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In all temples Aarti i.e a lamp with camphor or ghee is lit and is shown in circular motion in front of the deities. Is this just a ritual for revering Agni or does it have a deeper significance?

Also as a sub question: In south Indian temples(and maybe in north Indian too) devotees touch the Aarti and touch their eyes. Why is this done?

  • Generally, Aarathi is done to remove 'drishti dosha', or 'buri nazar', or 'evil eyes'.. it's done for anyone who we love and we want to remove other people's bad looks on them e.g. newborn baby, just-married couple. Now, none can actually harm bhagavan, but the devotee does not know that. So they do mangala aarathi. they are not revering Agni, they are revering the deity. – ram Mar 25 at 14:58
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I like @Keshav Srinivasan's answer which explains the symbolism behind the Aarthi. I found another reasonable & practical explanation.

The old Hindu temples are usually large and the shrines are usually located deep inside the temple far away from the entrance. In olden days when there was no electricity, one couldn't see the deity properly in the dark. Hence the priest would light a lamp and move it in circular motion so that the deity's Murthy is seen by the devotees. I have observed that the circular motion covers the face, the arms and the legs of the deity, thus covering the whole Murthy. And to magnify the brilliance of the illuminated deity, the deities are adorned with glittering jewelry which reflects light off the Aarthi and makes it look even more spectacular to the devotee.

Reference

  • I am not sure about its truth value, but I had also heard the electricity explanation part somewhere: Since aarati is performed during early morning and evening, to see the deity clearly in the dark aarati used to be performed. Then it became a part of the tradition. – Be Happy Jun 29 '14 at 14:46
  • This is also without any basis as different items are used in arati alongwith dipa which have nothing to do with light. – user17294 Mar 25 at 5:07
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I'm skeptical about this explanation having any scriptural basis, but Steven J. Rosen in his book "Essential Hinduism" claims that the light of the aarati symbolizes the light of spirituality freeing us from the night of materialism (page 196):

Arati is a ceremony replete with symbolism. The word arati, for example, literally means “before night,” and this is not only because the first of these ceremonies begins in predawn hours. The waving of the arati lamp as an offering to the deity implies an end to the “night” of the practitioner’s material sojourn—he or she is now situated in the light of God’s devotion. Arati is a safe place to be, where “night” cannot reach us. But night has a tendency to engulf us again and again, and so arati is a reminder to be vigilant, before our materialistic night again rises to the fore. [italics in original]

Like I said, I don't buy it, but the one thing I do take away from this is that aarati has its origins, at least etymologically, in pre-dawn rituals. So it could just be that as part of the process of waking up the deity (the same purpose as saying the Suprabhatam), people used to wave a lamp around, and then this practice came to be done throughout the day. But that's just speculation on my part. In any case, as far as I know, aarati isn't even mentioned in Hindu scripture.

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    ...but it's a beautiful explanation nonetheless. – Vineet Menon Jun 28 '14 at 5:14
  • I think this is one unfortunate and wild guess of someone who knew hinduism only from outside – user17294 Mar 25 at 5:03
  • Yes, Arati is mentioned specifically in the puja vidhi books with mantras for each item – user17294 Mar 25 at 5:38
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    @Rickross "do you think people will imagine things if not guided by scriptures? " Well yes and it happens far, far more often than you think. You wouldn't believe how much power the pandits have today and how easily it is to manipulate people. – Wikash_ Mar 30 at 8:00
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    "and I know what I m saying .." as do I as I have been in many mandirs and saw that people do things radically different than what scriptually is written down. They do so because the pandit says so and people most often follow him like a hurdle of sheep. @rickross – Wikash_ Mar 31 at 12:06
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The original word of 'Arati' is 'ArAtrika'.According to the sanskritdictionary.com, ArAtrika has to be done as follows:

'सर्वेषु चाङ्गेषु च सप्तवारान् आरात्रिकं भक्त- जनस्तु कुर्यात्.: 'sarveshu chAngeshu cha saptavAran ArAtrikam bhakta-janastu kuryAt' meaning that a devotee should do the Arati seven times around all the limbs of the Deity. It also quotes a vachana of Sankaracharya that reads that the devotees doing Arati receives the grace of God : 'शिरसि निहितभारं पात्रमारात्रिकस्य भ्रमयति मयि भूयस्ते कृपार्द्रः कटाक्षः'.

According to the Siddha Gaudiya Vaishnava Sri Krishnaprem (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krishna_Prem), the basic reason behind arati is described as follows :

The whole day we are attracted by objects for pleasing our five sense orgnas - eyes (beauty), tongue(taste), nose (fragrance), skin (touch/contact) and ears (sweet sounds). The arati is just to remind us that all such activities should be done keeping God at the centre .The Circular Movement is the divine movement.

We move dipa (agni-tattva, symbolic of rupa), jala-sankha (jala-tattva, symbolic of taste), dhupa/flowers (prthvi-tattva, symbplic of smell), charama or fan(vayu tattva, symbolic of touch) and ghanta/bell(AakAsha-tattva, symbolic of sounds). The Arati reminds us that we should be aware of the goal of life.

And touching the Arati items after Arati is completed by the devotees seem to signify that we would accept the five tattvas described above only after offering to the Lord and accept His/Her prasada.

Reference : Krishnaprem, Mahajan-Samvad,, Dr. Govindagopal Mukhopadhyay,mPrachi Prakashani, 2nd edition., page 60.

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