The festival is observed with special fervor at the Arunachaleshwara temple at Thiruvannamalai. On this occasion five deepams signifying the five elements; air, fire, water, earth, and ether are lit in the temple premises after elaborate rituals. A single lamp called the Bharani Deepam is lit from these five pots and is kept burning in the temple all through, signifying the merging of all five elements into the divine. Around the same time a Maha Deepam is lit on top of the hill which forms the backdrop of the huge temple. An enormous receptacle is filled with more than 3,500 kg of ghee and a giant wick made of a special cloth coated with 2Kgs of camphor is lit. The deepam can be seen from miles around for many days.
Karthigai Deepam is among the oldest festivals celebrated in Tamil Nadu and finds mention in many ancient Tamil literary tomes like ‘Ahananuru’ (200 B.C. to 300 A.D.), ‘Tolkappiyam’ that dates back to 2,000 or 2,500 BC, and ‘Jeevakachintamani’. The famous poetess Avaiyyar, also mentions about the festival in her works.
Festivals play an indelible part in the cultural history of the country and each one of them is interwoven with mythology and folklore: Karthigai Deepam is no exception. Prominent among the legends associated with this festival is that of Lingodbhava.
Once a very mortal dispute arose between Brahma and Vishnu as to who is the greater of the two. To settle the dispute they approached Siva who then took the form of an enormous pillar of fire in the form of a linga which stretched from depths to heights which no one could see. Curious to find out where it had arisen, and where it ended, Brahma, in the form of a swan flew upwards, whereas Vishnu took the form of a boar and went boring down. Many eons passed and neither found an end or a beginning. Vishnu realized the greatness of Siva and accepted defeat but Brahma tried to trick Siva by asking a Ketaki flower to falsely testify that it had indeed seen the top end of the linga. As they were recounting their experiences, Siva emerged from the flaming pillar. Brahma and Vishnu realized their mistake and offered their obeisance to Siva.
The iconography of Lingodbhava finds representation in most of the temples in South India. It is usually carved and placed in the niche of the western wall of the garbhagriha of the central shrine. The reason behind the choice of the western wall is that the energy of the main deity in the garbhagriha radiates outwards to the western façade bestowing blessings upon the devotees. According to the agama tradition, only one-fifth of Siva Linga in Lingodbhav Murtis must be visible on top and one-fifth at the bottom. The rest of it, in the center, must depict Siva carved as Chandrashekhara and the lingam itself should be left uncarved.
The picture above is one such representation of Lingodbhava from Airavateswara Temple at Dharasuram. It depicts Siva with four hands: one hand in Abhaya-mudra, another in Varada pose, the third hand carrying an axe and the fourth a deer. Adorned with Jatamukuta, Siva exudes a sense of serenity. The legs below the knee are left unsculpted and appear as if they are invisible. Brahma is depicted as a swan on the right upper side of Siva and Vishnu is carved as a boar digging the earth at the foot of the Sivalinga. The size of swan and the boar is usually the same as that of the face of Siva. On either side of the sculpture are Brahma and Vishnu facing the Lingam with folded hands in an act of submission. Adjoining the sculptures are paintings on the wall which have faded with time.
The growing and expanding Sivalinga in Lingodbhava signifies the infinite light and boundless knowledge that prevails in the cosmos; there is nothing static, but only the flow of relentless flourishing, rejuvenating energy.
In Tamil bhakti poetry, Manikkavasagar’s ‘Thiruvasagam’ has a special special place and in a singularly beautiful verse he describes Lingodbhava thus;
அன்பருக்கு அன்பனே யாவையுமாய் அல்லையுமாய்
சோதியனே துன்னிருளே தோன்றாப் பெருமையனே
ஆதியனே அந்தம் நடுவாகி அல்லானே
ஈர்த்து என்னை ஆட்கொண்ட எந்தை பெருமானே
கூர்த்த மெய் ஞானத்தால் கொண்டு உணர்வார் தம்கருத்தில்
Dear lord who is near to those who are dear to you
You are the light emerging from darkness
You are invisible
The beginning, the end and the in between
You drew me into your fold
To seek you not by knowledge
But by the true spiritual striving within
(My translation of this verse is no match to that of G U Pope who translated Thiruvasagam in 1858!)
Fire as a concept, an element, an informing principle, a deity and a metaphor has existed all through history. The worship of fire and the worship with fire have been a part of ancient religions across the world. If the Adityas and then Agni were primary deities in the Vedas, the Zoroastrians saw fire as the light of Ahura Mazda. The Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome worshipped the Sacred Fire of Vesta, the Greeks bowed to Hestas and Hephaestus, the Aztecs had Chantico, to name just a few. The Chinese worshipped Zhu Rong as a solar deity. The Buddhists have Goma/ Homa fire rituals for purification and warding off sickness and difficulties.
All of them have proclaimed the nature of the divine in identical terms emphasizing that there is no fundamental difference between religions. The differences in understanding and articulation are man-made to comprehend the incomprehensible. As the Vedas point out “Ekam sat Vipra bahudha vadanti” “There is only one truth and learned persons call it by many names.”
The festival of Karthigai underscores how all the five elements - earth, water, air, space and fire come together to form light that symbolizes the eternal, ineffable, divine spirit who has to be experienced and realized.
In the ‘Republic’, Plato described the human condition perceptively as the Allegory of the Cave. We are like slaves chained in a cave. All that we see are the shadows thrown by the flames behind us, offering an illusion of knowledge. He urges us to step outside and experience the dazzling, all pervading luminous light outside and emerge from the shadows to true awareness.
Let us strive to search for the light within, however small and hidden it might be!
As Goethe remarked, “someday perhaps the inner light will shine forth from us, and then we'll need no other light.”
Look forward to your comments…responses…