The lunar month which is followed by all Hindu calendars consists of twenty- eight days. Each month has two fortnights. The dark fortnight is the one with the waning moon and the bright fortnight is the one with the waxing moon. The 13th night of the dark fortnight of every lunar month is known as Shivaratri — the night of Shiva. It is the darkest night of the month. Thus we find that there are twelve and sometimes thirteen Shivaratris in a year. However the 13th night of the dark fortnight in the month of Magha (February/March) is known as Mahashivaratri or the Great Night of Shiva. This is a festival which is celebrated all over India. As usual with all Hindu festivals, it has a deep esoteric meaning. The obscure reason behind every Hindu festival or ritual is to give an opportunity to the small, limited, individual ego to expand to its infinite boundless state.
The smaller Shivaratris in all the other months are commonly known as “pradosham” which literally means, “that which removes all sins.” The time for pradosham lies between one and a half hours before and one a half hours after sunset. Pradosham is a bimonthly occasion on the thirteenth day of every fortnight in the Hindu calendar. At this time it is said that the sun and moon are in a horizontal line. There are certain vibrations during this time which help us to remove our negative karmas. The same is the case with Mahashivarati. Shiva is the destroyer in the Hindu Trinity. The Shiva Tattva or his destructive power is supposed to come in closest contact with the earth at these times and especially on the night of Mahashivaratri. This destructive power is invoked in order to destroy the negative tendencies that we have accumulated during the year.
Shiva is the wielder of power! On this day the power he wields over the universe increases hundred fold. His role is not just destruction but “creative destruction.” This means that his destruction has a purpose. It is not mere annihilation but transformation. So, on this Great Night of Shiva we invoke him and beg him to destroy all the blocks in our system that act as impediments in the way of our spiritual progress. Before the night starts we should make a list of our negative tendencies and concentrate on two or three of them and work on them during the long hours of vigil during the night of Mahashivaratri.
The rishis of ancient India were intimately connected with the movement of the planets. They gave us instructions on how best we could make use of planetary positions and dispositions in order to allow our human system to rise to its highest potential. On the night of Mahashivaratri, the planet is tilted in exactly the right angle for people living in the northern hemisphere of the world to feel an upsurge of energy. This energy can either be directed towards spiritual activities or be dissipated in commonplace actions. The Hindu tradition never lost any opportunity to give a push to the individual to accelerate his move towards the divine. Therefore the festival of Mahashivaratri was established to make use of this spurt of energy and give it a thrust in the right direction. For this we are asked to keep awake during the night and remain with our spinal cord erect so as to facilitate the movement of the energy upwards. Spiritual energy always goes upwards through the spinal column.
Mahashivaratri gives us an opportunity to experience that vastness or unlimited energy that Shiva signifies, which is the source of all creation.
The rishis always wove stories around deep spiritual truths in order to make them more palatable to the common man. Their desire was to turn everyone into a yogi and bring out the deep, hidden divine potential in every human being. The esoteric meaning behind Mahashivaratri is camouflaged in the famous story in the Puranas known as the “Churning of the Milky Ocean.”
Once it is said that the devas or gods became very weak and lost their youth due to the curse of the rishi called Durvasa. The asuras or demons took this opportunity to oust the gods and grab the heavens for themselves. The miserable gods went with their tale of woe to Vishnu who comforted them and told them that they would get back their youth and strength by imbibing the “Amrit” or nectar of immortality which could be got by churning the Milky Ocean on which he himself was resting. Of course the devas were totally incapable of taking on such a tremendous task. They were forced to ask for help from their bitter enemies, the asuras. The asuras agreed provided they were given half the nectar, to which the devas were forced to assent. In olden days people used to make butter by churning yogurt. They tied a rope round a pillar and wound the rope round the wooden churn and kept on churning manually until butter rose to the top. Using this principle, the devas used a mountain as a churn and the snake on which Vishnu was lying, as a rope. The devas caught the tail of the snake and the asuras the head and they churned merrily for some days. After some time the snake started getting a bit sick of the whole affair and started to vomit the most virulent poison called “Halahala”. Had the poison fallen to the ground, everything on the earth would surely have perished. Both the gods and the demons were in a panic and prayed to Lord Shiva to come to their help. Shiva, the compassionate one, came immediately and caught the poison in his palms and drank it. But his wife Parvati, not knowing his greatness was terrified that it would kill him and caught his throat so that the poison congealed on his neck and thus his neck turned blue. This is how he got the name “Neelakanda” or the blue-necked one. Thus Shiva became the “Saviour of the World.”
It is common knowledge that one who has been bitten by a snake or taken poison should not be allowed to sleep, so it is said that the devas and the asuras as well as all the sages who had assembled there, kept vigil the whole night extolling Lord Shiva and chanting his names. This was the night of Mahashivaratri.
This is the story told to people in order to encourage them to keep a fast and stay awake the whole night with spine erect. Of course the esoteric secret behind the whole story has been given at the beginning of this article. In olden days people needed some story which would arouse their religious fervour in order to make them follow spiritual instructions. By following these instructions, they would benefit from the deep spiritual and scientific reasons which they could not understand that was underlying the story. This is how the rishis ensured that profound spiritual truths were followed by common people so that they would all get the full benefit even though they did not understand the science behind it.
Vilva leaves, white flowers and ashes (vibhuti) are all special for Shiva. Again the esoteric reason is that these three things have the ability to attract positive vibrations so we are asked to apply “vibhuti” on our upper chakras before sitting for puja or meditation. The vilva leaves and white flowers are always offered to Shiva during his pujas (rituals). The mantra for Shiva is the five- syllabled mantra — Aum Namashivaya.
Many other stories are also told to encourage people to keep the fast and stay awake the whole night. It is said that once a man was lost in a forest and could not make it back to his house so he climbed a tree which happened to be a Vilva tree under which there happened to be a linga (elliptical stone image) of Shiva. Wild animals were roaming around in the forest. The man was frightened of falling down if he fell asleep so he started plucking the leaves and throwing them down so as to keep awake. The leaves fell on the stone image of Shiva under the tree. This happened to be the night of Mahashivaratri and without knowing it, the man had kept a concentrated vigil the whole night and was engaged in doing puja to the linga with the vilva leaves. It is said that in the morning the attendants of Shiva came and gave him liberation!
These stories are told to people in order to encourage them to keep vigil. Even though they don’t know the esoteric reason behind the practice they would still attain a high state of spiritual awakening. Thus everyone was exhorted to keep up the practice of fasting and keeping awake on the great night of Shiva — Mahashivaratri.
This year, Mahashivaratri fell on 4 March 2019
Article credit by Vanmali
Image credit: www.pintrest.com
Feature image credit: indiatimes.in
“Utterly fearless and uninhibited it is this consciousness that brings
into manifestation and sustains the infinite
variety of beings, from the creator to the
blade of grass. It is ever dynamic and active,
yet it is more inactive than a rock and is more
unaffected by such activity than space.”
(Yoga Vashishtha – 5:23)
Shiva represents the unmanifest and Shakti the manifest; Shiva the formless and Shakti the formed; Shiva consciousness and Shakti energy, not only in the cosmos as a whole but in each and every individual. The roots of Shakti are in Shiva. Though one is manifested and the other unmanifested, they are in the ultimate sense one and the same One is the principle of changelessness and the other, the principle of change- Shakti is change within changelessness while Shiva is changelessness as the root of change. The experience of perfect unity of the changeless and the changeable, the dissolution of duality, is the aim of Tantra, and thus of Yoga.
Everything you see around you, whether physical, psychic, mental or whatever, is Shakti, both individually and collectively. This includes everything from a pebble to the sun. All manifestations of Shakti come from the underlying substratum, Shiva. The aim of Tantra is to invert the process to retread the path of creation as it were, back to union with Shiva or the Paramatman (supreme).
Tantra says that Shakti or the power of creating separate centres of manifestation (i.e. objects, individuals, etc.) is in essence consciousness itself (Shiva). However, the power of the phenomenal world around us veils itself through the power of maya. Each and everything in the created universe is actually no more than manifested consciousness and even though everything comes from it, there is no change in the nature of consciousness. From Shiva comes the universe as a whole and everything individually through the power of Shakti, yet Shiva remains the same. The eternal wonder and mystery is that Shiva and Shakti are one and the same.
Tantra regards the material universe as the form, pattern, or expression of the totality. According to Tantra both the manifest and unmanifest are real; to tell someone that the things around him are unreal is nonsensical, because his experience on normal levels of awareness is otherwise. The world, says Tantra, must be regarded as real. One must utilise the body, mind and environment to know that which is beyond. Other systems, like Vedanta, regard the universe as unreal because it changes, but Tantra states that everything, whether changing or changeless, is ‘real’; both are no more than two different aspects of the totality.
Shiva is father (pita) of all that moves and is motionless; he is said to be naked, clothed in open space, or digambara, (clothed in the universe). Now he is usually depicted as wearing a tiger skin and holding a trident which represents the three gunas of which he is the eternal master. He is said to ride a bull called Nandi and contains within himself the seeds of creation. He is symbolised by the shiva lingam and is totally unconditioned, in a continual state of nirvikalpa samadhi. Shiva is the king of all yogis – Yogeshwara – for he represents the supreme experience. He is also known as Kuleshana, lord of the kaulas, those who have reached the highest stage of Tantra (Kaulachara).
Shiva has many aspects. Sometimes he is called ‘Rudra’, the destroyer, who appears to be more like Shakti in nature (the dissolving aspect). This merely emphasises that the active and the inactive, manifest and unmanifest, are really one and the same. All the personifications or deities eventually represent exactly the same thing- the absolute. Only the symbol is different. If you wish you can create your own deity. The widespread worship of vast numbers of dieties indicates the incredible complexity (yet underlying simplicity) and tolerance of the all-embracing spiritual climate of India.
Shakti also has many names and aspects. She is known as ‘prana’ when associated with the organisation and growth of matter in all forms of life. She is ‘kundalini’ – the power that lies dormant in everything and which can be unleashed through yogic and tantric practices. She is called ‘Kali’, the dissolver of the world, who withdraws everything into her womb at the end of the allotted life-span or yuga. She is depicted as ‘Parvati’, the epitome of the loving and faithful consort of Shiva. She is the primordial power- ‘Adya’, the universal mother, ‘Ishwari’ – the consort of Ishwara Lord of the universe. Shakti is also referred to as ‘Avidya rupini’ (the form of ignorance), for it is she who produces ignorance and individuality. Conversely, she is known as ‘Vidya, rupini’, (the form of knowledge) for she is the means of removing bondage and achieving liberation or enlightenment.
The ‘Kularnava Tantra’ says, “By that which one falls, so one will raise oneself”. Shakti is the mind of each one of us which can either enslave us or free us. She is ‘Maya’, (the creator of illusion), for it is through her power that one fails to see ‘reality’. At the same time it is through the power of Shakti that the world is experienced; through her that Shiva can experience himself. Shakti is para brahman, the absolute, when she becomes a brahman at the time when Shiva and Shakti unite. Endless different forms of Shakti are worshipped in India – ‘Uma’, ‘Gaud’, ‘Durga’ – her forms are infinite, for there is no end to her power and manifestation. Her forms are as numerous as the reflections of the moon. Continually active, creating, sustaining and dissolving everything into Shiva, only to be re-created – this is the unending process of Shakti.
The concept of Shakti and Shiva is by no means confined to India. In Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’, a book of the ancient Greeks, he states “What is on earth is merely the resemblance and shadow of something that is in a higher sphere, a resplendent thing which remains in an unchangeable condition.” The ancient Gnostics were really a European tantric sect which interpreted Christianity in the light of higher experience. One of the Gnostic mystics, Simon the Magus, is reputed to have said, “The universal eons consist of two branches, without beginning or end, which spring from one root………the invisible power and the unknowable silence. One of these branches is manifested from above and is the universal consciousness ordering all things and is designated male. The other branch is female and is the producer of all things.”
The Gnostics divided man into three distinct groups in the same manner as does Tantra. The lowest group in terms of awareness, are those who worship the material world- ‘pashu’ in Tantra, The second group includes those who worship an underlying reality with blind faith devoid of experience- ‘veer’ in Tantra, The third group are those wild live in higher awareness – ‘divya’ in Tantra. So the ancient system of Gnosticism is fundamentally tantric in nature, and many other systems throughout the world are very similar. Energy, including matter and consciousness, are functioning together in the cosmos as well as in each and every human being. This combination gives rise to the world we see around us, to time and to place. Energy is controlled by consciousness and consciousness cannot express itself except through energy. As Sri Adi Shankaracharya writes in the first sloka of his ‘Saundarya Lahari’, the sixty-fifth Tantra: ‘How can Shiva function without Shakti?’ Therefore Tantra says that in order to merge with consciousness, one must take the help of Shakti.
There is a supreme experience where Shiva and Shakti no longer exist as separate entities. Some call it ‘Brahman’, others refer to it as being ‘Not this, not this’, meaning that it is inexpressible, while still others say that it is one without a second. This is the state of nirvana, samadhi, perfect oneness, moksha or enlightenment. It is the state where Shiva merges so closely with Shakti that they become one. They embrace each other so tightly that they cease to be separate. And this is the meaning of the many ‘seemingly’ erotic sculptures which personify these two principles – Shiva and Shakti. They symbolise that enraptured state where separateness is no more. This is ‘The divine embrace of Tantra’.
Author: Swami Nischalananda Saraswati
Who is Shiva? Many stories and legends surround this most prominent figure of Indian spiritual traditions. Is he a god? Or a myth constructed from Hindu culture’s collective imagination? Or is there a deeper meaning to Shiva, revealed only to those who seek?
Sadhguru: When we say “Shiva,” there are two fundamental aspects that we are referring to. The word “Shiva” means literally, “that which is not.” Today, modern science is proving to us that everything comes from nothing and goes back to nothing. The basis of existence and the fundamental quality of the cosmos is vast nothingness. The galaxies are just a small happening – a sprinkling. The rest is all vast empty space, which is referred to as Shiva. That is the womb from which everything is born, and that is the oblivion into which everything is sucked back. Everything comes from Shiva and goes back to Shiva.
The word “Shiva” means literally, “that which is not.” On another level, when we say “Shiva,” we are referring to a certain yogi, the Adiyogi or the first yogi, and also the Adi Guru, the first Guru.
So Shiva is described as a non-being, not as a being. Shiva is not described as light, but as darkness. Humanity has gone about eulogizing light only because of the nature of the visual apparatus that they carry. Otherwise, the only thing that is always, is darkness. Light is a limited happening in the sense that any source of light – whether a light bulb or the sun – will eventually lose its ability to give out light. Light is not eternal. It is always a limited possibility because it happens and it ends. Darkness is a much bigger possibility than light. Nothing needs to burn, it is always – it is eternal. Darkness is everywhere. It is the only thing that is all pervading.
But if I say “divine darkness,” people think I am a devil worshiper or something. In fact, in some places in the West it is being propagated that Shiva is a demon! But if you look at it as a concept, there isn’t a more intelligent concept on the planet about the whole process of creation and how it has happened. I have been talking about this in scientific terms without using the word “Shiva” to scientists around the world, and they are amazed, “Is this so? This was known? When?” We have known this for thousands of years. Almost every peasant in India knows about it unconsciously. He talks about it without even knowing the science behind it.
On another level, when we say “Shiva,” we are referring to a certain yogi, the Adiyogi or the first yogi, and also the Adi Guru, the first Guru, who is the basis of what we know as the yogic science today. Yoga does not mean standing on your head or holding your breath. Yoga is the science and technology to know the essential nature of how this life is created and how it can be taken to its ultimate possibility.
This first transmission of yogic sciences happened on the banks of Kanti Sarovar, a glacial lake a few miles beyond Kedarnath in the Himalayas, where Adiyogi began a systematic exposition of this inner technology to his first seven disciples, celebrated today as the Sapta Rishis. This predates all religion. Before people devised divisive ways of fracturing humanity to a point where it seems almost impossible to fix, the most powerful tools necessary to raise human consciousness were realized and propagated.
So “Shiva” refers to both “that which is not,” and Adiyogi, because in many ways, they are synonymous. This being, who is a yogi, and that non-being, which is the basis of the existence, are the same, because to call someone a yogi means he has experienced the existence as himself. If you have to contain the existence within you even for a moment as an experience, you have to be that nothingness. Only nothingness can hold everything. Something can never hold everything. A vessel cannot hold an ocean. This planet can hold an ocean, but it cannot hold the solar system. The solar system can hold these few planets and the sun, but it cannot hold the rest of the galaxy. If you go progressively like this, ultimately you will see it is only nothingness that can hold everything. The word “yoga” means “union.” A yogi is one who has experienced the union. That means, at least for one moment, he has been absolute nothingness.
When we talk about Shiva as “that which is not,” and Shiva as a yogi, in a way they are synonymous, yet they are two different aspects. Because India is a dialectical culture, we shift from this to that and that to this effortlessly. One moment we talk about Shiva as the ultimate, the next moment we talk about Shiva as the man who gave us this whole process of yoga.
Unfortunately, most people today have been introduced to Shiva only through Indian calendar art. They have made him a chubby-cheeked, blue-colored man because the calendar artist has only one face. If you ask for Krishna, he will put a flute in his hand. If you ask for Rama, he will put a bow in his hand. If you ask for Shiva, he will put a moon on his head, and that’s it!
Every time I see these calendars, I always decide to never ever sit in front of a painter. Photographs are all right – they capture you whichever way you are. If you look like a devil, you look like a devil. Why would a yogi like Shiva look chubby-cheeked? If you showed him skinny it would be okay, but a chubby-cheek Shiva – how is that?
In the yogic culture, Shiva is not seen as a God. He was a being who walked this land and lived in the Himalayan region. As the very source of the yogic traditions, his contribution in the making of human consciousness is too phenomenal to be ignored. Every possible way in which you could approach and transform the human mechanism into an ultimate possibility was explored thousands years ago. The sophistication of it is unbelievable. The question of whether people were so sophisticated at that time is irrelevant because this did not come from a certain civilization or thought process. This came from an inner realization. This had nothing to do with what was happening around him. It was just an outpouring of himself. In great detail, he gave a meaning and a possibility of what you could do with every point in the human mechanism. You cannot change a single thing even today because he said everything that could be said in such beautiful and intelligent ways. You can only spend your lifetime trying to decipher it.
In this country, in ancient times, temples were built mostly for Shiva, no one else. It was only in the last 1000 or so years that other temples came up. The word “Shiva” literally means “that which is not.” So the temple was built for “that which is not.” “That which is” is physical manifestation; “that which is not” is that which is beyond the physical. A temple is a hole through which you enter into a space which is not. There are thousands of Shiva temples in the country, and most of them don’t have any form as such. They just have a representative form and generally it is a linga.