By Kumkum Bhatia
“With incense, lamps and ghee, I offer this lamp-lit worship service.” — Guru Granth Sahib
In Hinduism, ārti is performed one to five times a day and every puja concludes with it. We also welcome our Guru or saint with ārti. One of the 16 steps of puja, it consists of holding a lighted lamp in one’s right hand and moving it clockwise to reveal the beauty and glory of all the limbs of the Lord. Ārti, normally accompanied with the singing of special bhajans, composed by great saints, is an expression of the ultimate joy and devotion of the worshipper.
Light – a symbol of the Lord
Light in the form of a candle or lamp is a significant symbol of the presence of Divinity in all religions. God appeared in the burning bush when He gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. In Christianity, verses of protection proclaim ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?’ (Psalm 27:1). In fact, a lamp or candle is a potent sign that displays the spark of life itself. Candles are lit, in all religions, as a mark of respect for a departing soul. In Buddhism, light represents teaching, knowledge and realization.
It is said that the word ārti comes from the Rig Veda and evolved from the worship of fire. Fire is one of the most important elements in Hinduism and is venerated as Agni Devta. Among the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and space – fire is a link between the world of gross matter and the subtle world of spirit. Moreover, fire always moves upwards. Hence, Agni illuminates the supreme knowledge that takes us to higher levels of Truth and Enlightenment. ‘Ā’ means ‘towards’, and ‘rati’, means ‘right or virtue.’ Ārti is, thus, going ‘towards God.’
The main ārtis in temples and homes are performed during dusk and dawn. These periods of transition are considered to be predominantly sāttvic (pure) and most conducive to prayer and meditation.
A traditional ārti consists of flowers, incense sticks, water and a lamp. They represent the five elements – the entire world of matter and one’s own being – which are offered to the Lord. By moving the ārti around the image and singing praises of the Lord, the worshipper promises to remain centred in Him throughout the activities of the day.
Ārtis can be performed using an earthen lamp or camphor. While burning, camphor leaves no residue and spreads a fragrance. In performance of one’s duties, inherent negative tendencies are reduced; the ego (sense of individuality) is destroyed and the devotee spreads love and happiness wherever he or she goes. The diya, too, has deep symbolism. If we fill our hearts with the oil of love, and light the wick of a single-pointed intellect with knowledge, the darkness of ignorance is removed.
In temples, the deity enshrined in the dark, windowless, innermost sanctum is illumined by the ārti. This is figurative of a silent, dedicated and humble journey within, where the Lord is hidden in the deep recesses of the heart, only to be revealed by the light of devotion and knowledge.
At the end of the ārti, we reverentially place our hands over the flame and gently touch our eyes and head. It signifies our desire for noble thoughts, a bright intellect and divine vision.