Karthikai Deepam, the festival of lights basically a Tamil festival is celebrated throughout Tamil Nadu during the month of Karthikai (November-December). Not many of us are aware that it is one of the oldest festivals celebrated in the State, perhaps even before people began celebrating Deepavali and Navarathri.
The Karthikai Deepam day commemorates the appearance of the Lord as a jothi sthambam, an infinite pillar of light at Arunachala. This festival falls in the Tamil month of Kartigai when the star Krithika is on the ascendant and usually occurs on a full moon day.
One of the earliest references to the festival is found in the Ahananuru, a book of poems, which dates back to the Sangam Age (200 B.C. to 300 A.D.). The Ahananuru clearly states that Karthikai is celebrated on the full moon day (pournami) of the Tamil month of Karthikai.
It was one of the most important festivals (peruvizha) of the ancient Tamils. Avaiyyar, the renowned poetess of those times, refers to the festival in her songs.
In ancient Tamil literature, the oldest available work Tolkappiyam gives in concise verse form rules for Tamil grammar as well as other topics.
Scholars agree that this work dates back to 2000 or 2500 BC. In one of the formulae Tolkapiyar in his treatise uses the phrase “like the lamp´s flame pointing upwards.” In another epic Jeevakachintamani written by a Jain poet, Thiruthakka Thevar, the poet describes how people celebrated the Karthikai Deepam festival.
In Karnarpadu, the poet in one of the stanzas, describes how in the Tamil month of Karthikai during the time of the Krithika star, the lamps lit by people blossomed on earth, bringing rain in its wake. In another Tamil work, the Kalavazhi Narpadu dating back to the third Sangam period (after 1000 B.C) the poet says, “In the battle the blood oozing out from the dead soldiers´ bodies is like the red coloured flame of the lamps lit during Karthikai Deepam festival”. In another Sangam work, Pazhamozhi, in stanzas ending in proverbs, one stanza ends with this phrase, “like the beacon on the Hill.”
Inscriptions in our temples also refer to the festival. A mid-sixteenth Century inscription at the Arulalaperumal temple in Kancheepuram, refers to the festival as Thiru Karthikai Thirunal.
In Sambandar´s Tevaram, while trying to raise a young girl Poompavai from the dead, he asks with deep feeling, “O Poompavai, have you gone without seeing the ancient Karthikai festival?” Another song in Tevaram says that the Lord is verily the deepam (lit during the Karthikai festival).
There is a work on Karthikai Deepam consisting of a hundred stanzas, praising the festival. When Muruganar asked Bhagavan Ramana about the significance of the Karthikai Deepam festival, Bhagavan composed a stanza of four lines in which he says, “The true significance of the Karthikai Deepam festival is that it turns the intel-lect inwards and having fixed it in the Heart merges it with the indweller of the Heart”.
Karthikai is essentially a festival of lamps. The lighted lamp is considered an auspicious symbol. It is believed to ward off evil forces and usher in prosperity and joy. While the lighted lamp is important for all Hindu rituals and festivals, it is indispensable for Karthikai.
A story is told like this. There was a demon who had, by severe austerities, obtained the boon that he could be invincible and immortal so long as the three forts in which he had entrenched himself were not demolished at one stroke.
Because of these three forts or cities he had come to be known as Tripurasura. The forts were impregnable, one within the other. If only one or two of them were destroyed by his opponents, they would immediately spring up again as strong as ever and the demon would remain unconquerable for such was the boon.
Only when all the three forts were demolished and razed to the ground at one stroke and at one time could the demon be vanquished and destroyed. All the forces of good-the gods-tried to rid the world of the atrocities and tyranny of the demon but could not succeed They could destroy one fort or at least two and that too one after the other and the forts would spring up again, none the worse in all the onslaughts of the gods.
In despair the defeated gods approached Lord Shiva to come to their help and protect the world.
The merciful Lord Shiva agree. All the gods joined Him and made up His equipment. Armed with the organised strength of the gods, he took up his great bow and sallied forth against the demon. In the beginning, He too demolished one fort or two but found them springing up again and again without even so much as a scratch. Then remembering the boon the demon had been blessed with, Lord Shiva took out His terrible Arrow and shot it at the three forts and lo! The impregnable walls came crumbling down and became dust and could not come into being again and the fearful demon deprived of his invincible shelter was slain.
The whole creation heaved a sigh of relief and once again righteousness reigned in the world People could freely follow their religious duties and live in peace and prosperity. It was this auspicious Kartika Purnima-Full Moon Day-when this great victory of good over evil was achieved and so it is observed as a day of rejoicing and at night a big light is lighted in honour of the Lord’s victory.
All our religious stories or the so-called myths are fraught with deep meaning and this story is no exception. The philosophical teaching is clear. Every individual soul is encased in three bodies-the Karana, Sukshma and the Sthula. The food and breath sheaths make up the gross or physical body, sthula sharira. The breath, emotion and intelligence sheaths make up the subtle or astral body, sukshma sharira. The intelligence and bliss sheaths make up the causal body, karana sharira.
The three bodies are the different vehicles of our consciousness. They are encasements for the inner being. Only the physical body is a body in our usual sense of the term. The astral has the same form as the physical body but is made up of subtle matter. The causal is of the form of an egg, a body of light.
The Sthula is easy of destruction but the other two soon reconstruct it in another birth and the fetters binding the soul remain unbroken. If by great effort the Sthula, i.e., the physical body, and also the Sukshma, the finer mental sheath, are destroyed, the Karana-the causal body, still remains storing in it all tendencies and Karmas and it brings into again and again the Sukshma and the Sthula bodies and thus the cycle of births and deaths goes on and the soul continues in its agonising bondage.
It is only when by the Grace of the Guru, the Lord Shiva – the Paramatman – takes the field and at one stroke destroys all ignorance that the Karana Shareer is totally annihilated resulting in the complete destruction of the other two grosser sheaths and the soul – Jiva – stands unfettered, face to face with the Lord and becomes free- Mukta and merges in the Formless Shiva, abode of everlasting Bliss The cool brilliance of the full moon and the lights lighted in grateful adoration to the Lord are emblems of the victory of light over darkness, of knowledge over ignorance., of immortality over death of freedom of the spirit over the bondage of Maya.
This so-called myth bears one more interpretation and has a lesson for us-the Hindu people of today. We are essentially devoted to the spirit though today we seem to have forgotten our holy heritage. Whereas people in the rest of the world are following in the pursuit of happiness in this life – happiness supposed to be born of material ” prosperity and power – our great thinkers have realised the evanescence of mundane pleasures and sought after real happiness, pure unadulterated, eternal and realised that Truth, the effulgent, immortal, all surpassing Bliss, the principle which as the material, efficient and intelligent cause of all creation, past, present and future, is imminent in it and transcends it as well, knowing which and becoming one with which, the individual attains the ultimate goal of existence.
This Truth is in our keeping as it were, handed down to us by our seers and the sacred duty is cast upon us to broadcast it to the world and see that every human being realises it and becomes one with all-pervading spirit. We have to live so as may be able to discharge this duty efficiently.