Light - the symbol of truth
Hindus, the world over, recently celebrated Diwali, the Festival of Lights. It means ‘row or series of lights’ and symbolises the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. It is, in some regions, a celebration of the day Lord Rama returned to his kingdom Ayodhya with his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana after defeating Ravana in Lanka and serving 14 years exile.
We acknowledge that the sun, giving us light and warmth, is the sustainer of all life forms on this earth. Some ancients worshipped the sun and made it a sun god –Ra in Egypt. Light is everywhere the symbol of joy and of life-giving power, as darkness is of death and destruction. Fire, as an impressive element in worship, has been used in many religions.
Light and fire in religions From the time of worship of nature, light has been revered. The importance and reverence given to light has continued in all the major religions of the world.
In Buddhism, light as represented by the humble clay oil lamp, has connotation of great significance. Light dispels darkness, as knowledge overcomes ignorance, which equates itself primarily to the three fetters that bind us to samsaric existence: greed, anger/hate and delusion (lobha, dosa, moha). The flickering oil impregnated wick’s light also connotes the impermanence of life; that like a breeze would extinguish the light, at any moment our lives could be snuffed out. That is a good lesson to those who are mired in the worlds of ego and pleasure-seeking.
Hindus have, as mentioned, a special day of puja for light. Fire features significantly in a Hindu wedding where the bride walks behind her groom around a fire. In Vedic disciplines of Hinduism, fire is a central element in the Yajna ceremony, with Agni, fire, playing the role of mediator between the worshipper and gods. In the Vaishnav branch of Hinduism, Agni or Fire is considered the tongue of the Supreme Lord Narayana, hence, all the sacrifices done even to any demigod ultimately is a sacrifice to the Supreme Lord Narayana.
Fire-worship still has its place in at least two of the great religions of the world. The Parsis revere fire as the visible expression of Ahura Mazda, the eternal principle of light and righteousness; the Hindu Brahmins worship it as divine and omniscient.
Christians light candles in their churches and offer them to saints in the Roman Catholic cathedrals. In the King James Holy Bible in the Book of Genesis, the third verse reads thus: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” That was when God created the earth and all creatures in it.
The ceremonial use of lights occurs in liturgies of various Christian Churches, as well as in Jewish and Zoroastrian. In the ritual of the Jewish temple, fire and light play a conspicuous part.
“In the Holy of Holies was a cloud of light (shekinali), symbolic of the presence of God, and before it stood the candlestick with six branches, on each of which and on the central stem was a lamp eternally burning; while in the forecourt was an altar on which the sacred fire was never allowed to go out.”
In the ancient world
Fire worship in Graeco-Roman tradition had two separate forms: fire of the hearth and fire of the forge. Hearth worship was maintained in Rome by the Vestal Virgins, who served the goddess Vesta, protector of the home, who had a sacred flame as the symbol of her presence in the city. The Greek equivalent of the goddess was Hestia, whose worship took place more commonly within the household. The fire of the forge was associated with the Greek god Hephaestus and the Roman equivalent Vulcan. These two seem to have served both as craft-guild patrons and as protectors against accidental fires in cities. Associated with fire, we remember how the god Prometheus, stole fire for humans from the Olympian gods and earned the wrath of Zeus. Most forms of worship in Graeco-Roman religion involved either cooking or burning completely an animal on a fire made on an altar in front of a temple.
I leave you with two sayings to ponder over and digest their depths of meaning.
‘If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.’
‘A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.’