Diwali – Festival of lights: A philosophic reflection on oil lamp.

Diwali 1


Deepavali or Diwali is the festival of lights. Colorful lamps are placed to illuminate every corner of the house. Fireworks and their sights and sounds highlight the glow of light and its power to illuminate. Lamps are placed at the inner sanctum, near the idols in the temple. Candles are lit at the altar in many places of worship in all religions. But, may be these lamps and lights also reflect deep philosophic thoughts?

Diwali 4  Diwali 3  Diwali 2

“The un-wavering smile of a Yogi (one of self-control and constant internal or self-reflection) is like the glow of a steady, un-flickering flame of the lamp”     B.G. 6. 19.

In an oil lamp, the earthen cup or the brass container holds the oil. The wick soaked in oil provides the channel through which the oil is drawn from one end to the other, where it burns to create the flame.  While much of the oil is consumed through burning or combustion there is also a small and gradual transformation of the wick into carbon, which burns into ash as well. This transformation leads to the flame, its glow and the illumination. The glow of the flame illumines the surroundings. As a result we see the lamp as well as all the space that is illuminated. The glow from the oil lamp is same as the light from a candle or any other source of illumination.

The components of the oil lamp are the base or the cup, the oil and the wick.

The earthen cup is stable. Unless broken into pieces or cracked, the cup can be used for ever. There are lamps and candle holders that are several centuries old used even today. This stability of material objects is amazing in a world where change is assumed to be normal and even expected. That nature of the world or the universe that is changeless on its own accord, we recognize as Inertia or Thaamasam. It is also a symbol of our “ignorance” which does not change on its own accord?

The oil is volatile. It freezes into a solid at low temperatures or vaporizes at higher temperatures. Ambient conditions – the surroundings – have a great influence on the properties or behavior of the oil. This is another aspect of nature. We call this property as “Rajasam”. It is also a symbol of our bias or emotional response, which change with time and circumstances. Just like the oil our emotions and bias (based on partial or incomplete knowledge) are shaped by the container (our body, mind and intellect)!

The wick transforms the volatile oil in the stable container into the flame or illumination. It is called Saathvikam (knowledge and understanding). Thus we see the oil lamp as a representation of the three ever present attributes (Guna) – and their interplay (i.e.) Saathvikam, Rajasam and Thaamasam which means Knowledge, Bias (Partial Knowledge and the turbulence it creates) and Ignorance.

The flame creates the glow, leading to illumination. Thanks to this illumination we see objects in and around the lamp. We become aware of their presence or existence. Through this illumination we see the inert lamp, the volatile oil and the transformative wick, the flame and all objects that are illumined. Sum total of all of these – the visible objects, the combustion that enables the flame, the flame that enables the illumination and the illumination that enables visibility is called Brahman. We exist merely as a witness to this lamp and the glow and the vision derived there from – I am Brahman. I the observer and all that around me (the observed) are all part of the same Universe – Thath Thwam Asi !

 There is nothing good or bad about ignorance or bias.  They are the aspects of nature that enable life as we know of it. Lamp as a source of light, acquires all its merits only because of the stable or inertial container and the turbulent or volatile fluid contained in it! Without these two – stability as well volatility (change) – there is no flame and hence no light and thus nothing for us to recognize as the lamp! Similarly without ignorance and bias (leading to emotional responses) we cannot imagine the daily life as we know of it! While knowledge and understanding is good and useful, it arises only when we overcome ignorance and bias. Hence to acquire knowledge one has to be respectful and aware of our ignorance and bias. This analytical mind with equal regard for knowledge, bias and ignorance leads to “Objectivity” (Sagunathvam).

Everything we know and comprehend (and describe as life or universe) is enabled through our knowledge, ignorance and bias. Our understanding (Wisdom) of these three features enables us to become aware of everything in and around us. One who reflects on such self-reflection seeking objectivity is called “Yogi”. The ideal person of such objectivity in self-reflection is described as GOD (Yoga Ishwara – Chief among the Yogis).

The wisdom of such reflection which enables everything else is called Brahman. I exist merely as a witness to the role of these three features (Guna), the vision derived there from – I am Brahman. I the observer and all that around me (the observed) are all part of the same Universe – Thath Thwam Asi !

The wick is relatively insignificant part of the lamp, in terms of its weight, size, volume, etc. It is very easy to ignore or dismiss the existence of a wick. It does not serve any purpose unless it plays its transformative role – of transporting the oil, creating a space of controlled combustion and being consumed gradually as part of this transformation! The same can be said of our intellect. Which part of our body is the home for our intellect? If you say “mind”, then is it not the home for all our emotions and upheavals? In our daily stress and pressures, it is possible to relegate the mind and its role largely for our emotions (turbulence). It requires a concerted effort to make a small but significant role for the mind to engage in thoughts and the transformation it can create for our emotions and body functions for enhanced knowledge. This process of self-reflection and contemplation is Yoga.

The flame of a lamp enables us to see all the objects in its glow. The same is true of our thoughts and ideas and their transformation into knowledge. It is our understanding – the glow – through which we comprehend everything around us and also the very enablers of such knowledge (i.e) of our body, mind and intellect. Illumination is perceived only as long as there is the glow of the lamp. Darkness and illumination are complements of each other. The same goes for knowledge and ignorance on any subject. Where there is illumination there is no darkness. When the illumination is not adequate our vision diminishes and we rely on guess work or judgment. This uncertain nature, with respect to our knowledge is the source of our bias or turbulence! Every aspect of above statements is conceived as Brahman – self-evident truth or laws of nature that merely exist.

Just as the illumination through the flame of the lamp, makes all else visible, all that we know is the result of our understanding though our knowledge of the nature and their governing laws. This knowledge – that accepts everything as parts of nature and everything is enabled by the laws of nature – is the only true knowledge (Brahman). On comprehending this knowledge, one acquires a stable frame of mind from which one does not return to the life of perturbations caused by our limited knowledge, bias and ignorance. In an ideal sense God is seen as the repository of such undeterred universal comprehension. Perhaps it is such reflection, analysis, understanding and symbolism that is suggested by the following verses:

The sun does not shine, nor the moon and the stars, nor the flashes of lightning nor this flame of the lamp. All of these shine through His luster.              Katha Upanishad 2.2.15

Neither the sun nor the moon nor the fire shines there; having reached that place no one returns; that is My abode.                                                                  Bagawath Geetha. 15.6.

These are also the verses chanted at the end of all Hindu worship services with the offering of light (Deepa Aradhana).

Happy Diwali !

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2 Responses to Diwali – Festival of lights: A philosophic reflection on oil lamp.

  1. Chitra says:

    You should have written this in 3 parts 😃
    Liked your analogy of the wick and it’s role in transformation. Also the inertia of the container the volatile oil and the flame. The need for the first two for the flame.

    I’m still re reading it for the third time 😃
    Very well written Subbu
    Thank you 🙏🏼

  2. sipractce says:

    Thank you Chitra.
    I do agree that the blog post could have been written in three parts.
    I am unable to decide where each part should stop 🙂

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