In ancient times, a lamp was an indicator of civilization. Existence of a lamp proved the existence of a potter or a metal smith, who transformed clay or metal into a container; a farmer who grew cotton; an oil press where oilseeds were crushed into oil; a cow whose milk was churned to make ghee. For a man lost in the forest, the presence of lamp meant human settlement, perhaps a village. It meant he was safe. A lamp was the beacon of a house, a home, a place of hospitality, where one was welcomed and given food and shelter. That is why a lamp became the symbol of the divine – the one who drove away darkness and welcome prosperity. Both in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata when the protagonists were told to live in forest they were basically expected to stay in place where they could not see any lamps even far away in the horizon.
When a man is leaving the house, women wave lighted lamps around him to ensure he is protected by an aura of bright energy. When the person returns from outside, he is greeted at the gate with the waving of lamps to drive away dark energies of the outside world and to once again energize him with the light of the house.
In the Veda, darkness is the symbol of ignorance. To light a lamp is to replace darkness with light, ignorance with wisdom. Buddha said, with a single lamp hundreds of lamps can be lit. In ancient times, married women offered lamps to other married women to symbolically represent the transmission of good fortune from one household to another. Kings, when pleased, used to give poets lamps and tell them to claim all the land they traversed till the flame was blown out.
In India, at the height of the festival season, which begins as the rainy season draws to a close, there is a festival specially dedicated to lamps. This is Deepavali or Diwali, the festival of lamps, when lamps are lit in every corner of the house - on verandahs and balconies and window sills and courtyards and thresholds... so that every house radiates soft and gentle domestic energy and welcomes the goddess Lakshmi, embodiment of wealth and fortune.
Lighting lamps was always considered auspicious in Hindu society. Lamps, like sweets and flowers and incenses is an offering to the gods. Lamps are lit to celebrate the arrival of Ram into Ayodhya during the Diwali festival. Lamps are lit to celebrate the destruction of the Tripura by Shiva during Kartik Purnima. Lamps are always placed before gods. At dusk, the lighting of lamps is supposed to keep away demons and welcome gods, especially Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. When lamps are put out, it means the day has come to an end, it is time to sleep. It also means, sometimes, that a life has come to an end.
When lamps are put out, ghosts and demons are on the prowl. Lamps thus are the symbol of protection and of wisdom and of hope. That is why they have just an important place in the sacred landscape of India.
Text by Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik