Why do we celebrate Maha Shivaratri?

By Dr R. Neerunjun Gopee

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 is different from meeting the physical needs 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, that is, less spicy so that there is no undue titillation of the taste buds which tends to trigger mental agitations. Time is 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, maturation 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 elements: 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 parts, 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 known as Om-Brahman. We note that destruction also is followed by a renewal through creation from the five elements, implying action and a dynamic process of perpetual movement, 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 basically an acknowledgement and a reflection of this verifiable, observable, universal Truth that can be understood logically. But there’s even more: going beyond logic, we can connect with that Truth whence we emanate through 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.
It is common knowledge that often, under the pressure of circumstances and in certain 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.

However, 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.
* 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.

Shiva sitting in meditation, with his eyes closed, symbolizes our essential 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 offering 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.
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, stable even while we are in action – like a spinning top that does not topple over.
And now, through studies conducted in Tibetan monks undergoing meditation, scientists have confirmed that conscious meditation leads to demonstrable changes in a specific region of the brain which correlates with happiness experiences. This goes to show that our sages knew from their profound explorations of the mental states that we could achieve true peace within ourselves; this would naturally lead us to have a positive disposition towards others, and the result would be a peaceful society overall.

If it is not happening it is our fault for not at least making the attempt to emulate the endeavours of our sages. Perhaps we should vow to do so on this great and auspicious occasion?

Happy Maha Shivaratri. Aum Namashivaya.

* Published in print edition on 17 February 2012

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