All our traditional festivals, rituals and practices have a story behind and convey an inner meaning. An understanding of this will help us enjoy and appreciate our festivals and cultural practices better. Here is the story behind and significance of Karthika Deepam.
There was an asura king Bali, who is known for usurping the wealth of others and conquering the whole world. However, he is bestowed with the good quality of Giving or danam.
Once Bali dethroned Indra and conquered his kingdom. Bereft of kingdom, Indra approaches Lord Vishnu for help.
Knowing Bali’s weakness, Lord Vishnu comes in the form a Brahmin boy seeking alms (danam) on the occasion of the Yagnam (sacred fire ritual) being performed by Bali.
There is a practice of making danams (gifting various articles) to Brahmins when someone performs Yagna. Without this the yagnam is incomplete. It is also not acceptable that a Brahmin is turned away without giving a danam.
Sensing something bad is going to happen, King Bali’s guru Sukracharya warns and advices to be careful in accepting to give, what the Lord in the form of Brahmin boy seeks. On learning that The Lord Himself has come down seeking alms, Bali says, “What more do I have to ask for, when The Lord Himself stretches out His hands seeking alms in front of me?”
The Brahmin Boy asks for land measuring, three steps by his feet. The King agrees immediately to the request and asks to measure the land anywhere he needs, so that he can give that right away. As soon as the King obliges, the small boy starts growing bigger. Being the Lord Himself, there was no restriction to the size he can grow to. After growing to a size where His feet could cover the entire earth, he places his first step on the entire earth. He then lays his second step to cover the rest of the lokas (worlds). Having covered the entire world, with two steps, he asks Bali, for place to keep the third foot? The King immediately responds, you may place the third foot on my head.
The Lord pleased by the reply, states “I am moved by your generosity. I am granting you a boon. I will make you the lord of one world called Rasatalam. You need not share this with anyone.”
Encouraged by the Lord’s compassion, Bali makes a request. “Oh! Lord, because of your arrival this yagnam has become successful. Scriptures state ‘YagnovaiVishnuhu’, meaning Yagna represents The Lord Himself. People make Yagnams, but they do not get the opportunity to see The Lord directly. But, I have got thisrare blessing, where not only has the Lord appeared before me, but has walked down to my place, extended His hand and sought alms (danam) from me. Is there anything more for me to seek? But, there is a methodology to start a yagnam and end it. Without needful preparation one cannot start a yagnam. Similalry, there is a process that has to be adhered, to complete the yagna. This has been mentioned in the scriptures. But, I am not able to complete the process because you have come here, given me the boon and sending me off to Rasatalam. Where is the opportunity for me to complete the yagnam with Poornahuti, as prescribed in the scriptures? This means, the Yagnam will be left incomplete, a bad omen.
You said “Sruthihi, Smrithi hi mamaivaajna”, meaning scriptures are your orders. If your orders are not obeyed, bad results will ensue. So to protect me from this, Oh! Lord, I seek another boon from You, which will cause good to all.
This is Kartheeka month (lunar month), the month for fire element. Doing homam (fire ritual) in this month is considered very auspicious. But, not everyone can do homam. Only a rare few get that opportunity.
I am the seeker and you are the giver. I have done a bad thing by not obeying your orders in the scriptures. I have usurped Indra’s kingdom and caused hardship to him. But, you have been generous enough even to a selfish person like me and granted me the lordship of rasatalam. You have also declared that you will remain as a gate keeper of rasatalam.
If you grant me this additional boon, where all will be benefited, I will consider myself successful.”
The Lord, pleased by Bali’s large heartedness, agrees to the request and asks him to state the boon.
“People who are well versed in scriptures, who are fortunate enough to do big homams, will perform them and benefit. But what about the common man who cannot perform all that. So, I make a request whereby both the common man and the learned are benefited. In this (lunar) month, from the first day of Kartheekato full moon day, whosoever perform your pooja at their home, light a lamp, offer it to you, light many more lamps from that single lamp and thus brighten their homes, may all those get the benefit equivalent to what I have got by performing this yagnam. Let all those also be showered by your unconditional Love, Grace and Compassion.
Not just that, from the full moon day to new moon day, may homams be performed in the temples and the lamps called as akasadeepam (lamps in the sky), be placed on top of the temple walls. By lighting lamps in homes, the homes will become prosperous, by lighting lamps in temples, the entire village or town or city will become prosperous. Thus the whole country will become prosperous. This is the boon I seek, Oh! Lord”, says Bali.
Pleased by the change in heart of Bali, the Lord grants the boon. That is the story behind people lighting lamps in the entire month of Kartheekam.
The inner meaning or significance of this festival and ritual:
By lighting lamps outside in this month, we spread light around us. But, we also need to light a lamp within us.
We all know about the lamps being lighted outside (externally). How do we light a lamp within us?
For this, we make our manas (mind) the lamp stand, our love as the ghee, thought of The Lord as the wick in the lamp, Wisdom provided to us by our Guru as the flame.
Meaning, by contemplating / meditating,in a steady state of mind submitted to the infinite Love and Compassion of the Lord,on the wisdom provided in the scriptures, which is received through a guru, we need to invoke the goodness in us.
This is the thought we need to remind us, through the act of lighting the lamp outside. Then by following this, by meditating along those lines is the way for us to evolve from one level of knowledge and understanding to the next and improve the quality of our life and our interaction with the world around.