In almost every Indian home, a lamp is lit daily before the altar of God. In some houses, it is lit at dawn; in some, twice a day at dawn and dusk; and in a few it is kept alight continuously (akhanda deepa). All auspicious functions and moments like daily worship, rituals and festivals and even many social occasions like inaugurations commence with the lighting of the lamp, which is often maintained alight through the occasion.
Light symbolizes knowledge; and darkness, ignorance. God is the “Knowledge Principle” (Chaitanya) who is the source, the enlivener and the illuminator of all knowledge. Hence light is worshipped as God Himself. Knowledge removes ignorance just as light removes darkness. Hence we light the lamp to bow down to knowledge as the greatest of all forms of wealth. Knowledge backs all our actions, whether good or bad. We therefore keep a lamp lit during all auspicious occasions as a witness to our thoughts and actions.
Why not light a bulb or tubelight?
That too would remove darkness. But the traditional oil lamp has another spiritual significance. The oil or ghee in the lamp symbolizes our vaasanas or negative tendencies and the wick, the ego. When lit by spiritual knowledge, the vaasanas get slowly exhausted and the ego too finally perishes. The flame of a lamp always burns upwards. Similarly we should acquire such knowledge as to take us towards higher ideals.
A single lamp can light hundreds more just as a man of knowledge can give his knowledge to many more. The brilliance of the light does not diminish despite its repeated use to light many more lamps. So too knowledge does not lessen when shared with or imparted to others. On the contrary it increases in clarity and conviction on giving. It benefits both the receiver and the giver.
Whilst lighting the lamp we thus pray:
Deepa sarva tamopahaha
Deepena saadhyate sarvam
Sandhyaa deepo namostute
I prostrate to the dawn/dusk lamp. Whose light is the Knowledge Principle (the Supreme God), which removes the darkness of ignorance, and by which all can be achieved in life.
Which else shall beautify a home, but the flame of a lovely lamp?
Which else shall adorn the mind, but the light of wisdom deep?
This simple custom of lighting a lamp in the house contains thus a wealth of intellectual and spiritual meaning.