Lamp symbolism is linked to that of the diffusion of light. The lamp, the Zen patriach Hui Neng taught, ‘is the framework of light and light is the manifestation of the lamp.’ From this derives the ‘oneness’ of the one with the other which is like that of ‘concentration and Wisdom’. Similarly, Tibetan Buddhists speak of the ‘lamp of discipline’ which lights the way to Wisdom. Ismaili esoterics also teach that light is the manifestation of the lamp, the lamp being both God and light, the Divine Attributes and the Imam as such.
Hui Neng regarded the uninterrupted transmission of the flame of the lamp as a symbol of the transmission of the Law and there is an important Zen treatise on the transmission of the light of the lamp. In Buddhism, it is, in more general terms, the handing on of life, the cycle of ‘rebirths in which there is continuity but not identity’. Release from this cycle. Nirvana, is blowing out the lamp.
Furthermore, the yogi who achieves spiritual concentration is compared by several writers, and especially in the Bhagavad Gita, with a motionless flame sheltered from the draught. Even in the West, the lamp is sometimes taken as a symbol of holiness and the contemplative life.
‘Exist, with the Self for lamp’, the Buddha taught, in other words, with the Universal Spirit. The same injunction recurs in the Upanishads, and in the same way Mahmud Shabistari makes the lamp a symbol of the Divine Spirit (ar-Rith) or the World Soul.
In the West, lamps are frequently used as a sign of the Real Presence of God. They are set on the tops of Buddhist pagodas as ‘lighthouses of the Dharma’ and Taoists once employed them to summon spirits. In the lodges of Chinese secret societies a red lamp enables ‘the true to be distinguished from the false’; it is a reminder of the manifestation of celestial influence, but ‘enlightens’ the faithful as well. In Hindu iconography, the lamp is the emblem of Ketu, the comet. Ketu also means ‘lamp’ or ‘flame’ and the symbolism of Ketu may not be unrelated to the aratl, the Hindu rite of hanging lamps in front of images of the gods. Hanging lamps suggests images of rejecting thoughts of the profane world, the lamp itself being, of course, related to the element of fire.
Berber women say that every time a child is born a lamp is lit:
This lamp is lit near the head of the new-born baby during the first nights he sleeps on Earth. It is the lamp which was carried in front of the young bride and which burned throughout her wedding night, summoning the Invisible to assume bodily shape.
The lamp stands for the human being. Like it, it has a body of clay, a vegetative soul or life-principle, the oil, and a spirit, the flame. To offer a lamp in a shrine is to make an offering of oneself and to place oneself under the protection of the Invisibles and the guardian genii. This is the reason why, in North Africa, lamps are piled in their hundreds in the corners of shrines, in the hollows of rocks and between the roots of sacred trees... In houses in which marriages are celebrated, lamps summon wandering souls so that one of them, lured by the flame, will come down into the bride’s womb.
The Christian custom of offering and burning candles in the sanctuary and before statues of saints symbolizes the flame of sacrifice, love and the divine presence.