Since the dawn of spirituality, people of all cultures have associated Light with the most intimate religious, and mystical, experiences. Those who have had visions of holy beings typically describe them surrounded by Light. In the holy books of all major religions, some of the most poetic, and esoteric, sections directly refer to the Light. Modern near death experiences describe arriving in a place bathed in white Light; going to the Light; being called by the Light.
Ancient descriptions, including both the Egyptian and the Tibetan Books of the Dead, include substantial reference to Light.
Light, then, is a Universal Motif: one that attempts to convey something beyond comprehension, knowledge or direct description. Prior to religion, light was just light. The importance of light, in the context of human experience, created a primary source material that would evolve, with the history of mankind, into an archetypal Light. This archetypal Light, interpreted according to cultural and religious beliefs, became “Divine Light” which, depending on regional teaching, found a unique range of expression.
Light is constant. As a fundamental energy, it belongs to no single group, tradition or system of belief. The experience of both light and Light varies little across disparate manifestation of the human and spiritual condition.
Within the Hindu tradition, the Upanishads, compiled between 800 and 500 BCE., are the primary source of material associated with religious mysticism. It is clear that the writers of the texts had, at some level, experienced “Divine Light”: devoting a great deal of space in an attempt to describe their experience, and to identify what it means; both at the personal level, and for human kind as a whole.
Similarly, in Buddhism, a natural development of Hinduism occurring around 500BCE, we find multiple references, throughout the Sutras of various sects, to the experience of “Divine Light”. Indeed, following the example set by the Buddha, the primary goal of the tradition is to experience this Light for one’s self: an act of union with the Divine referred to as enlightenment.
Sikhism, also emerging from Hinduism around 1460CE, uses similar language. The primary source is the Adi Granth, a compilation of scripture completed in 1604, and considered a perpetual Guru, rather than a holy book.Within it, we find considerable reference to human encounter with “Divine Light”. Indeed, the concept is addressed more specifically within the Sikh tradition than in any other, with the inherent symbolism, and the difficulties of description and interpretation, being openly discussed within the holy texts.
The Abrahamic religions of the West contain less frequent reference to Light in their authorised scriptures. It is to the writings of the early theologians and mystics of these traditions that we must turn in order to find the most comprehensive expressions of Light applicable to the Western systems.
This is not to say that these scriptures remain silent. Indeed, in the Tanakh of the Judaic tradition we find God’s “Glory”, a metaphor for the Light, often referred to, whilst in the New Testament of the Christian tradition we find possibly the most well known rationalisation of Light in the opening lines of the Gospel of St. John.
Despite many references and metaphors within the Tanakh, mainstream Judaism touches on the subject only briefly; mainly in the context of vision and direct experience of it; and the concept is never clearly developed within the scripture. The most abundant reference to, and description of, “Divine Light” is found in the Kabbalah which, like all mystic traditions, reflects the aspirant’s yearning to experience Union with the Light.
The holy book of Islam, the Qu’ran, on the other hand, contains many poetic descriptions of Light, with at least one Sura, veiled entirely as allegorical metaphor, almost entirely devoted to it. Indeed, it is the Islamic mystical tradition that furnishes the most fully developed concept of “Divine Light”. The writings of the Sufis so eloquently speak of the yearning towards direct experience of the Light, describing the result of such experience in a manner highly evocative of the Eastern traditions.
The major religions of East and West, especially the mystical traditions within each, describe the Light in ways that are surprisingly similar. Perhaps within the two regions, the similarities should be expected. After all, Buddhism and Sikhism developed from within Hinduism, whilst Christianity and Islam developed from within Judaism.
The coincidence, however, that the root religions should develop such similar expressions, which would later develop more fully within their offshoots, is less easy to rationalise.
Touching on five of the more obvious of these areas of correspondence makes the observation clear.
1. Light is the ‘prima mater’ from which the entire Universe is created.
From the creation story of the Hindu tradition we learn that:
“Before time, there was nothing. There was no heaven, no earth, and
nothing else. There was only a vast ocean of nothingness, so large as
to be immeasurable. It was so large, no one would ever be able to
comprehend it. The waves of this ocean licked at the edges of
absolutely nothing, but in the middle of the ocean, there was a giant
cobra. This cobra was coiled around the Lord Vishnu. Everything was
utterly silent, and Vishnu slept in the coils, undisturbed by anything at
“At one moment in time, from the depths of the ocean, a sound began
to tremble its way forth. It was a constant hum, one of urgency that
filled the entire ocean of nothingness with a throbbing of energy. Light
began to fill the spaces where darkness was, and in the heat of the
light, a flower began to bloom from the navel of the now alert Vishnu. In
the centre of that flower sat Brahma, the servant of Vishnu. Vishnu
looked at Brahma and said, The time has come. Let us create the
The Buddhist and Sikh traditions do not contain a Creation story specific to them: both being born of socio-political rebellion against the restrictions and obligations within the Hindu system. The Buddha and the Guru felt that these raised an unnecessary barrier between the individual and ‘God’. In fact, both religions do not even express an idea of Godhead: each preferring to focus on the expansion of consciousness possible through direct experience of the Light of Creation.
The three Abrahamic religions share, in common, the six-day creation myth.
The Islamic version is poorly defined in the Qu’ran, with reference only to the six days, with no detail given. Christianity, referring to it as the Old Testament, makes direct use of the version found in the Judaic Tanakh. Within the section known as the Torah, we find that:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the
earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the
deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
“And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that
the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God
called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was
evening, and there was morning – the first day.”
Note the similarities in the content of both the Eastern and Western descriptions of the creation process. Before time there is nothing. This is described as a watery place, above which the Universal Creator was suspended. With the introduction of Light into the vast expanse of nothing, the act of creation begins.
2. There is only one God, and only one Light. Light is the source of all. God is that Light and, as Supreme Creator, he sculpts the Universe from the pure essence of His own Divine radiance.
Within the Hindu text, the Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad, the point is made that:
“[Vishnu is the] Light of all Lights.
He only is Brahma.
He only is Indra.
He only is Vishnu.
He only is Self-Shining…”
Whilst, in the Brahmarahasya Upanishad, we find:
“Brahma is the Light of lights. He is Self-luminous.
He is Supreme Light. He is ultimate light.
He is an embodiment of Light.
By His Light all else shines.”
Sikhism goes further. Guru Nanaak, discussing the poetry quoted above, states explicitly that:
“God is the Light of all Light”,
whilst a popular couplet from the Adi Granth states:
“From that One Light came the whole cosmos.”
Despite the infrequent references in the New Testament of the Christian tradition, we find 1 John unequivocal in stating that:
“God is Light.”
The introduction to the Gospel according to St. John, includes the concept more prosaically:
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light,
that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light,
but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the True Light,
which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”
The Light referred to, is the Christ, who, through the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, is also God. John, then, is here indicating that the nature of God is Light.
Christian mystics are much more direct on the matter. Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century nun, relates numerous visions of God. In one, He told her that:
“…I, who am without beginning, am the fire by which all fires are enkindled…”
The Tanakh of Judaism includes several references to individual experience of the Light, but there is little by which to determine the nature of God as Light.
The prophet Ezekiel, however, witnessing a dramatic vision gives certain clues:
“And I looked, and behold, a whirlwind came out of the north,
a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself and a brightness was about it…
As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain,
so was the appearance of the brightness round about.
“This was the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of the LORD…”
For greater clarity we must turn to the Judaic mystics. Within the Zohar, we find that God designates Himself Ein-Sof (limitless) and, as the Cause of causes, calls his crown the “Source,” an “…inexhaustible fount of Light…”.
“which illumines the supreme heaven, [is] a Light never ceasing…”.
Further, the Zohar states that:
“God wrought the Light as the medium for the creation of the world….
For all the generations of heaven and earth were produced by the
energy of that treasured-up Light…”
Islam is more specific, and in the Qur’an we find a clear identification:
“Allah is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth…
Light upon Light, Allah guideth unto His Light whom he will…”
Whilst the general tradition is specific, the mystic tradition of Islam, Sufism, retains the most exquisite and poetic expressions of the concept:
“The Essence of the First Absolute Light, God gives constant
illumination, whereby it is manifested and it brings all things into
existence, giving Light to them by its rays.
“Everything in the World is derived from the Light of His Essence
and all beauty and perfection are the gift of His bounty…”
“There is naught in the Universe save one Light!
It appears in a variety of manifestations.
God is the Light; its manifestations, the Universe…”
3. Light is beyond description, as it cannot be perceived by the senses.
4. Light, or a particular aspect of it, resides in everything.
5. The ultimate goal of all religious experience is Union with the Supreme Creator (Light).
Article submitted by Haruth. Member of the Esoteric Forum.