MahaShivaratri is the day Mahadeva performs Tandava and encourages us to overcome the darkness and ignorance that plague our lives.
MahaShivaratri is a sacred festival for Hindus that falls on Phalguna month’s Krushna Chaturdasi tithi or day. It is dedicated to Shiva Bhagwan and people celebrate it on this auspicious night after a day-long fast. While there are numerous Puranic stories about the origin of the occasion, we will be focusing on the yogic allegories of Mahadeva.
Mahadeva is also known as Adiyogi or the first yogi. He is the Guru who guides a spiritual practitioner towards Mukti or enlightenment. The Nirguna Brahman is also known as Param Shiva. He is formless, without any qualities and has no beginning or end. There is no activity in him. But for the contemplation of the human mind and reasoning, which has its limitations, He is represented and manifested in the form of the deity. Though the word “He” is used here, Shiva is He or She, both He and She, neither He nor She.
The Prana Shakti or the life force is the universal consciousness that shines inside every Jivatama or self. But it is generally in a dormant state in most of us. This means one is ignorant of this force and thus of his own true nature and identity. The journey of a Jiva is to attain this Ultimate Truth or Param Shiva i.e. Sat, Chit and Ananda. The snake around Mahadeva’s neck is the representative of this life force known as “Kundalini”. It is dormant in the subtle base of the spinal column known as Muladhara Chakra, symbolically like a coiled sleeping snake. It is the potential energies within us.
But around Shiva’s neck, the snake is seen with its raised hood. This inspires a practitioner to raise his life force and experience Shiva-hood within himself. This is the spiritual practice to convert the potential energies into kinetic form to enable us to realize the universal consciousness. The seat of Shiva-ness is between his two eyebrows i.e. “Agnya Chakra” and top of the head i.e. “Sahashra Chakra”. A yogi who is able to raise his life force from the base of the spinal column to the top of his head can experience this Shiva-hood. He is able to master his senses and mind and transcend the limitations imposed by them.
Mahadeva holds a trident. The creation is based on the three Gunas or qualities i.e. Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. This weapon is an inspiration to kill the desires, thereby the sufferings, arising out of three Gunas or qualities. Mahadeva is the destroyer of evil deeds. The Damaru on the trident then produces the cosmic sound. One can reverberate with the cosmic sound when other thoughts arising out of his “vrittis” or past actions are laid to rest. To put it in another way, when one is able to master his mind and ego.
Shiva holds a deer in his little finger. A deer is a very nimble animal just like the fickle mind. When one experiences Shiva-hood the person is able to remain steadfast. Shiva sits on a tiger’s skin. Tiger represents greed and hunger. So there is the death of craving and aversion as well. Hence craving and aversion which are the two fundamental natures of the mind are under his control. He wears clothes made out of an elephant’s skin. A man’s ego is as strong and large as an elephant. Shiva wearing its skin symbolizes the death of the ego. One is able to transcend his limited identity of I, me and myself. Similarly, his mount or “Vahana is the bull. The bull is symbolic of desires. So in Shiva-hood, there is the contentment of desires. When one has attainted Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha – the four Purushartha-s, he is complete and there is no longing of any kind.
When one gets mastery over his senses, mind, intellect and ego, as described above, there is an uninterrupted flow of or identification with the life force just like Devi Ganga flows through the hair locks of Mahadeva. The colour of Shiva is “Karpura Gauram” or white. White stands for noble qualities or Sattva Guna. With the realization of the life force, one radiates Sattva Guna or nobleness in his surroundings.
Param Shiva or Nirguna Brahman is inertness or bereft of activity and Shiva is thus in Samadhi or in pure consciousness. Devi Parvati is sitting on his left lap is Prakriti or the seed of creation and is inseparable from Shiva. She represents the kinetic or active form of Shiva. Also, the three eyes of Mahadeva represent the Sun, Moon and Fire. Here Sun, Moon and Fire are not the physical sun, moon and fire. Sun represents Hiranyagarbha or the cosmic womb of creation. Moon is the cosmic mind. Fire is that knowledge that burns all the casual effects of activity or Karma. This knowledge is achieved when one perceives the true self or the life force.
On MahaShivaratri when people keep a day-long fast or stay awake the whole night lighting a lamp, it is not mere physical actions for a yogi who is in the process of attaining Shiva-hood. The word Upavas or observing fast is composed of two words – “Upa” and “Vas”. “Upa” means near and “Vas” means to stay or remain alert. This means remaining conscious of the life force or Prana Shakti which is so near to us yet not realized due to instruments like sense organs, mind, intellect and ego. They are externally oriented to the outer world which restricts our vision of our inner nature. Thus the real fast for a yogic practitioner is not just skipping meals but trying to remain vigilant of the universal consciousness that shines within us all. One can start through simple breathing techniques as breath is the bridge to that Shiva-hood.
Similarly staying awake on the night of Shivaratri is also along the same lines. Dark night is representative of ignorance and falsehood. Falsehood refers to the temporal nature of the world. Yogis practice to distinguish between the permanence of Shiva-hood and the ephemeral world. This is the true knowledge, to remain unperturbed by the temporal changes by experiencing the Shiva-ness by the continuous concentration at Ajna Chakra. Mahadeva or Shiva is the space or “Akasha” that is present everywhere. The act of lighting the lamp throughout the night is to elevate the consciousness and break free the shackles of our limited identity. This is the true knowledge characterized by the opening of the third eye – a realization of the truth.
MahaShivaratri is a festival that imparts the cosmic truth and the knowledge of the true self. That truth is Shiva who is within us and for us to realize that it is the highest form of worship.