Karthikai Deepam Festival of South India
(Compilation for adiscourse at Sri Ganesha Temple by N.R.Srinivasan, December 2014)
Karthikai Deepam is one of the oldest festivals celebrated by Tamil people. The festival of Karthikai finds reference in Tamil Sangam literature like Ahanuru and the popular literary work of Tamil Saint Auvvaiyar. Karthigai is celebrated on the full moon day (pournami) of the month of Karthigai, as per the Tamil calendar. The Sangam period dates back to 200 BCE to 300 AD. It is one of the most important festivals of Hindu Tamils and Keralites. You may kindly refer to my elaborate discourse on the subject circulated a few years back and also Elephant Festival of Iyengars of Karnataka for details. In my earlier lecture I purposely avoided details of mythological stories giving it a spiritual focus. Vaishnavites as well as Saivites have their own stories and Karnataka Iyengars their own story too.
Rows of Oil Lamps (Agal vilakkus in Tamil) are lit in every house in South India. Karthigai is essentially a festival of lamps though Deepaavali alone is understood as Festival of Lights by majority because of its popularity in the North. The lighted lamp is considered an auspicious symbol. It is believed the flame of the lamp would ward off evil forces and usher in prosperity and joy. While the lighted lamp is important for all Hindu rituals and festivals, particularly Malayalees it is indispensable for Karthigai. This festival is also celebrated to commemorate the bonding between brothers and sisters in South India (analogous to Bhaiya-Dhuj and Raakhi of Diwali in the North). Sisters pray for the prosperity and success of their brothers and light lamps to mark the occasion.
In Andhra Pradesh Hindus consider the whole month of Kaartheeka very auspicious. The Kartheeka month starts on the day of Deepaavali. From that day one till the end of the month, oil lamps are lit every day. On Kartheeka Pournami (full moon of Kartheeka month) oil lamp with 365 wicks, prepared at home, are lit in Lord Shiva temples. Apart from that, Kartika Masa Purana (the sacred story of month of Kaartheeka) is read and fasting is observed till sunset, every day for the whole month.
In Tiruvannamali, where Siva is worshiped as Fire (Tejolinga) Kaarthigai festival is very famous. On Karthigai day, a huge fire lamp is lit up on the hill, visible for several kilometers around. The fire (deepam) is called Mahadeepam (the Great Light). Hindu devotees visit the place, to pray and make offerings to Lord Siva.
Lord Siva appeared as an endless flame of light before Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma who each considered himself supreme and said that the matter could be tested if the two could search for Lord Shiva's Head and feet. Lord Vishnu took the form of a boar and delved deep into the earth, Lord Brahma that of a swan and flew towards the skies. Lord Vishnu failed in his search and returned. But Lord Brahma, chancing upon a piece of Thazhambu, a flower, learnt from it that it had been floating down for thirty thousand years from Lord Shiva's head. He seized upon this and claimed to Lord Shiva that he had seen the other's top. Lord Siva realized the falsehood and pronounced that there would never be a temple for Lord Brahma in this world. He also interdicted the use of the flower Thazhambu in his worship. Lord Shiva appeared as a flame on this day called karthikai maha Deepam. South Indians therefore do not worship Brahma like Rajasthans and also many other traditions in the North.
One day when Lord Siva was on meditation which he often resorted to, Parvati feeling miserable by her loneliness left him and went to the Hill of Arunachala according to the local legends (Sthala Purana) and performed penance there. She was the guest of Gautma there. It was during her penance here that Mahishasura was killed by Durga hidden by Parvati. Siva appeared as Arunachaleswara and took back Parvati to His half side and made her Ardhaangini permanently joined together so that they could be never separated. That was the beginning of Ardha-Naareeswara in which form Siva-Parvati are worshiped at the same time as Jagatapitarau or Parents of the World.
This festival occurs on the day when the moon is in conjunction with the constellation Karthigai (Pleiades) and Pournami. This constellation appears as a group of six stars in the firmament in the shape of a pendant from the ear. The six stars are considered in Indian mythology as the six celestial nymphs who reared the six babies in the saravana thicket on Ganges which later were joined together to form the six faced Muruga (Shanmukha). He is therefore called Karthikeya, the one brought up by the Karthigai nymphs. Houses and streets are lit up with rows of oil lamps (Deepam) in the evening of the festival day to celebrate the event.
This festival is also observed as Vishnu Deepam by devotees of Lord Vishnu (Vaishnavites). The day is popularly known as Karthigai Deepam – when all houses and temples will be decorated with oil lamps after sunset. Vishnu Deepam is celebrated by lighting bonfire known as Sokkappanai in Vishnu shrines. The reason for the festival is based on Lord Vamana’s (Lord Trivikrama) incarnation of Lord Vishnu appearing on Earth and pushing King Bali to the underworld which event is celebrated as Vishnu Deepam festival. It is said that the two steps of Lord Vamana are the Uttarayana and vernal equinox, and the third step with which he sends Bali to the underworld is the autumn equinox. The bonfire lit on Vishnu Deepam reminds all of us of this memorable event. Vishnu Deepam is also observed as Yanai Pandigai (Elephant Festival) by Iyengar community of Karnataka as well as by some Sanketi and Madhwa Brahmins of Karnataka who are Vishnu worshipers.
Deepaavali is projected as Hindu Festival of lights by Hindu Americans to the White House and American population drawing similarity to the Festival of Lights in USA which starts immediately after Thanksgiving. It is not uncommon to see trees by the roadside on December 26th indicating conclusion of Festival of Lights on Christmas Day. Following the policy of secular State USA does not want to call it Christmas Season or project Christmas tree as a religious symbol though it is called so. A Wilson County teacher in Nashville was reprimanded for putting up a Menorah as well as sign that said” Happy Kwanza” and “May Allah bless your Family”. He however did not add “Happy Karthikai” though South Indians are in good number in Wilson County as he had no knowledge of Hinduism and their Karthigai Deepam Light Festival. Deepam in Sanskrit means light. I don’t blame him as even in India Karthikai is not considered as Festival of Lights by North Indians.
Hindu Festival of Lights starts on Diwali Day signifying the return of Rama to Ayodhya and ending with Makara Vilakku(light) on Makara Sankranti day (January 14) when Sun starts his journey towards Northern Solstice. In my tradition we do not believe in candles but believe in oil wick mud lamps. Two mud lamps of Deepaavali are kept burning through Karthikai till bidding goodbye (visarjan) to the elephant of Elephant festival on the third day of Karthikai. Two Deepaavali lamps that are kept burning are used to light all Karthikai Lights.
American Christians do not realize Christmas is actually a 12 days festival leading up to Epiphany, which is January 6th, like Diwali which is a 5 days festival. Here December 25th is the Christmas day. They conduct Mass on December 25th and January 1st. In Eastern orthodox tradition using a different calendar they celebrate Christmas Mass on January 7th and observe Epiphany on January 19th.
It is logical for Hindu Americans to start putting up lights for the Festival of Lights season on Diwali Day and end it on Makara Sankranti Day, celebrating Makara Vilakku (light) which incidentally will take care of in between occurring Karthikai Festival of American Hindus of South Indian origin which is also a very sacred Festival of Lights. Eastern Orthodox traditions use a different calendar and they celebrate Christmas on 7th and observe Epiphany on January 19th. So the so called secular Festival of Lights and Holiday season falling after Thanksgiving could as well end on January 19th to satisfy all traditions within its fold, calling it Holiday Season Lighting and not Christmas Lighting. Interfaith couples in which one of the partners is a Hindu will love it too as well as all Hindu Americans. If USA does not oblige officially for all, Hindu Americans can start the tradition to call the period from Diwali through Makara Sankaranti as Festival of Lights Season. After all they have One Temple of an agreed deity for all traditions on which they mainly focus and try to pacify all traditions including Buddha, Vardhamana, Swami Narayan and Saibabas as side deities adding to the cluster of Puranic deities to please all donors according to the quantum of donation to build the temple and support its running.
Everyone has to annihilate the three impurities, namely egoism, selfishness and delusion. Let us burn the mind, senses and the desire in the fire of Knowledge of Self or what Saivites call Sivajnaanam or Knowledge of Siva. Let us attain full illumination and behold the light of all lights, which illumines the mind, intellect, sun, moon, stars, lighting and the fire. This is the real Karthigai Deepam which Saivites call Siva Deepam and Vaishnavites call Vishnu Deepam which in reality is nothing but Brhama-jyoti. The bonfire reminds us that the period of sloth, Tamas (darkness) is past and the days of progress and endeavor have come.
I see Hindu Americans rush to the temple on January First the official New Year Day to do special Abhishekam and also make their New Year resolutions unlike Hindus in India who can only make their official or secular day resolutions in their homes on that day and not as religious worship day based on Aagamas or Tantras like any other auspicious religious day. Romans originally dedicated New Year Day to Janus, the God of Gates, Doors and Beginnings after whom the first month of the year January was named. January First is the Feast of the circumcision of Christ liturgically marked which is still observed as such in the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church. Christianity being the religion in the hands of Western rulers who ruled the world at one time made this Christian religious day as First Day of Gregorian calendar and also forced it on the world to call it International New Year Day. India had no voice and had to accept the same as New Year Day being ruled by British for more than 300 years which Hindu Americans have confirmed as their religious New Year day observing it as special religious worship Day.
No religious leader of Eastern Orthodox Tradition was as powerful enough as Pope Gregory, Anglican and Lutheran Church to come out with such dictatorial authority to make January 14 of the present Gregorian calendar as the New Year Day. Eastern Orthodox Tradition uses a different calendar and they celebrate Christmas on January 7th. Therefore their Feast of the circumcision of Christ would fall on January 14 which is Makara Sankranti Day or the day when Sun turn towards Northern Solstice which day could have been most acceptable to all people of the world as a very significant land mark day. Unfortunately Eastern orthodox was not in power! Today most countries use Gregorian calendar as their de facto calendar including Hindus in India. Karunanidhi, the leader of atheist group in India called Dravida Kazhagam (DK) when he was chief minister of Tamil Nadu made Makara Sankranti Day as New Year which is also the day on which the Tamil month of Thai starts. For Hindus this is the most sacred day and Puranas say Bhishma waited for this day to give up his ghost and ascend to heaven. This would have been ideal for whole of India as the ideal day to start the New Year. But unfortunately Tamils revolted and when his rival Jayalalita another atheist and corrupt chief minister came to power she reverted back to original April 14 as Tamil New Year Day. Hindu Americans celebrate many of their festivals like Durgapuja on weekends only following the example of Western Culture who celebrate their Holidays and Birthdays of Presidents on week- ends. Therefore it will be fitting and proper to observe January 14 or Makara Sankranti Day as special worship day for New Year day celebrations also instead of rushing on January 1. It is better to join Eastern orthodox than Western Anglican or Lutheran for it suits us as the most auspicious Day. Tamils will be happy as they believe in “Thai pirandaal vazhi pirakkum” the birth of month of Thai leads us to live our lives!
1) Swami Sivananda, Hindu Festivals and Rituals, The Divine Life society, Shivanandanagar, India
2) Durward Blanks, The Twelve days of Christmas, Nashville Christian Family, USA
3) Srinivasan N.R., Kaartigai Deepam –Kartik Poornima, Hindu Reflections, December 2011
4) Srinivasan N.R., Makara Sankranti, Hindu Reflections, January 2012
5) Srinivasan N.R., January 1—Hindu American Worship in Temples, Hindu Reflections, December 2011
[This discourse material is a compilation from the reference above as well as other sources for a prepared lecture for delivering at Vedanta Class of Sri Ganesha Temple which is gratefully acknowledged. I do not claim anything as original though I have included my explanations and comments elaborately suitably editing. Anybody is free to download partly or fully this discourse, modify and redistribute this as well as other discourses from the blog Hindu Reflections <nrsrini.blogspot.com> for spreading the wisdom of Vedas and scriptures further. These lectures are posted on the blog for the benefit of those who are not able to attend my lectures personally due to personal reasons or due to not living in Nashville or able to go through the various sources as I have done.]