Maha Shivaratri: Of piety, discipline and understanding

‘To those who participate in these beautiful Hindu celebrations, individuals and organisers, for heaven’s sake please do your homework ahead of the festivals so that you give a correct picture of what they are all about. And take a pledge that you will stop messing up on all these sublime occasions. Thank you in advance. I hope that next year I will not get another shameful post on Facebook’.

That is how I concluded an article titled ‘Post Ganga Asnan: the mess on the beaches’ after that festival last year, when I came across a post on Facebook featuring the littered beach at Belle Mare accompanied by the absolutely justified disgust in the remark: ‘Absolutely disgraceful and shameful!’ As we approach Maha Shivaratri this year, my apprehension overtakes me once more, and despite myself I have to harp on things that have been said umpteen times before. Unfortunately, this boring repetition is still needed, and in my heart of hearts I pray for the day to come when this exercise will no longer be necessary.

The great pity is that year in year out there is still no sincere effort made to gain genuine understanding of the purport and purpose of these festivals by probably a majority of those who take part in them. And thus they miss out not only on the essentials which impact the rituals at the waterfront in Ganga Talao but, equally and sadly, on the beauty and elegance of the logic that underlies the customs and practices that they mechanically engage in. What could there be more elevating than having a correct appreciation and understanding of one’s spiritual tradition – the oldest in the world to boot?

For indeed Vedic Sanatana Dharma – more commonly referred to as Hinduism – represents the earliest spiritual yearning of man whose origin is lost in the hoary past: it cannot be dated. That rich, transcendent wisdom was transmitted orally until it is presumed to have been compiled in the form of the four Vedas by Guru Vyasaji about 5000 years ago. Shiva as destroyer forms part of the Trimurti or three facets of the Divine, the other two being Brahma the creator and Vishnu the preserver.

A few words about the exquisite symbolism associated with Shiva are in order. Appropriately, Maha Shivaratri comes shortly after Thai Poosam Cavadee, which is about surrendering (of our ego) to and worship of Lord Muruga, who is none other than Lord Shiva himself – and yet another occasion to shed our human self and embrace our spiritual Self. There are three main representations of Lord Shiva in which we worship Him: as Shivalinga, as Shivamurti and as Nataraj. Each one of these has its own symbolical significance.

The Shivalinga is a symbol not only of the formless, Absolute Brahman or Nirguna Brahman, but also denotes the creative energy of Lord Shiva.

The Shivamurti shows Lord Shiva sitting in meditation pose on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Not only his body but his mind too is absolutely still, reflecting the stillness all around him, and thus in communion with the Absolute Brahman. As such He is therefore the Adiyogi, the first yogi, and also the Adiguru, the first Guru. He looks towards the south, and thus is also referred to as Dakshinamurthy.

The dance of Shiva in Chidambaram forms the motif of the well-known copper images of Shri Nataraj, the Lord of the Dance. Lord Shiva is seen with four hands holding drum and fire which touch the inside of an encircling arch (tiruvasi) fringed on the outside with flame. The arch represents matter or nature, prakriti; the contained splendor is Shiva dancing and touching the arch with head, hands and feet as the universal omnipresent Spirit or purusha. Between these stands the individual soul, as ya is between Shiva and na-ma.

Why is Shiva shown in a dance pose? Let us listen to what Satguru Sivaya Subramaniyaswami says in his book ‘Dancing with Shiva’:

‘Dancing with Shiva! What an extraordinary expression of our closeness to God, our creative interplay with God. The Cosmic Dance describes the Hindu view of existence. …The ancient sages chose the dance to depict God for good reason. Esoterically, movement is the most primal act of existence. Without this simple thing, there would be no universe, no us, no experience, nothing. Light is movement. Thought is movement. Atoms are movement. Life is movement. And, the Hindu holds, God is movement.

‘Also, dance is the only creative act in which there is perfect oneness of the creator and his creation. Unlike a painting, a poem, an invention or any other artistic impulse, when the dance is over there is no product, no thing to save and enjoy. As with life, we may perceive the dance, never possess it. One cannot separate the dancer from dancing, just as one cannot separate God from the world or from ourselves. Of special meaning is the place where Shiva dances: in the chitsabha, the hall of consciousness. In other words, it happens within each one of us’. (italics added)

As the yatris walk towards Ganga Talao, that is the profound symbolism they must reflect on. As the preceding paragraph shows, it is about our very life within the totality of existence, which is both Shiva-leela and Krishna leela. At the same time, we reiterate our earlier appeals for discipline and to undertake this yatra in a spirit of pious devotion, which is the only atmosphere conducive to deep reflection.

Aum Namashivayah.

RN Gopee

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