Meaning of Aarthi or Arati done by waving camphor at the Lord
Every ritual has some meaning.
Often times I have questioned the rationale and logic behind many of the rituals we do as part of our worship or prayers. I must confess though, that I have received satisfactory answers in all such researches of mine. For instance, I wondered as to why people make a ‘circle’ or border of water on the floor around the plates from which they eat food while sitting cross-legged on the floor. It seemed so meaningless and ‘ritualistic’.
The history of that practice traces its origins to the times when in India, people ate out from leaves, sitting on the floor. There was a chance that ants and other insects would walk into the leaf during the course of the meal. Sprinkling water all around the leaf ensured that the insects kept away! Lovely logic right?
In this way, I have always tried to go into the history and meaning of all the rituals. And my conclusion has been the same on all occasions - the ritual and the spiritual are closely related. One ritual that has always fascinated me is that of the Mangala Aarthi. The term may seem foreign for some. The Mangala Aarthi or Aarthi is done by waving a piece of lighted camphor in circles around an idol of God. It is done at the end, as a grand finale, of all worship. Then, it is taken around and all the devotees warm their palms over the flame, the act which completes the worship.
Delving into history gave a beautiful explanation as to why the Aarthi is done. By the way, the word Mangala means auspiciousness. However, as always, the explanation and meaning that I ‘received’ from Swami (Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba) took my breath away and inspired me.
The history and origin of the Mangala Aarthi
If you have ever visited a Hindu temple, you will observe that the sanctum sanctorum, the residence of God, is buried deep within the building. And these temples have existed from centuries, nay millenia - from times when electricity was not present. The temples had to be lit from within by lamps, even during the day. When the devotees gathered to sing and do worship, they would not be able to see idol of the Lord. Even today, in spite of the electric bulbs and lights, some temples do not have a well-lit sanctum sanctorum and so the devotees are still not able to see their Lord.
The idol of the Lord is decked in wonderful clothes and fabulous jewelry. This is done to arouse joy in the devotee viewing the Lord. Just as one feels happy when he sees his mother, wife or daughter dressed beautifully and decked with ornaments, one feels the same when he/she sees God in form. But all these decorations along with the beautiful face of the idol are not seen by the devotees as it is dark in the sanctum.
So, at the end of the worship, the priest lights a piece of camphor and slowly moves it in circles around the idol. In the light of the camphor flame, the idol gets lit. And to ensure that the devotee can enjoy seeing the idol in all its beauty, the priest moves the camphor flame from the top to toe of the idol. And since the flame has been waved around the Lord, its warmth is considered synonymous to the warmth of the Lord’s love. Every devotee then warms his/her palms over the flame as a completion of blessings sought.
I was pretty happy with this logic and reasoning. When I came to know of Swami’s explanation for the Aarthi, I was touched - so beautiful, so profound and so inspiring it was.
Swami’s explanation for the Mangala Aarthi
Swami says that the act of doing Aarthi is symbolic of what the devotee prays of the Lord. It inspires the devotee to become like the piece of camphor - be fragrant and spend one’s life burning away energetically to ‘show’ other devotees the face and form of the Lord! Every moment of one’s life - every thought, word and deed - should be ‘spent’ so that humanity is en’light’ened and is able to visualize the Lord! And at the end of the whole thing, nobody’s attention is on the camphor; it is on the Lord alone because the camphor burns away leaving behind no trace of its existence. But before that happens, it also provides warmth to all the people who have gathered to see the Lord!
Such should be our lives - we should ‘burn’ away so that our life helps others to see God. In the process we should also spread the fragrance of goodness along with the warmth of love. And all this is done without a trace of ego because nothing of the camphor is left behind in the end. People do not remember camphor - they remember and focus on the Lord. There is a black residue that is left behind after the Aarthi flame burns out only if the camphor is not pure. If the camphor is pure, it will be white and leave behind absolutely no residue. That inspires the devotee to be pure.
The exact words are these:
"While it is being waved pray : O Lord! Make the allotted span of my life as pure, as fragrant, and as transparent as camphor; let it consume itself in the fire, scattering light and the warmth of love to all around me, and, at the end of it all, let there be nothing left of me (as the camphor leaves no ashes or residue) to render me liable to another sojourn amidst pleasure and pain."
(Here is the lyrics and meaning of the Sri Sathya Sai Mangala Arati)
But the significance does not end there as far as Swami’s explanation goes. He has always stated,
“My life is my message.”
He has also stated that we should move to a level where our lives become His message. Symbolic of this transition, Swami used to Himself light the camphor for the Aarthi till about 2006 I think. After 2006, He began to tell the person doing the Aarthi to light the camphor himself/herself. Beautiful, isn’t it? After all, has He not stated that true Padasevanam or worship of the master’s feet is to follow in His footsteps?
With this in mind, every time I witness the Mangala Aarthi I pray to the Lord that I become like that little piece of camphor. Speak through the language of fragrance, be pure white and burn away without ego to light up the way to God for everyone. And after that, 'warm' the people to the 'lightof God'.
Is it any wonder that irrespective of the occasion or festival, not a day passes in Prasanthi Nilayam without the Aarthi being done!
Enjoy a beautiful Mangala Arati to Bhagawan Baba
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