Towards the end of every ritualistic worship of the Lord (pooja) or devotional singing (bhajan) or to welcome an honored guest or saint, we perform the आरती aarti. This is always accompanied by the ringing of the bell and sometimes by singing, playing of musical instruments and clapping.
It is one of the sixteen steps (shodasha upchara) of the page ritual. It is referred to as the offering of the auspicious light (mangla niraajanam). Holding the lighted lamp in the right hand, we wave the flame in a clockwise circling movement to light the entire form of the Lord. As the light is waved we either do mental or loud chanting of prayers or simply behold the beautiful form of the Lord, illumined by the lamp. We experience an added intensity in our prayers and the Lord’s image seems to manifest a special beauty at that time.
At the end of the aarti we place our hands over the flame and then gently touch our eyes and the top of the head; We have seen and participated in this ritual from our childhood.
Having worshiped the Lord with love -performing abhiseka, decorating the image and offering fruits and delicacies, whilst performing the aarti we see the beauty of the Lord in all His glory. Our mind gets focused on each limb of the Lord illumined by the light of the aarti. It is akin to silent open-eyed meditation on His beautiful form. The singing, clapping, ringing of the bell etc. denote the joy and auspiciousness, which accompanies the vision of the Lord.
Aarti is often performed with camphor. This holds a telling spiritual significance. Camphor, when lit burns itself out completely. It represents our inherent tendencies (vasnas).
Lit by the fire of knowledge, which illumines the Lord (Truth), our vasnas and the ego, which creates a sense of individuality that keeps us separate from the Lord, burn themselves out completely. Also even as it burns and sacrifices itself, the lighted camphor reveals the glory of the Lord and emits a pleasant fragrance. Similarly we too should willingly sacrifice ourselves and all we have as we serve the Guru and society and spread the fragrance of love to all.
When the aarti is actually performed quite often our eyes close automatically. This is to signify that each of us is a temple of the Lord -we hold the divinity within. The priest reveals the form of the Lord clearly with the aarti flame. The Guru too clearly reveals to us the divinity within us with the light of spiritual knowledge.
At the end of the aarti, we place our hands over the flame and then touch our eyes and the top of the head. It means -may the light that illumined the Lord light up my vision; may my vision be divine and my thoughts noble and beautiful.
The philosophical meaning of aarti extends further. The sun, moon, stars, lightning and fire are the natural sources of light. The Lord is the source of all these wondrous phenomena of the universe. It is due to Him alone that all else exists and shines. As we light up the Lord with the flame of the aarti, we turn our attention to the very source of all light, which symbolizes knowledge and life.
Also the sun, moon and fire are the respective presiding deities of the intellect, mind and speech. The Lord is the supreme Consciousness that illumines all of them. Without Him the intellect cannot think, the mind cannot feel or the tongue speak. The Lord is beyond the mind, intellect, and speech. How can these finite equipment illuminate the infinite Lord?
Therefore as per perform aarti we chant:
न तत्रो सूर्यो भाति न चन्द्रतार्कम्म् , नेमा विधुतो भान्ति कुतोयमग्निः !
तमेव भान्तमनुभाति सर्वं, तस्य भासा सर्वमिदं विभाति !!
Na Tatra Suryo bhati Na Chandra Taarakam, Nemaa Vidyuto Bhaanti Kutoyamagnih,
Tameva Bhantarn Anubhaati Sarvam, Tasya Bhaasa Sarvam Idarn Vibhaati.
He is there where the sun does not shine-nor the moon, stars and lightning. Then What to talk of this small flame (in my hand)! Everything (in the universe) shines only after the Lord And by His light alone IS all illumined.
Swami Vimalananda & Radhika Krishnakumar, Chinmaya Mission