Symbolism of Light in Hinduism

The Symbolism of Light

by Jayaram V

Historically light has been universally associated with divinity or godliness in almost every culture and civilization. While darkness invoked fear and anxiety, light offered hope and protection to the ancient world. Hence, in every culture you will find the duality of light and darkness personifying God and evil, or order and chaos respectively. Find here the archetypal meaning, cultural significance and symbolism of Light (jyothi, prakash) in Hinduism


In Hinduism, light symbolizes Brahman, the eye, the individual Self, gods, divinity, purity, supreme bliss, divine power, divine quality, any heavenly body such as a star or a planet, world of Brahman, the power of the sky (prakash), the power or the color of the sun, day, liberation, illumination of the mind, intelligence, brilliance, happiness, prosperity, wisdom, knowledge, higher worlds, guide, intuition, fame, and body vigor.

According to the scriptures, in the beginning there was nothing, neither the sky, nor the earth, nor the sun and the moon. Then the dawn of light manifested as the golden egg, floating in the waters of life. It heralded the day of Brahma, who was asleep until them. The dawn, Usha, is the sister of the sun. She brings hope and good tidings to the mortal beings and wakes them up. Spiritually, she symbolizes the inner awakening.

Light represents the gods of heaven, while darkness portends the presence of demons. Agni is the spark of light. He ignites the sacrificial fire during rituals as the representative of gods. In the body he symbolizes the digestive power. Vaishvanara, and acts as the representative of the bodily organs.

Indra is the leader of gods. He wields lightning as his weapon, the most powerful symbol of light, with which he strike down his enemies and protects the triple worlds. When the sky is darkened by demonic, dark clouds, he slashes them with his weapon to release the rain water.

The demons are afraid of light and prefer darkness. Hence, when evil is in ascendance, the worlds become enveloped in darkness. When darkness becomes unbearable, God descends into the world to restore balance. An incarnation is a descent of God into the darkness of the mortal world like a streak of lightning to dispel it and restore light.

As the dispeller of darkness and demonic powers, light also stands for the order and regularity of the worlds and the awakened state of Brahman or the Saguna Brahman. Light manifests in the body as bodily vigor (tejas), spiritual power (ojas), and reproductive power (retas).

Light in the body makes it healthy. Its light comes from the predominance of the mode of sattva. Foods that are rich in sattva are filled with the light of God. They make the body strong and healthy, and the mind free from evil. The senses are aspects of light, but susceptible to the evil power of the demons. However, breath is impervious to them. Hence, when the senses are withdrawn during meditation and austerities, breath protects their light from the darkness of the impurities

Light is hidden in the sounds of the Vedas. When the mantras are chanted, they illuminate the space around and the space within. Auspicious speech, like the sound of Aum, is filled with light of Brahman. It illuminates those who are touched by it. Auspicious words, prayers, thoughts, and invocations that are filled with the light of wisdom and pure intentions can drive away the darkness of adversity and suffering. The Gayathri Mantra is an invocation to the god of light, Savitr, to illuminate the worlds and the mind and free them from ignorance and delusion.

Light shines in the mind as purity (sattva). When the mind is pure with sattva, it reflects the objects accurately and leads to right discrimination, mental clarity, and brilliance. When the mind is free from impurities, the original luster and light of the Self manifest in the mind and illuminate it like the sun that shines in the clear, bright sky.

The light of Brahman dispels the darkness of Death. It liberates the beings that are caught in it, when they become free from karma and delusion. The world of Brahman is an eternal constant. There shines neither the sun nor the moon. Still, it is self-illuminated by the brilliance of Brahman which is more lustrous than millions of suns.

Light shows the way to those who are caught in the darkness of delusion and ignorance. The path of liberation is illuminated with the light of Brahman only. By following it those who achieve liberation travel to the sun where the immortal world of Brahman is located. Those who enter the light of Brahman never return. They become light beings (jyotisvarup) and self-existing, and remain immersed in the light of pure bliss (ananda-jyoti).

In the day light, the sun shines upon all paths and directs the beings to their destinations. When the sun is absent, the moon becomes the support for those who are caught in darkness of the night. When both the sun and the moon are absent, fire becomes the support, but when none of them are present, the voice becomes the light and illumines the paths.

In the Hindu cosmology, the worlds are divided into light worlds (surya lokas) and dark worlds (asurya lokas). Those who live virtuously and perform their duties selflessly, upon their death enter the worlds of light, while those who indulge in mortal sins and evil actions go to the demonic worlds and suffer greatly.

Darkness denotes mortality, death, decay, suffering and adversity for the embodied souls (jivas) that are caught in the dualities and desires of the mortal world. Until they enter the light of Brahman and become liberated, they remain enveloped in the darkness of egoism, delusion, ignorance, desires, attachments, death, decay, change, and impermanence.

Light is the essential nature of the souls, and God as the sun who illuminates all the worlds is their ultimate source. He alone keeps Time (Death) at bay. The sun and the moon are the luminous bodies that shine in the sky. However, the light of the sun is constant, while that of the moon waxes and wanes. The light of the sun shines on its own without any external support, while everything else in the worlds below shines because of him. Hence, the sun symbolizes Brahman, immortality, permanence and imperishability while the moon symbolizes rebirth, decay, dream states, and the fluctuating fate of the bound souls. The ancestral world is located in the moon, which is a semi dark world. Those who enter it require light from gods as well as from the mortals below.

In ritual worship, light (from a lamp or from the burning of incense) is an offering (food) to God to propitiate him. It symbolizes the sacrificial offering of the Self within to the deity as a gesture of surrender, detachment, and devotion.

The scriptures are filled with the light of divine knowledge. Hence, they illuminate the minds of those who study them and assimilate the knowledge contained in them. It is a common belief that by just keeping a sacred scripture in the house or under the bed one can drive away the darkness of evil and suffering.

In the body the eyes represent the sun and the moon since they are filled with the light of Self. As the sense organs, they have limitations in perceiving truth. However, the Upanishads declare that between the two eye brows there is the light of the Self, the third eye, which can see without seeing, and which can perceive beyond the mind and the senses the truths that are imperceptible to them.

According to the Upanishads, light is life itself. The light of the Sun-god nourishes the worlds and beings. His morning light is the childhood, midday light is the middle age and evening light is old age. Night is nidhana, or death itself. Light is the root, the nourisher, and the support of the tree of life (asvattha tree) which is described in the Katha Upanishad as an inverse tree whose roots are in heaven and branches are spread below. The Light of Brahman is the sap of that tree. It is the divine light that sustains creation. It is the light of God that preserves the world. It is into the light of Brahman that beings and worlds are ultimately withdrawn. It is light from heaven that lightens the mind that is caught in the suffering of samsara.

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