Learning the basics of Hindu Philosophy from an Oil Lamp

A brief introduction (for those not familiar with the details) on the oil lamp:

In an oil lamp, the earthen cup or the brass container holds the oil. The wick soaked in oil provides the channel through which the oil is drawn to one end, where it burns to create the flame.  While much of the oil is consumed through burning or combustion there is also a small and gradual transformation of the wick into carbon, which burns into ash as well. It is this transformation that leads to the flame, its glow and the illumination. The glow of the flame illumines the surroundings. As a result we see the lamp as well as all the space that is illuminated. The glow from the oil lamp is not much different from the light from a candle held in a candle holder.

The components of the oil lamp are the base or the cup, the oil and the wick.

The earthen cup is stable. Unless broken into pieces or cracks have developed, the cup can be used for ever. In fact there are temples in India, where the lamps are several centuries old. They are used even today. This stability of material objects is amazing in a world where change is assumed to be normal and even expected. That nature of the world or the universe that is changeless on its own accord, we recognize as Inertia or Thamasam.

The oil is volatile. Under low temperatures it freezes into a solid. The oil vaporizes at higher temperatures. Ambient conditions – the surroundings – have a great influence on the properties or behavior of the oil. This is another aspect of nature. We call this property as “Rajasam”. Just like Thamasam, there is nothing good or bad about Rajasam. In fact it is like the variable  aspects of nature that enables life as we know of it. Almost any and all aspect of our physical world relies on changes influenced by physical processes. We recognize these as chemical reactions, response functions, energy field, etc. Without flow and volatile nature of oil we will not have flame, which implies no illumination. Lamp as a source of light, acquires all its merits only because of the stable or inertial container and the turbulent or volatile fluid contained in it! Without these two – stability as well volatility (change) – there is no flame and hence no light and thus nothing for us to recognize as the lamp!

The flame creates the glow, leading to illumination. Thanks to this illumination we see objects in and around the lamp. We become aware of their presence or existence. This property which enables us to become aware of the unknown hitherto is called Sathvikam. Just like its cousins Rajasam and Thamasam, this property is also neither good nor bad. It merely exists! Sathvikam as a property is enabled by the other two properties, just as the glow of the lamp (through the flame) is enabled by the stable cup and the volatile oil. In fact all three properties co-exist.

The container is stable and hence it can be measured in terms of its dimensions, weight, volume, etc. Such measures remain consistent over a period of time. This is also the property of Thamasam. There is a certainty associated with Thamasam.  Please see the essay on “Certainty of Ignorance”! https://sipractce.wordpress.com/2011/12/24/the-certainty-of-ignorance/

The fluid – oil – is measured using the properties of the container in which it is held – such as the volume occupied or the weight added to the container! Liquid object cannot be measured on its own accord. But it is always quantified relative to something that is unrelentingly stable! This is also the property of Rajasam.  Our emotions are known based on our actions, our words, our expressions through body functions, etc. and how they change with time or place or circumstances! We are happy or unhappy relative to what we wish to be or relative to the happiness or unhappiness of someone else! They are always understood in relative terms.

Without a body (the stable physical frame), there are no emotions and hence no turbulence on its own accord! Next time you feel agitated, take a moment to reflect: Are you providing the container for the volatility to grow and thrive? Or, are you using others as the containers to reinforce your turbulence or volatile nature? Just as the oil, which assumes the shape of the container it fills, our emotions also adapt to the nature of their container (our body functions).

The wick is relatively insignificant part of the lamp, in terms of its weight, size, volume, etc. It is very easy to ignore or dismiss the existence of a wick. It does not serve any role or purpose unless it plays its transformative role – of transporting the oil, creating a space of controlled combustion and being consumed gradually as part of this transformation! The same can be said of our intellect. Which part of our body is the home for our intellect? If you say “mind”, then is it not the home for all our emotions and upheavals? In our daily stress and pressures, it is possible to relegate the mind and its role largely for our emotions (turbulence). It requires a concerted effort to make a small but significant space/role for the mind to engage in thoughts and the transformation it can create for our emotions and body functions.

The flame of a lamp enables us to see all the objects in its glow. In a dark place, it is the glow of the lamp that enables us to see the lamp itself (the base, the oil and the wick). The same is true of our thoughts and ideas and their transformation into knowledge. It is  our knowledge and understanding – the glow – through which we comprehend everything around us and also the very enablers of such knowledge (i.e) our body, mind and intellect.

Illumination is perceived only as long as there is the glow of the lamp. Darkness and illumination are complements of each other. The same goes for knowledge and ignorance on any subject. Where there is illumination there is no darkness. When the illumination is not adequate our vision diminishes and we rely on guess work or judgment. This uncertain nature, with respect to our knowledge is the source of our bias or turbulence!

One can extend such analysis and apply the analogy of the lamp to understand the role of the three connectors to progressively greater depth. In this understanding we learn that stability, volatility and illumination are all inter-connected parts of nature (the lamp). We also learn that Knowledge, Bias and Ignorance are all interconnected, laying the foundation for all our experience.  Perhaps it is such reflection, analysis and understanding that is suggested by the following verse. This verse is chanted at the end of almost all Hindu worship services along with the offering of the lighted lamp to the idol at the altar (Deepa Araadhana):

The sun does not shine, nor the moon and the stars, nor the flashes of lightning nor this flame of the lamp. All of these shine through His luster                  Katha Upanishad 2.2.15

Neither the sun nor the moon nor the fire shine there; having reached that place no one returns; that is My abode                                                                   B.G. 15.6.

Just as the illumination through the flame of the lamp, makes all else visible, all that we know is the result of our understanding though our knowledge of the nature and the laws that govern the nature. This knowledge – that accepts everything as parts of nature and everything is enabled by the laws of nature – is the only true knowledge. On comprehending this knowledge, one acquires a stable frame of mind from which one does not return to the life of perturbations caused by our limited knowledge, bias and ignorance.

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4 Responses to Learning the basics of Hindu Philosophy from an Oil Lamp

  1. Gautham Krishnamurthy says:

    Very “illuminating” reading! Made me realize that everything, including the Thamasic and Rajasic have their roles and all 3 need to co-exist. While we should all aim for Saatvic, this article made me remember the importance of all 3 and their inter-dependence.

    Thank you for the article.

    Respectfully – gautham


  2. Chitra says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this! a keepsake!!
    What a unique explanation using the lamp as an analogy to convey the nature and relevance of our 3 gunas. Thank you Subbu for sharing this wisdom.


    • sipractce says:

      Chitra and Gautham:
      Thanks for your feed back.
      I genuinely appreciate your verdict “this is a keep sake!” 🙂 since you are a long time follower of my blog posts. Thanks.


  3. i will be reading your posts more intently. because i have been looking for some genuine explanations of the treasure trove our ancestors have left for us in sanskrit.


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