Maha Shivaratri is from 6pm Friday, 12th February to 6am Saturday, 13th February 2010
LORD SIVA by Kissoon Behari
Brahman is the name for the Supreme Being, the formless, the unborn and eternal. He is the One without a second. It is the basic Reality underlying the entire universe of multiplicity. The word `Brahman’ comes from the Sanskrit root `brh’, meaning to grow, to burst forth. It means that which is immense, from which everything has come out. In other words, it is from this Brahman that the world has evolved, in Him it rests and into Him it goes back at the end of creation when the universe dissolves.
We can thus see that there are three powers here: the powers of creation, preservation, and destruction or dissolution. In our Pauranic literature, these powers are described as the Trimurty or the Trinity, comprising of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Siva the destroyer. They correspond to the three gunas (rajas, sattva, and tamas) respectively.
SIVA AS THE DESTROYER
Whatever is created, at some time or other, must disintegrate and be destroyed. Siva is the one responsible for the dissolution of everything. He is the embodiment of tamas, the principle that brings about this destruction. Siva denotes the one in whom the Universe `sleeps’ after destruction, until the next creation. When the universe disintegrates, there is a thinning out of all the matter or the material substance that made up the universe. We may say that there is an endless void. This is the substratum from which will spring the next cycle of creation. Hence, if Siva is the Destroyer, he is equally responsible for creation.
THE MEANING OF` SIVA’ and `LINGA’
`Siva’ means auspiciousness, and `linga’ means an emblem. Thus `sivalinga’ means an emblem of auspiciousness. `Siva’ and `linga’ both mean the Supreme God into whom the whole universe dissolves at the time of destruction and `sleeps’ in Him.
God as the Supreme or Brahman has neither form nor quality. It is infinite. The closest approximation of this notion is space or sky. We think of the sky as a dome. Therefore the best way to represent That Supreme reality is with a rounded surface like that of the Sivalinga. Thus the Sivalinga is a visible reprepresentation of the Supreme Brahman.
According to the Lingapurana, Vishnu and Brahma thought much about their powers and were puffed with pride and arrogance. They ignored Siva who appeared before them as a pillar of fire of infinite length, and challenged them to find out the extremities. They failed to do so and so accepted his superiority. This pillar of fire came to be known as linga because all creatures merge in it at the time of dissolution.
Lingas may be natural, that is, naturally emerging from the earth. They are often found in rivers such as Narmada. They are considered holy asthey do not need the rites of consecration. Or they may be man-made. They may also be classified as moveable (chala) or immoveable (achala). The former are found in our homes or worn on the body. They may be made of various materials: metal, clay, wood, precious stones. The recommended metals are gold, silver, copper, and bell-metal. Precious stones that may be used are rubies, pearl, coral, topaz, emerald and even diamond.
Lingas made of different materials are recommended for worship to fulfil different kinds of desires .For example, worship of a pearl linga can result in the elimination of sins, or that of topaz can give prosperity.
The immoveable lingas are made of stone and are fixed in the temples for worship. It has two parts, the pedestal and the linga proper. This linga is divided into three parts: the lowest part is square and represents Brahma; the middle part is octagonal and represents Vishnu; the topmost part is cylindrical, and it this that is worshipped. It is the visible part. The lowest part, called Brahmabhaga, is buried in the ground. The middle part, the Vishnubhaga, is encased inside the pedestal.Siva is usually worshipped in the Sivalinga.
DESCRIPTION OF LORD SHIVA
Lord Siva is depicted in various ways. The most common of the images shows him as a very handsome youth, white as camphor. (Sometimes he is blue.) His limbs are strong and smooth, and covered with ashes. He has three eyes, the third being in the middle of the forehead. He is shown as having two or four arms. One right hand is in the abhaya mudra, one left hand in the varada mudra; in the other two hands he holds the trisula and damaru. He has a crown of long matted hair, from which flows the river Ganga. He wears a crescent moon as a diadem. A tiger skin and an elephant skin adorn his body as garments. Serpents form his garland, sacred thread and arm bracelets. His throat is blue, and round his neck is a garland of skulls.
The Sanskrit word for ashes is Bhasma. It also means that which shines, that which destroys all sins, that which produces auspiciousness. Fire is believed to reduce all substances to their primal state of purity. Therefore the bhasma is regarded as sacred especially by Saivites and Saktas (devotees of the Divine Mother). The ashes on Siva come from the cremation ground. Hence, the ashes also symbolise death. The human body, with its various organs, different types of tissues, etc, are reduced to a single substance, ashes. The ashes thus indicate that One Element, Brahman, from which the multiplicity of creation has come. The bhasma is applied on the forehead, using the thumb, middle finger and ring finger of the right hand. These three lines are supposed to represent the three Vedas; the three divisions of time (past, present, future); the three sounds that form the one syllable Om (that is , A, U and M) the sound name for God; the three gunas; the three powers of action, will and knowledge; and so on. The idea is to make one feel pure and elevated. The ashes are an external and gross symbol of the process of burning up all one’s illusions and paving the way for the intuition of the inner Self.
When the ocean of milk (Kshirasamudra) was being churned by the gods and the demons in order to obtain the nectar of immortality, there first appeared the deadly poison Haalaahala or Kaalakoota which started to burn up the entire world. Lord Vishnu and the other gods turned to Lord Shiva for their protection. Lord Siva, who is immersed in the consciousness of the Infinite Divine Self, and is endowed with compassion, gathered the poison in the palms of his hands and drank it, thus removing the suffering of the universe and providing relief to the whole world. This prayer of the gods was answered on the Maha Shiva-ratri.
Just as the gods and demons churned the ocean (samudra-manthan), man, too, has been churning the ocean of his mind, of his life and experiences. He has produced `nectar’ in the form of a joyous and fulfilled life. Science, technology, industrial development and socio-economic programmes have produced much good. At the same time there is the `poison’ – it has produced harmful drugs, destructive weapons, increased crimes, created unhealthy life-styles and bitter competitions, brought about fears, anxieties, mental breakdowns. Unless we are able to contain the destructive elements, we ourselves will be destroyed. If we can, then and then only will we be able to enjoy the many jewels that the churning of our minds produce.
At the personal level, too, there is so much poison that is endangering our mental and spiritual health. We are forced to drink poison in the form of harsh words, emotional abuse, lies and slanders all the time. Often we are subject to exploitation and cruel treatment. We must find techniques of coping and managing – else we will become progressively weaker.
When one becomes aware of the venom of the world, and its alternation of joys and sorrows, with its impermanence and anxieties, one longs for peace and bliss. One thus turns to spiritual enlightenment, that is, to attain Shivahood. One turns to that Shiva who will take the poison in return for immortal bliss. The price is the act of surrender.
Most often the images of Shiva are blue. This is because he represents tamas, the power of destruction. But in many hymns he is described as white. This should not surprise us because the three gunas are inseparable. Sri Ramakrishna tells us that from a distance the ocean is perceived as blue, but when we take a handful of water from the same ocean, it appears as colourless. So too, when we are far away from Lord Shiva, we see him as blue coloured. As our hearts become pure and the minds become clearer, we see Him as white or clear. The blue colour is symbolic of tamas and white that of sattva. The snow-white body of Siva matches his snowy abode, the Himalayas. The white represents the light that dispels darkness, that knowledge that dispels ignorance. He is thus the very personification of Cosmic Consciousness.
A crescent moon adorns the head of the lord. The moon is constantly waxing and waning according to the movement of time. Therefore, it represents time itself. Time is only an ornament on the Great God Shiva!
The moon is associated with the mind. The crescent moon suggests that Siva uses but a small fraction of his mind to control the functioning of the entire universe. What inexhaustible powers lie in Him! We also use but a small part of the powers of our own minds – far less than ten percent! If the mind is made pure and blessed with the powers of discrimination, then the spiritual aspirant will have such knowledge and strength that he will overcome the encircling gloom and darkness.
The elephant represents both power and sensuality. The wearing of the elephant skin implies that Lord Shiva has complete control over his lower nature and animal impulses.
GARLAND OF SKULLS (munda-maala)
This indicates that Lord Shiva is the lord of destruction. The skulls are those of people of various ages. This suggests that he is the lord of time or death and has control over it not only in all the stages in one life of a person but in all births.
Usually, Lord Shiva is represented as having only two hands. But he may have four, eight, ten or even thirty two hands. Here are some of the objects held in the hands and their possible meanings.
The sage Kapila reduced the 60 000 sons of King Sagara to ashes. They could only be redeemed of their sins by bringing the celestial river Ganga down to the earth and making her flow over the ashes. King Bhagiratha performed severe penances and Mother Ganga agreed to come down. On her request, he propitiated Lord Shiva to control the force of her descent. Thus Lord Shiva captured her in his matted locks as she descended. After this she freed the sons of Sagar.
The episode itself draws attention to his own power and self-sacrificing nature. It also tells of the compassionate nature of Lord Shiva, and his being easily pleased. The detail of the Ganga is a constant reminder to devotees that their sins will be washed away, and like the sons of Sagara, they, too, will be redeemed. The Ganga also symbolises purity.
There are a number of snakes on the body of Lord Shiva. They form a necklace, arm bands and sacred threads. For most of us, the venomous cobra stands for death. Yet, death is only an adornment on the body of the Lord! Remember how he drank the deadly poison. It simply shows that Lord Shiva is the Lord of Death or the conqueror of Death.
The serpent may also have reference to the kundalini- shakti, the basic power of the human organism. It is likened to a serpent coiled at the root chakra or centre. By appropriate practices, this power is awakened and rises up the spine, piercing the various chakras and so awakening the powers at each of the centres, until finally it reaches the head chakra (sahasrara) and unites with Paramashiva. Then the yogi enters into samaadhi or the superconscious state, and experiences ineffable bliss.
By extension of the idea, the serpents on the body of Lord Shiva represent all the energy and powers in the entire creation. This indicates that he is the master of Time and Power / Energy in the macrocosm.
Siva is described as having three eyes. In the `Pancha-akshara Stotram’, he is said to have the sun, moon and fire as his eyes. They represent the three sources of light, life and heat. The third eye can also indicate the eye of knowledge and wisdom – and hence his omniscience. If the sun and moon form his two eyes, then the whole sky forms his hair. Hence, he is called `vyoma-kesha’, meaning one who has the sky as his hair.
According to one story, Mother Parvati once playfully closed his two eyes. At once the worlds were plunged into darkness. Then the all-merciful Siva willed his third eye to open, sending forth light, fire and heat – thus saving the whole of creation. This third eye is usually kept close. When Kamadeva was sent by the gods to Siva to awaken him from his meditation and fill him with desire so that he would beget a son who would become their saviour, Siva opened his third eye and reduced him to ashes.
It is said that the wives of the rishis of Daarukavana were enamoured by the extraordinary beauty and charm of Lord Shiva. This angered the husbands who performed a yajna in order to kill him. Out of the sacrificial fire there arose a tiger. Lord Shiva killed it and wore its skin. Then came a deer. He caught it in his left hand – since then it has remained there! Lastly, there came forth a red-hot iron. He merely took it and made it one of his weapons.
Amongst animals, the tiger is undoubtedly the most ferocious. It mercilessly devours its victims. Desires often consume the spiritual aspirants. Desires are therefore like the tiger: they both devour the human being, and are never satiated. Lord Siva has killed the tiger and wears its skin. This suggests that he has complete mastery over desires.
The fourteenth day of the dark half of every month – Krishna chatur-dashi – is called Siva-ratri or Maas-shiva-ratri. The one in February/March (Magh) is Maha-Shiva-Ratri since it is the greatest of them all. This is the only major Hindu festival in which the austerity part is predominant. Hence, Maha-shiva-ratri-vrata. There is practically no festivity or gaiety in its observance. It is very serious and solemn. This is natural because Siva is the god of ascetics.
ORIGIN OF MAHA-SHIVA-RATRI
Once, the gods Brahma and Vishnu were disputing the greatness of each other in order to show how much greater each was over the other. Then, a linga or huge column of fire suddenly appeared between them and a voice proclaimed the one to find the extremities of this linga would be considered the greater of the two. But neither Brahma nor Vishnu was able to succeed. It was Shiva who had appeared as the fiery linga, and so both had to accept his greatness.
Another story is that it was on this night that Lord Shiva drank the haalaahala.
A third myth is that it the marriage between Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati took place on this night.
OBSERVANACE OF MAHA SHIVARATRI
The basic disciplines to be observed are: non injury, speaking the truth, observing continence, being compassionate and forgiving, and absence of jealousy. Fasting and keeping awake the whole night are essential.
Puja is performed at every quarter of the night. The Shiva-linga is bathed with milk, curds, ghee, and honey in that order in the four quarters. Each time the linga is bathed with Ganga water. Homa / havan is performed, the mantra `om namah shivaaya’ is chanted, bel leaves are offered, together with prayer for forgiveness.
THE GREATNESS OF MAHA SHIVA RATRI
A hunter, for the sake of safety from the preying beasts of the jungle, climbed up a tree at night. He kept plucking the leaves of the tree in the hope that this activity would force him to keep awake – else, if he fell asleep he might fall to the ground and be devoured by the beasts. He shed profuse tears as he was far away from home and separated from his loved ones. In the morning he discovered a marvellous thing: he was atop a bel tree, and the leaves that he dropped fell on a Shiva-linga directly below; and more so, it was Maha-shiva-ratri! Because he had fasted, kept vigil all night long, had bathed the linga (with his tears), and had offered bel leaves, he was taken to the abode of Lord Shiva. The actions of the hunter were all done unknowingly. How much more beneficial it would be if it is observed with devotion!