THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE AARATI CEREMONY
The aarati ceremony is the most performed of any ritual in the temple, and is the offering of a ghee lamp to the deity or object of respect. These lamps usually have five or more flames on them. Aarati is performed in the temples to the Deities several times a day. It is also offered to special guests and holy saints. It is also accompanied with ringing a bell, singing or playing musical instruments.
In offering the lamp to the deity, it is held in the right hand and waved in a clockwise motion, 4 times to the feet, 2 times to the waist, and seven times around the whole body. It is a way of adding an intensity to the prayers and the image of the Lord. Besides, the aroma of the burning ghee is quite pleasing. Afterwards, the ghee lamp is passed around the room so that everyone can place their hands over the flame that has been offered to the deity, accepting it as holy remnants, prasada, and then touch the hands to the eyes or head. This is a gesture of accepting the light of knowledge, and the light which revealed the Lord. We use the lamp to light the form of the Lord who is in fact the source of all light. This was particularly significant before there was electricity and when temples were lit by lamps. The aarati ceremony would especially provide light to various parts of the deity when the priest would wave the lamp in front of it. Some of the older temples in India are still like this today. We also accept this lamp as a symbol of lighting our own vision and thoughts with hopes that they may be divine and noble.
Sometimes camphor is also used in place of ghee. This also presents a pleasing scent. The ghee or camphor also represents our inherent tendencies that are being offered to the fire of knowledge, which reveals the form of the Lord and thus increases our mental and physical purity in service to the Lord.
In some aarati ceremonies there is not only the ghee lamp or deep that is offered but also the incense, a camphor lamp, a water filled conch shell, flowers, chamara fan, peacock feather fan, etc. These are for several reasons. One is that these are items to honor and offer comfort to the deity, but they also represent the different elements, such as earth, fire, water, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and ego. So we are also offering all the elements back to the deity, as well as our own mind, senses, intelligence and ego. This means that the performer of the arati is offering all of themselves to the deity, and if those who observe the arati follow along with the right meditation, then they also can meditate on offering all of themselves to the deity. You ask the deity to accept these items for their pleasure, but also to accept your whole being in their service, and as an offering for the deity to bless you to help you reach them and the spiritual atmosphere.
THE REASON LAMPS ARE USED
In many homes and temples there are lamps that are lit. And many special functions start with the lighting of a lamp. Light symbolizes knowledge which keeps us free from the darkness of ignorance. Knowledge removes ignorance just as light removes darkness. Therefore, the lamp is lit and we bow to it as this knowledge is the greatest form of wealth. It is kept lit during special functions as a guide and witness to our thoughts and actions. Of course, now lamps are not as necessary with the use of electric bulbs, etc. But the lamp is the traditional instrument which represents our vasanas or negative inclinations, while the wick signifies our ego. As the lamp burns, it also represents the burning away of our bad habits and bodily ego. The flame burns upward, as knowledge also takes our views higher.
In the old days when the temples did not have electricity, the lamps offered to the deity during the arati ceremony were also the main way the devotees could see the shape of the deity. So it is the lamp, which represents knowledge, that lights the deity, just as it is with transcendental knowledge which allows us to understand or awaken to the awareness of God. So after the lamp is offered to the deity it is circulated amongst the observes, and they receive the lamp of knowledge that has revealed the deity by touching it or waving their hands over it, and then bringing their hands up to their forehead or eyes. This is a gesture of respect toward the lamp and knowledge that hasrevealed the deity, and also that this knowledge will awaken spiritual awareness within them.
WHY RING BELLS IN TEMPLES
When entering a temple, most of them have one or more bells hung from the ceiling. The devotee rings the bells as he or she enters, then proceeds for darshan to see the deities. The ring of the bell produces a sound similar to Om, the universal name of the Lord. This helps create an atmosphere of auspiciousness when entering the temple. This is also a reason why a bell is rung by a priest, pujari, while doing the arati ceremony. Ringing the bell, blowing the conch, and engaging in the kirtanas or singing holy songs, are all ways to worship the Lord and keep away all inauspicious and irrelevant noises and thoughts that might disturb or distract the worshipers from their devotions and inner peace. In this way, the bell is also a call to focus our attention on the ceremony.
WHY A CONCH SHELL IS BLOWN
Whether in temples or in our household temple rooms, the conch shell is blown three times before the arati ceremony or puja worship. It is kept on the altar as a symbol for Truth, dharma, auspiciousness, and victory. It also was blown before a battle or after the victory of an army. Blowing the conch emanates the sound of Om, which contains all the knowledge of the Vedas. It is an auspicious sound and represents the truth behind the illusion. It also can purify the atmosphere, as well as the minds of those who hear it. It also represents dharma or righteousness. So it is appropriate for it to be blown before the arati or puja. The sound of the conch draws one’s attention to the presence of the Lord and the Vedic sound vibration. It thus drowns out the negative noises that may distract us from the sacred atmosphere or disturb our minds. This is also why sometimes devotees bow to the sound of the conch when it is blown.
The tradition relates that there was once a demon named Shankhasura who had defeated the devas and stole the Vedas from them. He then hid at the bottom of the ocean. The devas prayed to Lord Vishnu for assistance. He incarnated as Matsya and killed the demon. The Lord blew one of the conch shells that hung from His ears and the Om resonated, from which the Vedas returned. For this reason the conch is also called shankha after Shankhasura. The Lord’s conch shell is named Panchajanya.
WHY COCONUTS ARE OFFERED
One of the most common items that are offered to the deities in the temple is the coconut. You will also see it being used to start special occasions, like weddings, festivals, etc., when it is offered and then broken. You may also see it sitting on top of a ceremonial pot with mango leaves. This is a representation of Lakshmi devi, the goddess of fortune, or sometimes Lord Shiva. The coconut is offered to the deity as a representation of the body (the coconut shell), the mind (the white fruit within) and the soul (the coconut milk). All these are offered to the deity, and then it is broken to let out the milk and fruit. This indicates the breaking of the ego. Then, after it is offered to the Lord, what remains is accepted as remnants from the Lord, as prasada. This represents a complete circle in which God accepts our offering of the body, mind and soul and gives back the mercy, prasada, of the Lord.
WHY A KALASHA (POT) IS WORSHIPED
Sometimes, especially during a homa ritual, there is a special pot or kalasha, topped with a coconut, that is given special attention. The pot may be made from brass, copper or mud, and filled with water. Tied around its neck may be a red and white string. The pot often has designs on its sides. It may be used for special occasions like weddings, or set near entrances of homes, etc. The water in the kalasha symbolizes the waters of creation when the cosmic manifestation appeared with the arrangements of Lord Vishnu and Brahma. The leaves and coconut represent the creation, while the string indicates the love that is the foundation of the whole creation. When prayers are offered to the kalasha, it is considered that all the holy waters, the Vedic knowledge, and the blessings of the deities are invoked in it. The purified water within is then used in the rituals. At other times, the prayers are used to invoke the energy of the Goddess of Fortune, Lakshmi Devi, and the kalasha becomes a representation of Lakshmi Devi