Maha Shivaratri – The Culture And Awakenings

Maha Shivaratri is celebrated on the 14th day of the dark fortnight of the Māgha month, as per the Hindu lunar calendar as a day of devotion to the Hindu god Shiva. Shiva is perhaps the most revered God in Hindu mythology. He is the one-third of the holy trinity – the Destroyer amongst the creator and protector. He is called the destroyer as he destroys negative presences such as evil, ignorance, and death. Shiva is also fondly known as “Bholenath” (simpleton) for his modest nature which has different facets. Shiva is also the cosmic dancer (Nataraja), a naked ascetic, as a vagrant beggar, as a yogi, as a Dalit (untouchable) accompanied by a dog (Bhairava), and as the androgynous union of Shiva and his consort in one body, half-male and half-female (Ardhanarishvara). One of the names given to Lord Shiva is Pashupatinath which literally means ‘master of animals’. However, this description of animals includes every being.

Of the 1,008 names, include Mahadeva (the great god), Mahesh, Rudra, Neelkantha (the blue-throated one), and Ishwar (the supreme god, Mahayogi, or the great ascetic, who symbolizes the highest form of austere penance and abstract meditation, which results in salvation. Shiva is a state of pure consciousness. He is the creator of time, all-powerful, all-knowing. He is the Lord of the soul and of nature and of the three conditions of nature. From Him comes the shifting of life and liberation, bondage in time and freedom in eternity. This coupled with his “bholenath” persona is maybe why priests, kings/queens, demons meditated to please the Mahadev to make their dreams come true. So on Shivaratri, Hindus, Yogis, and followers of Shaivism all worship, meditate and rejoice in the Bhakti ras of Mahadeva.

Who is Shiva?

Shiva is the dark-skinned austere with a blue throat. Shiva’s hair is matted and coiled on his head, adorned with a snake and a crescent moon. Ganga is always depicted flowing out of his topknot. Shiva is also the god with three eyes. The third eye, in the middle of his forehead, is always closed and only opens to annihilate an evildoer. While the Gods adorned gold and gemstones and gave up things that weren’t too pretty, Shiva is adorned with a garland of skulls, rudraksha beads, or a snake hangs from his neck.

The serpent race was despised and feared by all other creatures, but found a place of honor on Shiva’s sacred person, simply because he was moved by their plight. Shiva wore snakes as armlets and bracelets.

Image credit – DeviantArt/Swarooproy

In one hand, Shiva holds his Trishul, the Pinaka. The Trishul usually has a damaru or waisted drum tied to it. In another hand, he holds a conch shell, and in the third, a rudraksha rosary, a club, or a bow. He wears a tiger or leopard skin around his waist, and his upper body is usually bare, but smeared with ashes, as befits an ascetic. His third eye is believed to have appeared when Parvati (Parvati, the goddess of power, is Shiva’s cosmic consort), in a playful mood, covered his eyes with her hands. Immediately, the universe was plunged into darkness and there was chaos. To restore order, Shiva formed another eye on his forehead, from which emerged fire to restore the light.

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Why is Shivaratri Celebrated?

It is believed that Shivaratri falls on such auspicious day in the northern hemisphere that it raises a person’s spiritual power. Maha Shivaratri is also celebrated marking the convergence of Shiva and Shakti. Maha Shivaratri also celebrates the night when Lord Shiva performed the “Tandav”, the cosmic dance. Here are the various books and theories on how and why Shivaratri exists.

The Legend of Neelakantha

By now we have established the greatness of Shiva, the humble yogi who requires very less of worldly pleasures and embellishments, the savior who goes where none has ever gone. “Samudra Manthan” – the churning of the sea has been mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, in the Mahabharata, and in the Vishnu Purana as it explains how “Amrita” was formed.

After a brief power struggle between the Auras (demons) and Devas (Gods) churning of the sea was adviced by Vishnu to obtain the nectar of life- amrita. The churning of the Ocean of Milk was an elaborate process: Mount Mandara was used as the churning rod, and Vasuki, a nāgarāja (snake king) who abides on Shiva’s neck, became the churning rope. The Asuras demanded to hold the head of the snake, while the Devas, taking advice from Vishnu, agreed to hold its tail. As a result, the Asuras were poisoned by fumes emitted by Vasuki. Despite this, the Devas and the Asuras pulled back and forth on the snake’s body alternately, causing the mountain to rotate, which in turn churned the ocean. When the mountain was placed on the ocean, it began to sink. Vishnu, in the form of the Kurma turtle, came to their rescue and supported the mountain on his shell.

The Samudra Manthana process released a number of things from the Ocean of Milk. One was the lethal poison known as Halahala, which in some versions of the story, escaped from the mouth of the serpent king as the demons and gods churned. This terrified the gods and demons because the poison was so powerful that it could destroy all of creation. Then the gods approached Shiva for protection. Shiva consumed the poison to protect the three worlds but it burned the throat of Shiva. The Gods danced in order to protect Shiva from the harmful effect of the poison and keep him awake for a night. The poison eventually didn’t harm Shiva but turned his neck blue. This was when he got the name Neelkantha. Since then, the night is celebrated as Maha Shivratri. Such was his greatness and selflessness

Shiva Tandava

According to another popular legend, Maha Shivaratri is the night when Shiva performs the heavenly dance of creation, preservation, and destruction. The chanting of hymns, the reading of Shiva scriptures by devotees joins this cosmic dance. It is believed that on the 13th day of each bright lunar fortnight (see Hindu calendar), after 6 o’clock in the evening, falls a sacred hour called Pradosha. Worshipping Shiva at this time is akin to worshipping all the powers of Shiva, for this is the time when all the gods are believed to have assembled on Kailash to lose them in the ecstasy of Nataraja’s dance.

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He dances the dance of creation, the dance of destruction, the dance of solace and liberation. Beneath his left foot ignorance is crushed; from his head springs the life-giving waters. His are the flames, the moon, the drum, and the lotus. His mount is the white bull, and the tiger has given its skin to gird his loins. Serpents coil about his limbs, and from his right-hand flows the promise of release. This dance is not just a symbol. It takes place within each of us at the atomic level at every moment. The birth of the world, its maintenance, its destruction, the covering of the soul and its revelation…these are the five acts of this dance. All that has been made will be unmade, and all that has been destroyed will be resurrected. Shiva tandava stotram talks about Lord Shiva’s Dance.

Shivaratri- The union of Shiva and Parvati

After the death of Sati, his first wife, Shiva missed her sorely and went into deep mourning and isolation. But he did not know that she had come back as Parvati. King of gods, Indra, sends the god Kama – the Hindu god of desire, erotic love, attraction, and affection, to awake Shiva from meditation. The Kama reaches Shiva and shoots an arrow of desire. Shiva opens his third eye in his forehead and burns the cupid Kama to ashes. Parvati does not lose her hope or her resolve to win over Shiva. She begins to live in mountains like Shiva, engages in the same activities as Shiva, one of asceticism, yogini, and tapasi. This draws the attention of Shiva and awakens his interest. He meets her in disguised form, tries to discourage her, telling her Shiva’s weaknesses and personality problems. Parvati refuses to listen and insists in her resolve. Shiva finally accepts her and they get married. Apparently, Shiva dedicates the following hymn in Parvati’s honor,

I am the sea and you the wave,
You are Prakṛti, and I Purusha.

The marriage was sanctified a day before Amavasya in the month of Phalgun. This day of the union of Shiva and Parvati is celebrated as Maha Shivaratri every year.

How is Maha Shivaratri celebrated?

According to the Shiva Purana, the Mahashivaratri puja involves six steps which are:

  1. Taking bath in the Ganges for purification of soul, mind, and body. Bathing of the Shiv Linga with the holy water of Ganges, then bathing with milk and honey. Lord Shiva loves bel patra (three leaves stalked in one) so every ritual added it to the puja.
  2. After bathing of the Shiv Linga, vermilion paste applied to it which represents the virtue.
  3. Offer fruits, flowers which are given to get long life and satisfaction of desires.
  4. Burning enrages yields wealth.
  5. The lighting with Diya represents achieving more knowledge.
  6. Offering betel leaves provide satisfaction full of great pleasures.

Worshipers also apply three horizontal lines of holy ash on their forehead just like Lord Shiva which represents spiritual knowledge, cleanliness, and penance. They wear a garland made up of the Rudraksha (seed of Rudraksha tree) while worshiping Lord Shiva. It is believed that the Rudraksha tree was originated from the tears of Lord Shiva.

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Importance of Symbols

Bel Tree

The bel tree, also known as the bilwa or bilva tree-is sacred to Lord Shiva. According to legend, a disreputable hunter was going out to hunt one day (which happened to be the day of the festival) when he passed one of Shiva’s temples and saw a number of people worshipping the LINGAM and calling out Shiva’s name. Mockingly, he imitated their cries; without realizing it, uttering the god’s name on that holy day removed some of his sins. As night approached, he climbed up into a bel tree to escape the wild animals and wait for morning. Unable to sleep, he kept an involuntary vigil; and shivering from the cold, he accidentally shook down some of the bel leaves, which fell onto a stone LINGAM beneath the tree. Although none of these acts was deliberate, the hunter ended up performing exactly those rites that the worshippers of Shiva perform on Shivaratri, and he was instantly released from his past sins and made a saint.

Lingam 

The lingam-whose name is Sanskrit for “sign” or “distinguishing symbol”-represents Shiva’s generative powers. It is usually a short, cylindrical pillar with a rounded top, made out of stone or wood and decorated with carvings of the god along its sides. The lingam is worshipped with offerings of fresh flowers, pure water, young sprouts of grass, fruit, leaves from the Bel tree, and sun-dried rice.

Devotees throng the Shiva temples, Pashupatinath temple in Nepal, Annamalai temple in Tamil Nadu,  Mahakaleshwar Temple in Ujjain as well as major Jyotirlinga Shiva temples of India, such as in Varanasi and Somanatha,  on Maha Shivaratri.

Mahashivaratri is considered more than a ritual as it dispels ignorance, and makes one aware of the universe. It also indicates the onset of the spring after cold and harsh winter. So make this Shivaratri about the awakenings of your inner well being and connect to the universe spiritually.