The lighting of oil lamps, deepam, at sunset on the full-moon day in the month of Kaarthigai is an ancient practice in vogue throughout India, from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari.
It is prescribed in our sastras that while lighting the deepam, we should consecrate it as the abode of Sri Damodara and Sri Tripurantaka along with Uma Devi. This is done much the same way we invoke the sannidhyam, or indwelling, of a chosen deity in a saaligrama, linga or a silai (icon), while doing pujas. The idea behind it is that everyone who sees it and every living creature – worm, insect, bird beast or planet - on which the light falls will be suffused with the presence of the God and be blessed. The following prayer is accordingly recited:
Keetah patangaah masakaascha vrikshaah
Jale stthale ye nivasanti jeevaah;
Drshtvaa pradeepam nacha janmabhaaginah
Bhavanti nityam svapachaahi vipraah.
This prayer is in consonance with the invocation: sarve janaas-sukhino bhavanthu – may every being be happy. We also light bonfire before temples on this night so that its blaze can be seen for a great distance and God’s grace descend on all those who behold it.
The most famous kaarthigai deepam is the Annamalai Mahaa Deepam at Arunachala (Tiruvannamalai) which is seen for miles around. This is actually a 10 day festival, beginning with Uthiradam (star) day in Karthigai month in the temple and culminates in the Bharani Deepam on the eve of Karthigai (star) day atop the hill. A humongous ‘lamp’ – a huge brass vessel filled with ghee and butter with an equally enormous wick – is lit at 6 pm when the full moon emerges from the east: millions all around the hill watch the emergence of Lord Shiva as Jyotirlinga to the tune of ‘Om Arunachaleswaraya Namaha’ chanted by everyone.
It is significant that Kaarthigai Deepam is observed in both Saivite and Vaishnavite temples, as there is aavaahana (or seeking the dwelling) in the light of both Damodara and Tirupurantaka.
We believe in punya kshetras (holy places), punya teerthas (holy bathing waters) and punya kaalas (auspicious times). The kshetras and teerthas have been sanctified by the tapas of great sages who have visited them: those of us who cannot or do not observe the austerities of the rishis, we get blessed when we make pilgrimages to these kshetras and take a bath in the holy waters. Punya kaalas represent periods of planetary conjunctions beneficial to one and all. Kaarthigai Deepam is one such sacred conjunction, ie of full moon and Krithika nakshatra, which occurs only once in a year. Witnessing the Arunachala Karthigai deepam is to be at the right place at the right time. If we cannot do so, may we at least light the lamp in our homes at the punya kaala!
P.S. This article, for the most part, consists of excerpts from a benediction of Kanchi Paramacharya delivered on the occasion of Kaarthigai Deepam in December 1957. This year, ie 2011, the Kaarthigai Deepam falls on 8th December.