Old Lamps and New
Lamps signify festivity. All our major festivals, such as Deepavali and KritthikA deepOtsavam, revolve around the lamp. Even in the modern day, when electric power has replaced the traditional lamp as a means of lighting, any function gets off to a start only with the formal lighting of the ornamental "KutthuviLakku". At all auspicious events at home, the lamp is a must, and is considered to be a "mangala vastu". In fact, the daily routine of every lady begins with lighting the sacred lamp in the pooja room or "PerumAL sannidhi". The lamp is so much a part of our life, that it is even venerated as a deity, with special poojAs performed ("TiruviLakku poojA") and even a stotram devoted to it. Adiyen would like to dwell on some unusual lamps in this piece.
The purpose of a lamp is to spread light and to dispel darkness. There is something beautiful and serene about lamplight, as compared to the harsh glare of the electric lamp. The normal lamp, made of mud or metal, is lighted with oil and a cotton wick. But three Azhwars, sheltering in a narrow passage from raging storm, lit a strange lamp to light up the place, so that they could see better the fourth person who was crowding them. Sri Poygai Azhwar, Sri PeyAzhwar and Sri BhootatthAzwar, one after the other, sought refuge from pouring rain, at a tiny shelter, which permitted one person to lie down, or two to sit and three to stand. When the three great souls were standing in the pitch-dark shelter, they felt the presence of a fourth person, crowding them. Had they been ordinary mortals, they would have desperately searched for a lamp to reveal the identity of the trespasser. Being great seers, they chose to light their own lamps, even in the absence of the traditional ingredients !. These were lamps extraordinaire! First, Sri Poigai Azhwar lit an unusual lamp, with the whole world as the container, the deep, broad sea as fuel and the glittering Sun as the wick-
"Vaiyam tagaLiyA vAr kadalE neyyAga
veyya KadirOn viLakkAga- seyya
Sudar AzhiyAn adikkE choottinEn solmAlai
Idar Azhi neengugavE endru"
Lamps go out because of their running out of fuel or the wick burning itself out. But the lamp lighted by Poigai PirAn was indestructible, having as it did the whole universe as the container, the unlimited waters of the sea in the place of oil, and the Lord of Light himself as the illuminating mechanism. Just imagine this Cosmic Lamp!
Not to be outdone, Sri BhootattAzhwar lit another lamp, entirely different from the first one, with his unlimited love for the Lord as the container, his overflowing devotion as the fuel and his magnificent mind, melting with moving thoughts of the Lord, as the wick-
"anbE tagaLiyA ArvamE neyyAga
inburugu sindai idu tiriAga-nanburugi
GnAna chuddar viLakku EtrinEn Naranarku
GnAna Tamizh purinda nAn"
This sounds so much more beautiful than the lamp lighted by the first Azhwar, as it was lit up entirely with the best of human emotions.
Even an ordinary lamp dispels darkness for a fixed radius. What then to say about such extraordinary lamps as those lit by these two Seers! While other lanterns make visible mundane objects, the two magnificent lamps lit by the two Azhwars brought to their eyes the Lord Himself, with His divine form glowing verily like beaten gold, the beautiful Piratti adorning His broad chest, the all-powerful discus in one hand and the milky-white Panchajanya in the other. This enchanting spectacle is graphically described by PeyAzhwAr thus-
"Tiru kaNdEn ponmEni kaNdEn, tigazhum
arukkan aNi niramum kaNdEn-serukkiLarum
PonnAzhi kaNdEn puri Sangam kaikkaNdEn
En Azhi vaNnan pAl indru".
Now for another amazing variety of lamp: Lamps, being non-sentient objects, only serve to illuminate other objects. They are not self-luminent, and do not possess the attribute of "svayam prakAsatvam". Are there then sentient lamps? Yes, avers Sri Tirumangai Mannan, and goes on to describe the existence of a strange and magnificent lamp, which is never extinguished and transcends all limits, physical and otherwise.
In one of the most moving tributes to the Lord, Sri Kalian calls Him "nandA viLakkE, aLattharku ariyAi". This wonderful lamp, which exudes eternal brilliance, is none other than Emperuman, who is the personification of all light, transcends limits of time, place and object, and glows with self-luminent wisdom. Son of Swami Desikan Sri Naiyinachar in his pillai AnDadi describes the Lord of Seven Hills as a lamp-"ViLakkAgi Venkata verpinil vAzhum". It is no wonder then that at one of the divya desams, He sports the sobriquet "Deepa PrakAsan".
If the Lord is a lamp, can His Consort be anything else? We thus hear Sri AndAl being described as "Then Puduvai vEyar payanda ViLakku".
The Lord is also said to hold a lamp in His hand- the light of knowledge- for emancipating souls wallowing in the gloom of ignorance-"MAnam pradeepam iva kAruNikO dadAti".
Last, but not the least, and more appropriately, the Acharya is said to light up the lamp of knowledge in the disciple's heart, to dispel the deep-rooted ignorance and guide the sishya to Liberation. This act of kindness is so immeasurable that Swami Desikan says that it is beyond recompense-
"Etri manatthu ezhil gnAna viLakkai iruL anaitthum
mAtriyavarkku Or kaimmAru Mayanum kANakillAn".
Thus old or new, lamps that shed light and cheer are welcome everywhere. Let us end this with the universal prayer of the lost soul addressed to the Eternal Lamp, the plaintive cry of the JeevAtma steeped in ignorance to be led to enlightenment-"TamasO mA JyOtirgamaya". In a rare coincidence of faiths, Cardinal Newman, in an exact translation, prays to the Lord, "Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom!".