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Diwali indicates self knowledge


A lighted lamp is a key symbolism in Diwali utsav. Light in Indian culture represents knowledge. But strangely we seem to hear a lot about a victory of ‘Good’ over ‘Evil’ during Diwali. This is quite superficial and even shallow. The ‘Good over Evil’ explanation certainly lacks credibility from an Indian perspective. Evil bashing has become so rampant that, for every major Indian festival, this ‘evil’ is made a fashionable scapegoat for explaining festive significance. It is a kind of a warmonger’s lingo, especially when the English word ‘evil’ has no translation in any Indian language. To get to the central message of the Diwali utsav, we just need to draw our attention to the key symbolism – Light. 

In the Holy Geeta, Shri Krishna says that ’Aham Krsnasya Jagatah’ meaning ‘everything that exists is a manifestation of his divinity’. So there is nothing that is devoid of divinity. Logically then, there can never exist a devil or evil outside divinity. It is rather hard to comprehend this, especially when our minds are constantly fed alien concepts of evil and devil laced with war-mongering stimuli.

It is ‘Knowledge over Ignorance’ not ‘Good over Evil’…

The Indian way of studying life is too deep and subtle. When studying unrighteous behaviour, it looks at the cause. The many deep thinkers, philosophers and enlightened masters of India have unanimously pointed out that ‘absence of knowledge’ or ‘ignorance’ is the real reason for unrighteous selfish tendencies. The Buddha said the root cause of all suffering is ‘ignorance’ (‘Avijja’ – Pali for ‘Avidya’). His assertion being ‘If the root cause of suffering is eliminated, man will be happy’.

In times earlier to the insightful Buddha, the Dhaarmic literature had already pointed out that,  ’Avidya’ or ‘lack of vidya/knowledge’ was at the root of all so-called evil and darkness was its metaphor. The logic (tarka) established was  - where there is no light of wisdom, there will be darkness. Conversely when wisdom dawns, there can never be darkness.

Swami Vivekananda said, “Ignorance is the great mother of all misery, and the fundamental ignorance is to think that the Infinite weeps and cries, that He is finite. This is the basis of all ignorance that we, the immortal, the ever pure, the perfect Spirit, think that we are little minds, that we are little bodies; it is the mother of all selfishness. As soon as I think that I am a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and I become separate. As soon as this idea of separation comes, it opens the door to all mischief and leads to all misery”.

The messages from the past have been categorical that ignorance alone is the real cause that makes us unhappy. The antidote being the light of knowledge as in the context of Diwali.

Lamps are not a Home Decor item in Indian culture…

The Diwali utsav has many historical origins and so are the diverse practices of celebrating it. But lamps are a common factor. Whenever Indians have thought of celebrating in a grand scale, lamps have been lit city-wide. Even on the eve of Indian independence in 1947, the homes, buildings, streets and cities were decorated with lamps. The followers (Jains) of Shri Vardhman Mahaveer lit lamps to celebrate his enlightenment as it symbolized personal illumination.

Though the illuminated lamp is a primary symbol in Indian culture, it is not a home decor item. Every Hindu house has a lamp. Every temple, every altar in a Hindu home, every Hindu ritual from birth to death involves lighting the lamp. Even the common invocation is to lead a person from darkness to light (jyoti) as in ‘Tamaso ma Jyotir gamaya’ found in the Brhad-Aranyaka Upanishad.

‘Light’ represents self-knowledge…

In Indian culture, ‘light’ represents ‘knowledge’ that dispels ignorance. Light makes it possible to see things clearly. Light is also considered as a symbol of true auspiciousness, prosperity, and abundance which is due to manifestation of inner light and wisdom. Wisdom is symbolized as light and it is said to culminate in infinite happiness that is transcedental. The finite things can never give happiness as asserted in ‘Na alpe sukhamasti’ by the Guru Sanatkumara in the Chaandogya Upanishad. The Guru says only the real core in everyone is the source of happiness. This source is alluded to as light in the Katha Upanishad which says “All that shines is but the shadow of this shining; all this universe is effulgent with his light’. In the dark sanctum sanctorum of a temple, it is the light of the aarti that enables the darshan of divinity. Symbolically, only in the light can divinity is said to be intuitively discovered.

Contemporary Gurus like Swami Chinmayananda in one of his Diwali messages makes this practical when he said “Let us remind ourselves, at least on this great day that we can be victorious over our impulses and come to illumine for the world around the lamp of wisdom from the Land of Spiritual Light… In our bosom, the wick of the mind is maintained by the oil of vaasanas (unmanifest desires). When the oil of vaasanas is over, the distinct flame of Existence flutters, to become one with the Elemental Fire (unmanifest)”.

The lighted lamp symbolizes wisdom (gyana) that alone leads to happiness is the assertion by the greats throughout Indian spiritual literature.

Hence  Diwali is better to be rephrased as a ‘festival of self knowledge’ rather than a superficial understanding of a victory of good over evil.

Ram Lingam shares the insights on India and Indian culture at

Diwali invocations on “LIGHT”…

Shubham Karoti Kalyaannam-Aarogyam Dhana-Sampadaa |
Shatru-Buddhi-Vinaashaaya Deepa-Jyotir-Namostute ||

salutations to the light of the lamp which brings auspiciousness, health and prosperity, which destroys inimical feelings; salutations to the light of the lamp.

Deepa-Jyotih Para-Brahma Deepa-Jyotir-Janaardanah |
Deepo Haratu Me Paapam Deepa-Jyotir-Namostute ||

salutations to the light of the lamp, the light of the lamp represents the supreme Brhman, the light of the lamp represents Janardhana (sri vishnu), let the light of the lamp remove my sins; salutations to the light of the lamp.

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