Full of spiritual aspiration, I am excited to greet you once again, and share my eager anticipation for the upcoming yearly Maha Shiva Ratri, the great night of Shiva.
Maha Shiva Ratri is traditionally celebrated on the night before the day of the New Moon in February – March according to the Indian astrological system, falling on February 22nd this year. Just as the Moon influences the tides of the oceans on planet Earth, so it also has its influence upon the microcosm of our being. When it is New Moon, the influences of the Moon are the least strong upon us (in contrast to when it is Full Moon), allowing our mind to be more peaceful, which in turn makes it easier to meditate.
According to Hindu mythology, Maha Shiva Ratri marks the day when Shiva married Parvati. Considered to be an- if not the most- auspicious night to worship Shiva, devotees traditionally gather at their ashrams in India and around the world on this night (an all-night meditation event), and practice Laya Yoga meditation with the Shiva mantra, chanting, and expressing other acts of worship. It is a beautiful opportunity for anyone interested in spirituality to experience the energy of Shiva and bringing the energy up to sahasrara (the crown, what I like to call our cosmic gateway to the Divine).
The first time I attended Maha Shiva Ratri (Sanskrit for “The great night of Shiva”), I was completely unaware of what was about to happen, and the profound spiritual imprint it would leave upon my being. It was March 2015, and I was in my third month of a 500-hour Yoga Teacher Training Course in Thailand. I’ve never felt so much devotion so many hours in a row (it went on all night, from 10PM to 6AM). My heart felt like it was overflowing, about to burst. Definitely a night to remember to put it lightly.
WHO IS SHIVA?
His origin is unknown, and yet he is the guru of all gurus! Shiva is considered to be Pure Consciousness. He has been represented in a myriad of divine roles. The roots of the Sanskrit term Shiva lie in beautiful legends from Hindu mythology. It appears in Vedic, Puranic (Shiva Purana and Linga Purana), and Tantric (Shaiva Agamas) Literatures.
Shiva is said to have shared his knowledge with his wife Parvati or Shakti, and then with the rest of the world. In the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra (one of my favourite books), Shakti asks Shiva how she can experience this Universe, and Lord Shiva instructs her 112 methods to liberation. Meditation techniques exposed in texts as these have been polished by masters, who pass it along to their disciples. This is how the Guru-disciple relationship emerged, and the lineage is continued up until today. “Only the knowledge imparted by a Guru, through his lips, is powerful and useful; otherwise it becomes weak and very painful.” (Siva Samhita III.11).
There is a story of a man who appeared one day in the Himalayas. Nobody knows where he came from or what his name was (which is why he is referred to as Adiyogi, meaning “the first” Yogi in Sanskrit). After many years, on a Full Moon night, Adiyogi is said to have transferred all the knowledge required for conscious evolution to seven sages. This occurrence on which Higher Knowledge was revealed to humankind is referred to as the Guru Purnima. In the context of this story, Shiva is not a God but a real man who walked this Earth—the first guru. Question remains where he got all that knowledge from.
THE STORY & SYMBOLISM BEHIND SHIVA
One of the things I find really beautiful about Hindu mythology is the detailed, meaningful symbolism it is enriched with. Shiva is typically illustrated meditating in padmasana (lotus pose) on mount Kalas: “Its name is verily the Kalas mount, where dwells the great Lord (Shiva), who is called Nakula and is without destruction, and without increase or decrease.” (Siva Samhita V.152). Kundalini Shakti is represented by the snake coiled around his neck, insights into mystical knowledge are symbolized by the crescent moon in his hair, and Higher Knowledge by his third eye. Mother Ganges runs down through the top of his head, purifying him. The flow of the Ganges represents the nectar of immortality- amrita. His throat is blue because according to the myth, to prevent further damage he drank the poison (halahala) which emerged from of the sea turmoil caused by a war between the devas (gods) and asuras (demons). His wife Parvati strangled him so the poison wouldn’t spread, but his neck stayed blue. He holds a trident, representing the three gunas (tendencies of nature): tamas (inertia), rajas (activity), and sattva (transcendence). The ashes on his body stand for the culmination of material existence, the tiger skin is a sign of honour for the Brahmarishis (Hindu ascetics); others say it symbolizes fearlessness. There are more symbols attributed to Shiva with meaning behind them such as the deer, the drum, the axe, the nandi (bull), the ganas (attendants of Shiva), his 5 heads (related to the 5 elements), his 4 arms (related to 4 vedas), and Mount Kalas (with its resemblance to the Shiva lingam) but I don’t want to make you too dizzy at this point!
THE SHIVA LINGAM
Still, I can’t go on without saying a little bit more about the Shiva lingam. The Shiva lingam is traditionally a symbol of Shiva‘s energy and potential. Numerous temples have been built in India in the shape of a Shiva lingam. Devotees worship it to connect with God. It is said to be the first form taken during creation. There is a story of a hunter on Shivaratri (Night of Shiva, on New Moon) who was having trouble finding prey to hunt until he found a herd of deer and aimed for the kill with his bow and arrow but they ran away. He hid in a tree in the cold, shivering and murmuring “shiv, shiv, shiv”…and waited. When a deer appeared again, it asked him not to kill him, to allow him to first say goodbye to his friends and family and that he would then return. The hunter agrees and waits again. The herd of deer decide collectively that they either live or die together. They all sacrifice themselves to the hunter. The hunter lets them live, obviously feeling touched. There was a Shiva lingam under the tree where the hunter had waited. At the sight of this Shiva lingam, the hunter goes to it, kneels before it, and hears a voice coming from it, telling him his prayers have been answered and that he will be rewarded.
There is a general recurring theme with some of the symbolism here. For example, the snake around his waist (Kundalini Shakti), and the crescent moon (mystical knowledge). He has four arms: with the right hand he holds a damaru (drum), which symbolizes the sound of creation and passing of time. On the left he holds agni (fire), which signifies destruction. He holds abhaya mudra (gesture of fearlessness) with his other right hand and points to the raised foot with the remaining left hand, which stands for liberation. Shiva Nataraja dances on Apasmara, the demon of ignorance. The fire circle around him represents the manifest Universe. Shiva Nataraj remains significant in India and worldwide anno 2016. Story goes that there is a place called Chidambaram- between the Pennar and Kaveri rivers in India – which the Cholas (they were a ruling dynasty in Southern India) believed to be the sacred place where Shiva danced the Ananda Tandava (Dance of Bliss) as Shiva Nataraj (Lord of the Dance). Described in 7th century poetry is a battle between the devas and asuras at the Tillai woods of Chidambaram, to which Shiva shows up as a beggar and victoriously defeats demons and snakes with his Dance of Bliss. There is an asana related to this story: Natarajasana (Shiva the Dancer), also known as Uthitta Ardha Dhanurasana (the half-raised bow pose).
In another blog, I will write more about Shiva – in particular, his three aspects: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. For now, I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog about Shiva and that it provides you with some spiritual insights and motivation not only to celebrate Maha Shivaratri, but also to celebrate Shiva every day, because Shiva is the Consciousness that permeates everything in this entire manifestation.
Grace is right here, in the present moment. The Kingdom of Heaven is in our hearts, and I wish for all of us to always remember this as we move through our daily lives. May the Consciousness in you always be free!