I have to admit, I’ve always been kind of scared of the image of Shiva, but then again, all that comes to mind when I think about him is that he is dark, has matted locks, a third eye, wears snakes around his neck, leopard skin around his waist, smears ash on his body, sits in meditation, unmoving, dances the cosmic dance as Nataraja, is angry a lot and destroys stuff. So this Shivaratri, I decided to learn a little more because my knowledge about him is embarrassingly little.
The Perfect Union
Every February or March (the date varies based on the Lunar calendar) millions of devotees descend on Shiva temples for the night-long festival of Maha Shivaratri.
Maha Shivaratri (‘The Great Night of Shiva’) commemorates the divine wedding of Shiva and Parvati. Those with worldly ambitions see that day as the day Shiva conquered all his enemies. But, for the ascetics, it is the day he became one with Mount Kailash. He became like a mountain – absolutely still.
Ashes To Ashes
Esoterically, it is symbolic of the mystic union of Jiva (individual soul) with Paramatma (the Supreme Godhead) and it represents the high state of spiritual realization wherein the seeker remains fully aware of his identity with Shiva, the source of perennial joy, and thus experiences eternal Truth, Bliss and Beauty. (Satyam, Shivam. Sundaram).
Maha Shivaratri observes the restful period of Shiva after the Tandava (Cosmic) Dance and a new beginning.
Shiva symbolizes removal of negativity of life. Shiva in reverse is Visha which means poison.
Hence, Shiva, as the opposite, is life giving. Without the “i” which represents feminine strength Shiva spells Shava or a lifeless form. Energy is required to keep the body alive.
In the cosmic ‘Dance of Bliss’ Anandatandava, Shiva as Nataraj, on the stage of the world and the heart of the seeker, represents life activity through the dance of the Omniscient God. The dance symbolizes the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, and the daily rhythm of birth and death.
For the Divine Dancer, the sun, moon and stars are ornaments on the head. Around His neck is a casually draped snake implying duality of life, which on Him is powerless and cannot harm the body. Shiva, the form, is detached from the world and unaffected by any poison. The snake also signifies the yogic energy of kundalini which is under His control.
The body is covered with vibhuti, sacred ash equalizes all substance (the property of ashes from all substance is similar); ‘ashes to ashes” there is nothing beyond it.
(It is interesting to note Ash Wednesday occurs around the time of Shivaratri. And in the Jewish tradition the 13 days of mourning after death is called Shiva. Are these just a coincidence?)
Overcoming Darkness And Ignorance
The planetary positions are said to create a powerful beneficial surge of energy.
Shivaratri is also the darkest day of the year. In order to absorb the positive vibrations, there are several rites performed like maintaining an all-night vigil, all-day fasting, meditating and chanting ‘Om Namah Shivaaya’. But unlike most Hindu festivals which are celebrated during the day with great revelry, the Maha Shivaratri is more of a solemn event celebrated at night.
A Festival Of Contemplation
During the Vigil Night of Mahashivaratri, we are urged to look behind and before, to see what evil needs eradicating from our hearts, what growth of virtue we need to encourage, to realize that Shiva is not only outside of us but within us.
As the ashes on Shiva imply in the end all differences end, they burn and we become equal. Tremendous energy is required to burn the negative tendencies and to become Shiva, yogically equanimous.
Let this night not just be a night of Jagaran or wakefulness, let this night be a night of awakening for you. Happy Maha Shivaratri!