Lighting oil lamps is one of the most common daily rituals in Indian tradition. Whether in temples, homes, offices or simply in small shrines on a shelf in a dorm room, one will always find a small brass or silver lamp to be filled with oil and lit on a daily basis. However, my guru, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji frequently implores people, “Don’t only light the lamps in your temples, homes and offices. Also remember to light the lamp in your own heart. That divine lamp will dispel the darkness of ignorance.” The lamp in our hearts? What divine light is he referring to? What darkness of ignorance is there within us that should be dispelled?
Ignorance of the nature of the true self
We are all ignorant about so many things. One cannot possibly be an expert or even properly informed about the majority of subjects in the world. The information available in the world today is too vast, its depth and breadth boundless and unfathomable. Yet ignorance of math, science, history or technology may make life slightly inconvenient but it does not shroud us in darkness. It does not keep the presence of the Divine at an arm’s length from our hearts.
What is the ignorance that must be dispelled in order for us to live peaceful, fulfilling, meaningful and divinely-connected lives? It is the ignorance of the true nature of the Self.
To me, one of the most beautiful aspects of Hinduism is the belief that at the core of our being we are divine. In contrast to other major world religions, Hinduism teaches that at the essence of our being there is pure divinity, there is light, there is perfection. It is merely ignorance, the false identification with the body and its urges, which leads us to “sin.” Of course the karmic consequences for our actions must be paid, even when we realize that they were committed due to the darkness of ignorance rather than the darkness of evil.
The divine light within
When the saints and spiritual masters of India exhort us to remove the darkness, to light the lamp within, they are referring not to a transformation of inherent darkness into newly created light, but rather to a shedding of that ignorance, that false identification, that illusion, which shrouds our innate light from our view. As Pujya Swamiji explains, “The Sun is always shining outside, but if your windows are covered with two inches of mud it will be dark in your home. The answer is not to go out in search of the Sun, to sign up for courses or workshops on invoking the power of the Sun, or even to bemoan the darkness. The answer is simply to clean the windows so that the naturally occurring presence of light may flow into your home.”
In the same way as the Sun in Pujya Swamiji’s example, the inner divine light is always there, always shining, always available. It is the core of our being. However, the “windows” of our consciousness have become muddied by our false identifications, our expectations, our grudges, our jealousies. Hence, that light is obscured from our view.
Who am I?
From the time of the war of Kurukshetra, when Lord Krishna urged Arjuna to realize his true Self, to realize not only the universal dharma but his personal dharma as a kshatriya, as the son of Pandu, as one whose task was to restore dharma to adharma, saints and rishis and sages have encouraged us to recognize our true nature.
When we are not aware of who we really are, we inevitably try—consciously or unconsciously—to become something else. We then live our lives falsely identified with roles, masks and personalities that are not truly us. However, unlike the actor in a drama who remembers to remove his costume and make-up at the end of the day, we have become so internally united with our false self, that we have begun to think it is who we are. We have come to believe the mask is our true face, the script is our true life, and the costume is our true Self.
We get a degree and we say, “I am a PH.D., or I am a doctor.” We put on make-up and expensive clothes or we get cosmetic surgery and we say, “I am beautiful.” We earn a lot of money and we say, “I am rich. I am successful.” We get married and have children and we say, “I am a wife and a mother,” or “I am a husband and a father.” We make many friends and we say, “I am popular. I am well-liked and respected.”
However, these are merely things we do, ways we spend our time, choices we make, personalities we don because it suits the culture in which we live. They are not who we are. We are not our degrees, our beauty, our bank accounts, our popularity or our relations. The problem with this false identification is that these roles are all fleeting. They are based merely on what we have done and achieved today. So, when they get shattered, as falsehood is inevitably shattered and as anything of the flesh is inevitably limited, we lose not merely a title or a job or money or beauty, but we lose the very connection to our Self. We have wrapped our sense of self so tightly around these roles that when the curtain falls and the drama ends, we feel that our life is being torn out from within us. If I am beautiful, what happens when I age, or my skin breaks out, or I have an accident that scars my face? Then who am I? If I am a mother or a wife then when my children grow up and don’t need me or my husband divorces me or dies, who am I? If I am rich and successful, if I lose my money or retire from my profession, who am I?
We also say, “I am angry. I am sad. I am frustrated. I am depressed.” Yet, our scriptures, philosophy and gurus tell us we are none of these things. Our brain may be experiencing emotional patterns of chemical and electric energy that correlate to what psychologists may term anger or depression. However, I, the true Self am pure, perfect, untouched and not afflicted by patterns of energy corresponding to emotional states. I am the one who is aware, who is watching, who is witnessing, who is able to name the states of sadness and depression, but not the one who is afflicted by them.
Ignorance of the self leads to misery
The lack of awareness of who we truly are, the lack of ability to distinguish between what I do and who I am, this ignorance is the darkness which leads to suffering and misery in life. It is also this ignorance of the Self’s true nature that leads us to act in ways for which we have to reap the fruits of negative karma. Greed, lust, dishonesty, jealousy, anger and arrogance are products of our blindness toward the true light within and toward the true nature of the Self. If I am already full and complete then there is nothing to covet.
The true self’s cup is always overflowing
These days in the new-age “spiritual” circles there is talk about “enlightened abundance,” which typically refers to the concept of becoming so enlightened that one can manifest piles of money! There are books, films, courses and workshops on manifesting abundance as though if one is simply in touch enough with the Source, that Source will provide whatever one asks. However, what the lives and teachings of the true saints and rishis teach us is that the moment one has even a taste of awakening, a taste of divine connection, a taste of being one with the Source, one immediately experiences not a genie who will grant three wishes, but rather an immediate and overwhelming sense of completeness. Those, who are truly enlightened, live with the experience that their cup is overflowing. They are one with all of creation; thus there is no need to possess the wealth of the universe. It is already theirs. This is why in the stories of our scriptures, whether it’s Kunti (mother of the Pandavas) or Dhruv or Prahlad, when God himself stands in front of them instructing them to ask for any boon, there is nothing they want. They are complete merely due to his presence.
When I first came to Rishikesh, during one of my early satsangs with Pujya Swamiji, he held up a pen in front of me and said, “You are not this pen.” I laughed. Of course I am not a pen, I thought. How obvious. He then said, “There will come a time when I will tell you that you are not that body and you will laugh in the same way you just laughed when I said you’re not a pen. A time will come when it will be as ridiculous to assume you are the body as it is ridiculous to assume you are a pen.”
When we light an oil lamp or a simple candle in our temple or in our rooms, let us pray for that light within our own hearts that illumines the nature of our Self, showing us who we really are.