Tarka #009

On the Concept of Light


On the Concept of Light

“[The, kṣetra-jña (knower of the field/soul)] is the light in all that shines, beyond the darkness of matter.  It is knowledge, the end of knowledge, and the goal of knowledge. It dwells in everyone’s heart.”

–Bhagavad Gita 13:17

The December solstice is the darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  Those of us in these northern regions feel the days grow shorter, wetter, colder, with perhaps the first signs of snow.  Leaves are slowly turning to mulch on the ground and flowers are hidden deep within buds that are not yet visible. It’s a time for warmer coats, warmer foods, candles, and holiday lights.  Not surprisingly, it’s also a time that many celebrate light. Diwali has recently passed, the season of advent is just beginning, as is the celebration of Hanukkah, and others in contemplative traditions may call upon practices and traditions of light and illumination to brighten the early morning and early evening darkness.  

Light is often used as a metaphor for spirit, God, insight, hope, and knowledge and the collection of articles in this month’s Tarka reflect the diversity of this metaphor.  As editor to this new journal, I am honored and excited by the generosity and depth offered by the various authors included in this issue.

The first article, “Light and Sound: The Medicines of the Spirit,” addresses the subtle expression and experience of energy and light.  These are more evident to children and available in dream states and meditation, but often blocked from our conscious mind. Gucciardi traces the use of light and sound in science (quantum physics), and in the traditional healing practices of Reiki, Shamanism, Yoga, and Ayurveda to show how meditation and her own practice of Depth Hypnosis draw on subtle experiences of light and rhythm to actualize healing.  

Next, another returning author, Katy Jane, gives a rich and poetic account of the recent Hindu celebration of Diwali in the remote Himalayan village of Dunagiri.  Jane weaves scriptural narratives into examples of local practice and provides some much needed depth to the celebration of light that (at least in the west) is perhaps best known for its finale of bright firecrackers.

Following upon this, Mahima A. Jain’s, “‘Ram or crackers had no place in my Diwali’: A Marwari Jain laments homogenization of the festival,” describes the Jain celebration of Diwali as primarily a time to honor the last Tirthankara, Vardhaman Mahavira’s passing into nirvana.  The celebration of light and the lighting of a symbolic lamp or candle represents enlightenment. Further, Jain notes that, “For us Jains, nonviolence is the central theme of Diwali.” Thus as a child he was encouraged to avoid firecrackers and witnessed his elders practice meditation to commemorate the night.  Jain goes on to recount a Jain narrative of the Ramayana, reminding readers of the inherent multiplicity and complexity of Indian religious life and, indeed, of life in general.

The next article, “The Motif of Light in Jewish Tradition,” is reprinted here with permission from the author, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.   He opens, “Light is the genesis – the creation of the world,” and goes on to state, “…light does not belong to this world. Rather, it is an emanation of a different essence…” Steinsaltz traces the motif of light as a central symbol in Jewish celebrations and scripture, finally suggesting that darkness is primarily here to emphasize light.  

The subsequent article, “Silent Illumination,” by Guo Gu explores the practice of mozhao, or silent illumination, as “the realization of Chan [Jp. Zen], the awakening of one’s true nature.”  Gu offers an in-depth look at specific techniques for practice and the history and psychology behind the practice.   Gu’s work emphasizes a unity between different Buddhist teachings and he writes with the insight and gentle authority of an accomplished teacher, scholar, and practitioner.  

“The Light of Consciousness: The Core of Tantrik Spiritual Philosophy,” by Christopher Tompkins and Christopher Wallis, subsequently considers light from the perspective of non-dual Tantrik philosophy.  This article delves into the concepts of prakāśa and vimarśa, Shiva and Shakti, defined here as the Light of Consciousness and the Power of Self-Awareness. Tantrik Yoga is a practice of “recognition,” and this is brought to light through analogies using the sun, reflection, light, and illumination.

Christopher Key Chapple then offers the chapter, “Luminosity and Yoga,” from his 2008 book, Yoga and the Luminous: Patañjali’s Spiritual Path to Freedom.  Here Chapple asks, “Can Yoga as a philosophical system be seen as providing an avenue for active engagement with the world without abrogating its teleology?”  Pointing to the terms used in the YS to define Yoga and its goals (nirodha (restraint) and kaivalyam (aloneness or isolation)) Chapple then suggests that a close reading of instances where Patañjali mentions the “shining forth” or discernment of puruṣa reveals “a path that inherently affirms the world while seeking a state of transparency and luminosity.”  This chapter is essential reading for students of Yoga today who value a connection between the historical text of Patañjali’s Yogasūtras and contemporary practice.  

Following upon Chapple’s analysis of insight and illumination in the YS, Christopher Miller introduces a forthcoming edited volume, Beacons of Dharma that similarly identifies light (Sanskrit: jyotis; dīpa; prakaśa) as “a central metaphor for describing how dharma... has and continues to be reflected into the world.”  The book includes chapters from the various dharmic traditions and focuses on how dharma, recognized as light, inspires action and environmental protection.  

Next, Jillian Maxey’s “Mutually Illuminating: The Spiritual Richness of ‘Doing’ Ignatian Yoga,” is a personal account of interreligious practice.  The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius are a combination of meditations, prayers, and contemplation and were traditionally performed by monks in a thirty-day retreat.  In more recent times the Exercises have been adapted and made available to lay people and the entire “retreat” can take place over a year. Ignatian Yoga has developed out of this effort to render the powerful essence of the Exercises more accessible.  Maxey’s personal narrative is woven into a comparative study of the Ignatian Exercises and Patañjali’s Yogasūtras.  

Lastly, Athena Despoina Potari’s, “The Light of Hellenism,” introduces Hellenism as a tradition oriented towards self-liberation and the realization of light.  For readers less familiar with Hellenism, this article is a fascinating introduction to the tradition that is credited as the “cultural cradle of western civilization.”  It also critiques the philosophical division between West and East by pointing to mutual influences and common spiritual practices. Drawing upon early Greek philosophers and core precepts, Potari argues that Hellenism is a living spiritual path.  

The longest night of the year also marks a new beginning and the gradual return of light.   “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:5   

Stephanie CoriglianoTARKA Managing Editor