Symbolic Significance of Maha Shivaratri
Summary: In this essay we discuss the spiritual and symbolic significance of Maha Shivaratri, one of the popular festivals of Hinduism.
Technically speaking, Maha Shivaratri (Shiva ratri or Shivarathri) is not a festival day, but an auspicious day for the devotees of Shiva. On festival days, people usually celebrate the occasion and engage in various social, cultural and festive activities such as dancing, singing, playing games, wearing new clothes, visiting temples and so on. However, on the day of Maha Shivaratri, devotees do not feast, but fast. Instead of becoming enjoyers (bhogis) of worldly pleasures, they withdraw from them and temporarily become yogis, devotees and ascetics, starving their minds and bodies as a sacrifice and penance to earn the grace of Shiva, who is an ascetic himself. They not only abstain from food until the worship is completed in the night but also from all forms of worldly enjoyments.
However, in public opinion Maha Shivaratri is still a popular Hindu festival, which is celebrated like any other festival. It is celebrated in many parts of India with a lot of fanfare. As the festival day approaches, in rural areas in the South, people make large floats (prabha) to commemorate the occasion. Groups of devotees compete with one another to make bigger, taller and more colorful and attractive floats according to their capacity.
A day or two before the festival, they carry it on a cart or a vehicle or on its own wheels in a procession to a nearby Shiva temple, where a large number of people annually assemble to create a carnival atmosphere. They participate in a fair (tirunala), which is specially organized for the purpose around the temple. People eat, drink and spend time in the company of friends and family until the festival day arrives. Then, they worship Shiva until the midnight, keeping a fast.
Traditionally, some popular temples of Shiva at Konark, Khajuraho, Chidambaram, etc., organize annual dance festivals on the occasion for a week or so with a lot of fanfare as a form of worship and as a part of the celebration to denote Shiva’s connection with various art forms as the Lord of the Dance (Nataraja). Some temples organize special festivals, following Maha Shivaratri to continue the festive atmosphere and celebrate the occasion. The dance festival organized at Chidambaram temple goes by the name Natyanjali, meaning an offering through dance. Artists from various parts of the country participate in the dance festival and display their talent near the sanctum sanctorum, considering it to be a blessing in itself.
Going by the antiquity and historicity of Shiva and Shaivism, Maha Shivaratri is probably one of the most ancient festivals of the world across all cultures and traditions. It is mentioned in the Puranas such as Skanda Purana, Linga Purana and Padma Purana. Formal and informal worship of Shiva has a long history in both Vedic and Tantric traditions of Shaivism. Although Shaivism is essentially an ascetic sect and contemplative and yogic practices take precedence on the path of liberation to attain oneness (sayujyam) with Shiva, ritual worship of Shiva is practiced in all schools of Shaivism, for it is believed that through worship only one can win the heart of Shiva and earn his grace, without which no one can enter the immortal realm of Kailash.
Many legends are associated with Maha Shivaratri. According to one, Shiva married Parvathi on this day. According to another legend, on this day Shiva initiated creation by awakening his Shakti through his universal dance. The scriptures also allude to the fact that the festival offers an opportunity to all devotees to worship Shiva and cleanse all their past sins. On this auspicious day, devotees worship Shiva by chanting prayers, making offerings to Shivalinga, reciting scriptures and observing abstinence and fasting. In Kashmiri Shaivism, the festival is celebrated as Bhairava festival, since it is said that on this day Shiva appeared with the subtle body of flame (jwala linga).
Maha Shivaratri is one of the twelve Shivaratris which fall in a year. According to the Hindu calendar every 14th lunar day (Chaturdasi) 1, which falls before the new moon day (Amavasya) in a month is known as Shivaratri. The one which comes in the month of Magha and on which day Chaturdasi entirely falls in the night is considered most auspicious and known as Maha Shivaratri. On this day, the moon appears in a crescent shape, which is considered a symbol of Shiva 2. Devout followers of Shiva observe penance on all Shivaratris. Maha Shivaratri is more popular because it is celebrated as a festival by a large number of devotees.
Hindu gods and goddesses are customarily worshipped in temples throughout the day, staring from early morning until the night, just as a king is treated in a palace or an honorable guest in the house of a wealthy person. In most cases, priests mediate between gods and humans and perform the rituals. In case of Shiva, people have the permission to worship him directly without an intermediary. However, in many popular temples of Shiva priests do perform the worship, while allowing people to make their own offerings. On the particular day of Shivaratri, devotees are allowed to worship Shiva throughout the day and until late into the night.
Shivaratri literally means Shiva’s night. It is mainly because Shiva is traditionally associated with Tamas, which represents night or darkness. Shiva is their source, but he does not have them. He is Shivam, means the purest. The darkness of tamas cannot reside in him, but he presides over it as its controller and lord. Thus, Shivaratri, or the night of Shiva, has symbolic significance. Shiva is the lord of the materiality of the universe. In the microcosm of a living being, he is the lord of the mind and body. Both are enveloped in darkness.
The embodied souls (jivas) virtually live in the darkness of the mortal world. They all are caught in the long night of darkness (andha-tamas), suffering from myriad afflictions, limitations and sorrows, and enveloped by the darkness of ignorance, delusion and other impurities. Life upon earth is but one long and continuous night for all those, who are stuck here in the cycle of births and deaths. In that darkness, we can discern neither truth nor our true selves.
Only Shiva, the lord of the darkness and materiality can free us from this predicament. Through his grace only one can attain liberation. It is easy to please Shiva. Still, it requires effort and dedication. The Shiva Puranas explains the various ways in which one can please Shiva and obtain his help to become liberated. Maha Shivaratri offers an easy way out. By remaining awake and contemplating upon Shiva through the night and by showing willingness and commitment to wake up from the long and deep slumber in which one is caught, one can earn the right to enter the abode of Shiva by the sunlit path of gods (devayana) and become eternally free from birth and death.
Secondly, the night of Shiva is not night in the true sense, but a day. Shiva is the awakened one. For him there is no night. When we invoke him in the night with prayers, offerings and supplications, and make him descend to the place of worship, it truly becomes a day for all those who are present there. As the Upanishads declare, what is day for the ignorant souls is night for the awakened yogi, and what is night for them is day for him. Therefore, the night of Shivaratri is not night, but the beginning of a new day and a new awakening.
Shiva is venerated in Hinduism both as an aspect of Brahman or as Brahman himself. As the destroyer, he is the functional aspect of Isvara, who is a reflection of Brahman in the Sattva Guna (purity) of Nature. Isvara is also known as Saguna Brahman (Brahman with qualities) and Manifested Brahman (vyakta). He is the lord of the world and the source of all creation. You may even call him the creator of the creator because he is the source of Brahma also. Shakti is his dynamic energy.
Shiva’s significance is hidden in his various names. Of them the name Shiva is the most popularly. “Shih” means auspicious. “Va” means inhabitant. Shiva means the auspicious one who resides in all beings (jivas) as their very souls. He is the bright one, the pure one and the one who is the source of bliss and happiness. Shiva is popularly known as the destroyer. “Shi” means to cut, attenuate and make thin or sharp. As the destroyer, Shiva weakens our egoism (anava), cuts away our bonds (pasas), removes our delusion (moha) and sharpens our intellect, so that we can discern the reality from unreality and truth from falsehood.
Shiva is also the giver of bliss and happiness (sham). Hence is he is also known as the one who is bliss personified or the one whose form is bliss (Shankara). In the Vedas you do not find reference to it, but to Rudra. Rudra means the howling one, which signifies his connection with storms and stormy winds. Rudra also means either the remover of sorrows (ruth) or the impellor of seasons (ruthus). Ruth also means red. It is a reference to Shiva’s association with the dusk and red sky. In the Upanishads he is often equated with breath (prana nath) and the syllable Aum (Omkareshwar).
People celebrate Maha Shivaratri to declare their devotion and earn the grace of Shiva. Shaivism holds that no one can attain liberation, however hard one may try, without the grace and blessings of Shiva. The best way to earn that is by surrendering to him and contemplating upon him. Fasting is observed on that day as a mark of that devotion and commitment.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Diwali or Dipavali - The Hindu Festival of Lights
- Hindu Festivals - Durga Puja
- Ganesh Chaturthi, or Vinayaka Chavithi
- Holi, the Hindu Festival of Colors
- Navaratri - The Hindu Festival
- Hindu God Lord Shiva (Siva) - the Destroyer
- Hindu God Murugan, Kumaraswami, Skanda or Ayyappa
- Methods of Worship in Shaivism
- Nataraja, The Lord of the Cosmic Dance
- What Shankara Means?
- Significance of Lord Shiva
- Saivism or Shaivism - Basic Concepts
- Lord Shiva in Ancient Historic Traditions
1. Many festivals are associated with Chaturdasi of either the dark half (Krishnapaksh) or the bright half (Shuklapaksh) of the month. The most popular among them is Naraka Chaturdasi, which falls in the dark half of the month, a day before Diwali.
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