The Meaning and Significance of Maha Shivaratri
— Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
By now every Mauritian knows that Maha Shivaratri means the ‘Great Night of Shiva.’ But why night, and why Shiva? Many Hindus themselves, not to speak of our non-Hindu compatriots, do not have a clear understanding of this festival which is the largest pilgrimage annually in the island, mobilizing as it does for nearly a week almost half of the population along with participants from abroad.
I myself did not until fairly recently, and its meaning and significance have got to do less with anything Hindu than with the very fabric of existence itself. Maha Shivaratri is about our place and role as human beings in that existence, and there could be nothing as fundamentally important as to know where we come from, why we are here, and where we go when our time is up with Mother Earth…
In the Vedic perspective, it is considered that to be born human is a great privilege, and thus living is an ongoing celebration of that privilege. That is why in the Vedic or Hindu calendar there is some event to celebrate almost everyday, but there are special ones that come at specific intervals, and Maha Shivaratri is such an occasion.
We must understand, however, that by celebration is not meant the usual eat, drink and be merry type which focuses on satisfying only bodily wants. In Sanskrit the term for entertainment is manoranjan. Mano refers to the mind, and so manoranjan means an entertainment of the mind which, logically, implies paying less attention to the strident demands of the body. That is why, although eating and drinking do have a place in these festivals, they are enjoined to be of the sattvic type, and time is also set aside for a period of fasting and prayers which direct the mind away from bodily cravings.
If we look at the world around us, we find that things fall into two categories: the living and the non-living. If we push our observations and thinking further, we realise that both the living and non-living go through a cycle of creation, preservation and destruction. Thus a tree, for example, begins as a seed in which its particular characteristics are “hidden” or unmanifested as yet. When the seed is planted, the tree manifests or is “born”, grows, matures, declines and dies, leaving another seed with the potential to manifest as a tree again. Thus we see that there is a linked, continuous cycle of unmanifested-manifested expressed as creation (of the tree), its preservation (sustenance through growth, maturity and decline), and destruction or death.
In the Vedic culture, these three functions are symbolized by Brahma as the Creator, Vishnu as the Sustainer, and Shiva as the Destroyer. At this stage we must go a little deeper in our analysis to appreciate that every created object is made up of five natural components: space, fire (heat), air, water and minerals. Again, such an object has shape (rupa) and certain characteristics such as colour, and we also give it a name (nama). It also has a lifespan, that is it has a beginning and an end – or birth and death. Further, it has a given function – such as a tree producing fruits – until it dies or undergoes destruction, which means a disintegration into the constituent components, from which once again creation takes place afresh.
Thus we see that without these three functions of creation-sustenance-destruction linked in a continuous cycle, nothing can exist: this cycle is the very basis of existence in the universe, applying equally to humans, animals, plants, other objects/events/situations. Like electricity which is present everywhere but can manifest as heat, cold, or light, so too are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva the expression of one fundamental Reality referred to as Om-Brahman. We note that destruction also is followed a renewal through creation from the five components, implying action and a dynamic process of perpetual movement which brings the constituents together again, and this aspect is represented by the Nataraja or Dancing Shiva.
Thus also we see that there is a logical way of understanding existence, and that there are fundamental forces and processes at play in the initiation and control of the universal cycle of creation-sustenance-destruction. Every aspect of Vedic living – daily rituals including puja, art, literature, music and dance, festivals and so on – is fundamentally an acknowledgement and an expression of this verifiable, observable, universal truth that can be simply understood and illustrated. But there’s even more: going beyond logic, we can connect with that truth which is the foundation of our being, a space of Inner Silence. That is what Maha Shivaratri helps us to do. The technique of connecting is known as meditation, about which there is nothing mysterious or mystical. On the contrary, it is a step-by-step conscious process, well within the reach of everybody who is willing to undergo the experience and feel the transforming calm that allows one to ‘see’ oneself and others in a fresh light.
It is common knowledge that often, under a host of circumstances and situations, we tend to use the expression “leave me in peace”. In those moments we truly feel… in pieces! What we usually do then is to bang the door and closet ourselves temporarily, hoping to gain “peace” – and when we open the door it’s back to the usual once more! Most of us believe that there is really no solution to this problem, that we must wait after we die to be truly at peace. Is this necessarily so?
Let us take a closer look at our life. We find that there are three tendencies:
*Activity : work, ambition, career, eat-drink, constant running around.
*Inactivity : feeling of bodily tiredness and mental lethargy, heaviness, desire to sleep, not wanting to do anything, entertaining negative thoughts. .
*Harmony : feeling of being at peace, seeking silence, quiet mind, state of joy.
In Vedic culture, these three tendencies are designated, respectively, as rajas, tamas, sattva. None of these tendencies are outside of us, they are innate. Thousands of years ago, our rishis explored our inner states of being, and came to the conclusion that the state of joy is our true nature, and showed us the way to reach this state, the way of conscious meditation, something which can be learned and practised by anyone.
Shiva sitting in meditation, with his eyes closed, symbolizes our fundamental nature of inner peace and Silence. And to discover this for ourselves, to reach and live that state, we have to understand that we are not just a body made of matter. Because we never seem to have time, always running about, that is why there are such occasions as Maha Shivaratri – the Great Night of Shiva – when we fast and spend the night doing prayers to Shiva, reflecting on his being in meditation and trying also to achieve that state, effectively disconnecting from the usual hustle-bustle.
But why at night? Usually, at night when we sleep our mind is completely cut off from our senses, in total ignorance – the mental in the sleep state of tamas. On the other hand, in our waking state, our five senses – seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching – ceaselessly pull our minds towards the external world of rajas in a bid to fulfil our desires. This is the mental in the waking state.
In fact, what are we after? Silence, peace, joy, that happiness symbolized by Shiva meditating. It is when the mental is aware, conscious and not in tamas or rajas that we are more likely to attain that happiness. Thus, during that night when we concentrate on Shiva, he helps us to remove our ignorance and replace it by the knowledge of our Self as being happiness. And when this light illumines the mental which is fully aware, our life changes forever. We do not stop our work, our cycle of activity and inactivity, rest and so on – but we no longer seek refuge or lame excuses in superficial pleasures which damage our bodies and corrupt our minds. Instead, we find ourselves making a sincere effort in our daily life to “take an appointment with ourselves” – to devote time in meditation, to connect with our centre of Silence and discover our true nature of happiness infinite. When we are happy and fulfilled, we have no reason to make others unhappy – we are more willing to reach out and share.
Our rishis never claimed that this was easy, or that it can happen overnight. We must practise regularly and must persevere in our efforts. Gradually and imperceptibly almost, we shift from effort to effortlessness, and equally imperceptibly our quality of life improves significantly. We are no longer blown about by the winds of existence remaining, rather, steady even while we are in action – like a spinning top that does not topple over. Failure or success become relative, we can cope better.
The love and devotion (bhakti) that go into the preparations for Maha Shivaratri and the practices that follow lead us towards knowledge (jnana) of our Selves. In the words of Swami Suddhananda: ‘Knowledge is the culmination of devotion and devotion is the fulfilment of knowledge.’
Happy Maha Shivaratri and Aum Namashivaya to one and all.