environment?

By following ‘Namostute’: The elements of environment are to be respected and thanked with bowed heads. And, the central intelligence of the Universe, the central flame, also needs to be respected. That is the only way to self realization, according to Hinduism.

Superficial rituals cannot restore the lost respect for nature. Nor can they reawaken the deeply spiritual wisdom in all its glory.

Unless the lamp is lit within.

And, not just one lamp. Let there be plenty of lamps within.

Enough to create a Deepavali!



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