Deepavali as a festival of lights is connected to the most ancient symbolism of India, the movement from darkness to light as the essence of our lives. In this regard, there is a famous Vedic prayer:
Asato ma sad gamaya
Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya
Mrtyor ma amritam gamaya
Lead us from non-being to being
Lead us from darkness to light
Lead us from death to immortality
This famous Upanishadic chant precedes the special verses that teach Aham Brahmasmi, or “I am Brahman”, expressing the unity of the individual soul with the supreme universal reality – one of the most profound statements of spiritual realisation in the history of the world. Let us try to understand it.
Non-being or asat is that which in not enduring, which is transient and ultimately momentary. Sat is that which is enduring, the timeless and immutable. We all aspire for what is lasting and are unsatisfied with what is temporary and comes to an end.
Tamas is darkness, not in the outer sense, but in the inner sense, a lack of knowledge of our true nature as jyoti, the light of infinite consciousness. Tamas is the shadow of avidya, ignorance of our true self arising.
Mrityu is not mere physical death but an awareness trapped in mortality, focused on what is ephemeral, holds no light and leads to sorrow. Unreality, darkness and death are aspects of the same outer experience of life. Reality, light and immortality are the higher truth of our inner being that we have forgotten and must strive to return to.
The ultimate goal of life is to move across the ocean of darkness or samsara to the eternal light of truth. This cannot be achieved by mere emotion or belief, or by reason or ideas, because these are part of the darkness and ignorance of the mind. The journey from darkness to light is a movement beyond the dualistic mind to a higher unitary awareness that transcends all concepts.
Honouring The Inner Light
Many traditions honour the divine as light and celebrate festivals of light.Yet, few truly understand the universal light of consciousness. Most identify the light of truth with a particular name, form, person or belief. This reduction of universal truth to a particular phenomenon is another kind of darkness.
Yoga and Vedanta define ignorance or avidya as that which binds us to the outer world of illusion, by confusing being and non-being, the eternal and the transient, along the same lines as this Vedic prayer. It is mistaking our true self-nature as pure consciousness with our outer ego identity as body and mind.
Our Inner Agni Or Immortal Flame
Our true immortality is not as a mere physical body or separate person. What is born must die. What has a beginning must have an end. Yet, there abides within us an enduring flame of awareness that has witnessed our entire lives from a place before birth and beyond death. That inner flame is the Vedic agni, the deathless light of consciousness that resides in the hearts of all creatures.
Removing tamas or darkness requires purification of the mind, particularly of our attachment to the idea of physical reality. Our true nature is the radiance of consciousness that has many lives, many bodies, and innumerable experiences in uncountable realms – which is ultimately the supreme light behind all creatures, all minds and all worlds, the inner sun of Brahman.
That which is mortal can never become immortal. That which is immortal can never become mortal. There can be no change of nature. But we can move from our outer mortal nature to our inner immortal nature, which requires a radical shift of perception, a turning within, a transformative change of vision.
The atman, our true self, is the inner light and energy that links us with the entire universe. We reach it through developing our buddhi or higher intelligence, cultivating a discernment between being and non-being, light and darkness, the eternal and the transient.
May each person enkindle that inner flame of awareness by looking deeply within to our original nature of boundless self-illumination and bliss!
May that infinite light arise within you on Deepavali!