Kārtik Pūrṇimā

Throughout the tradition, there is a running mythological theme of the battle between light and dark. Light is a symbol of divinity, grace, and sacred. It represents wisdom and the ability to see clearly. On the other hand, darkness confuses and obscures the true nature of things, and creates suffering.

Again and again, we revisit these stories throughout the year in order to remember and recommit to a life shining with our most essential qualities – truth, goodness, and beauty.

Today is Deva-Dīpāvali, also known in modern Hindi as Dev-Diwali, which basically means Diwali for all the gods (devas). The devas refer to the different sacred powers in this universe, and today is when they were released from the tyranny of darkness (andhakāra).

There are a few myths associated with today, and each one has a great deal of variation, but they share a common message. Don’t worry about which one is most “true” – remember, mythology describes existing processes rather than a concrete historical past.

In the first myth, there’s a group of demon-brothers collectively known as Tripurāsura, because they had built three cosmic cities (tripura) of iron, silver, and gold that flew through space. They could only be destroyed by a single arrow shot at them when their orbits aligned, which would only happen once every thousand years.

Because no one could destroy them, they violently oppressed and terrorized everyone they encountered. Everything was dark and filled with suffering and despair. After all beings cried out for freedom, Lord Śiva assembled his cosmic bow and waited patiently – nearly a thousand years – for the right moment.

As the cities finally lined up, the Lord of Yoga shot his arrow. It flew straight through all three cities, penetrating and destroying each one. For this, he became known as Tripurāntaka.

Another myth associated with today is that of Andhakāsura, whose name literally means “the demon of darkness”. Andhakāsura saw Pārvati, the Supreme Goddess, and became completely obsessed by her beauty. Instead of honoring and serving her as the Mother of all creation, he wanted to rape and control her.

She recognized his intention immediately, and turned to her beloved Śiva for protection. When Śiva confronted him, Andhakāsura brought his army and started to fight.

Unfortunately, despite Śiva’s immense power, every time he struck the demon and drew blood, each drop would replicate a new Andhakāsura. It ended up being a bloody, exhausting war that lasted 100 years, ending when Śiva finally impaled him on his spear, penetrating his heart. [Another version of this story has Śiva smiling at him with deep love, and the force of his compassion ultimately destroys him].

As he was released from his demonic form, he repented, praying to always be a humble and devoted servant of Śiva and Śakti. He recognized them as his true parents, the source of his life, and this upwelling of devotion and gratitude inspired their mercy.

Finally, Kārtik Pūrṇimā is also the birthday of Kārtikeya, the son of Śiva and Pārvati, who vanquishes Tārakāsura, another violent and horrific demon. Kārtikeya, who is also known as Skanda (and Murugan in South India) is described as the lord of war. Now, that doesn’t mean that he wages or creates war. Rather, he’s the ultimate warrior, undefeated and always victorious. (What else would you expect from the son of Śiva, sacred presence, and Śakti, limitless power?)

Unlike his brother Gaṇeśa-ji, whose supreme power lies in his sweetness and limitless joy, Kārtikeya is the absolute discipline and mastery of self that no one can overpower. On the path, we need to cultivate both qualities simultaneously.

He is associated with the stars (the Pleiades, who raised him) and is always shown with a large spear, and oftentimes also with arrows and other sharp and pointy weapons. In all of the stories that we’ve shared today, there’s a common theme of persistent, pervasive darkness that – after a long and excruciating battle – only a spear or arrow can ultimately destroy.

So what does all this mean for us?

As stated earlier, darkness is that which conceals and opposes the true nature of the universe – creating division and suffering instead of rejoicing in the the supreme and effulgent oneness of being.

Śiva is the supreme yogi, and the embodiment of pure grace. He represents the true nature of all. Śiva engaging in battle is our own highest nature protecting and reclaiming itself. Yogis understand this to refer to the battle to awaken and return to our true vision of reality – the process of yoga and the spiritual journey. Even if we are not pursuing enlightenment, the myth reminds us that divine power will always protect us.

The spear or arrow represents one-pointed focus – which in Sanskrit we call ekāgratā. When all of our attention and energy aligns towards a single purpose, we become unstoppable. To pierce the veil of darkness – which manifests as ignorance, suffering, and cruelty – we need to be totally awake and unified within ourselves. Ekāgratā also contains the energy of commitment – like a steady arrow, we have to keep flying towards our goal, no matter how far away.

The three cities can be considered the three levels of contracted being – iron is the physical, earthly body; silver is the mind; and gold is the individual soul. Another way to understand this is that it’s the three states of consciousness – waking, dreaming, and sleeping. For most of of us, these three “cities” are just spinning around on their own orbits, with no alignment or connection to each other.

The time period specified in both these myths is also meaningful – a thousand years, or a hundred years. While neither is perhaps intended to be taken literally, what we can understand from it is that even when the Lord himself is fighting with the strongest weapon of all, the process still takes time – definitely longer than a single human life. Ignorance is deeply rooted – and to remove it can countless generations before we wake up from darkness and ignorance.

Like Lord Śiva himself, we have to persevere and we have to be patient. We also have to understand that sometimes even if we feel ready to go, we might still have to wait until external circumstances are properly aligned – and then it may only take a single well-aimed shot to liberate the universe. The transformative work we do can not be superficial – we have to allow our heart to be completely penetrated by the divine in order to fully conquer darkness. And, the work we do may take our whole life, and even longer – but it’s still worth doing.

Are there any other symbols or aspects of these myths that speak to you?

Practice: Focus on the Light

Kārtik Pūrṇimā is a sacred day, and people all over the world set aside time to remember their goodness and inner light. Some of the traditional practices are:

-Once again, we light small lamps filled with ghee or oil, and place them all around our homes and sacred spaces. After the excess and mirth of Dīpavalī, this time we light the lamps with a lot more stillness and quiet – a pure experience of light. It’s Diwali for the devas, the subtle senses.

-It’s also traditional to visit temples or sacred places, and have darshan of the divine. Taking ritual baths in holy water is also a practice on this day. And of course, there’s a tangible form of grace available to all of us in every place – be sure to spend time under the moon!

-Many people do practices for Lord Śiva today. Pūjā, mantra repetition, chanting, liṅgam worship, meditation, etc are all wonderful options. If you are feeling oppressed by inner or outer darkness, you can pray for divine grace. We can send blessings that the the divine light streams through the universe, awakening love and removing ignorance and suffering.

-Lastly, in honor of Skanda/Kārtikeya, we can make an inner commitment to cultivate ekāgratā, one-pointed focus. One classic trick of darkness is to keep us confused and spinning. If we are constantly overwhelmed, distracted, and spinning through the world (like the three cities), we will never be free or happy.

Today, as you practice, let your body, mind, and soul unify. Be patient. Be steady. Let your vision get clear. This is how we defeat darkness.

May the sacred light of your heart – Lord Śiva – penetrate your being and set you free.