The Sacred Night of Lord Shiva
— Rajeswari Subramanian
In the Indian calendar there is no day that passes without festive charm. Festivals not only enliven the social life and provide opportunities for artistic expression, but also help the people to enhance their faith in religion and God. For ages past Shivaratri (the sacred night of Lord Shiva) has been celebrated. It marks the night when Lord Shiva is said to have made His appearance in formless form.
God is omnipresent and all-pervasive. By the very nature of these qualities, He cannot have any form; but in order to bless us, He assumes innumerable forms. The form in which Shiva is worshipped, the lingo (which literally means “symbol”), is symbolic both of His form and His formlessness. It is symbolic of form because it has a particular shape, and it is symbolic of formlessness because it has neither head nor limbs like other images. The very conception of linga denotes something which has neither beginning nor end. The manifestation in form of the formless Lord Shiva is known as lingodbhavamurti. Shiva made His appearance in that form at midnight on Shivaratri; and in commemoration of that, devotees keep vigil during the night of Shivaratri and worship Him at midnight.
God, in His manifestation as Vishnu, made His appearance as Krsna at Gokulam at midnight, and we celebrate this event as Gokulastami. Exactly 180 days later occurs Shivaratri. Thus the circle of one year is divided into two by these two auspicious days, thereby affording one more example that brings home to us the truth of the oneness of Shiva and Vishnu, teaching us that in one form or the other, the Lord protects us all through the year.
Shivaratri is a very important festival for a seeker and is generally observed as a day of sadhana. On this occasion the observance of a fast followed by worship of Lord Shiva during the yamas (four quarters of the night) is enjoined. Anyone worshipping Him on this auspicious night is believed to be released from the cycle of birth and rebirth.
The term shiva indicates prosperity and fortune, which in turn is expressive of deliverance from the trammels of mundane existence. The syllable shi is indicative of the removal of sins while va denotes emancipation from worldly ties. Meditating on Shiva, counting the beads while repeating the five-syllable mantra (namah shivaya), is considered to be efficacious in warding off all sins and evils. The five syllables signify the five faces of Lord Shiva or the five elements (ether, air, fire, water, and earth) or the fivefold activity of projection, maintenance, dissolution, veiling, and removal.
The offering of bilva leaves to Lord Shiva on Shivaratri is held to be very efficacious. The bilva leaf has three petals and is said to be the seat of Laksmi, the Goddess of Wealth. An ancient story recounts how a hunter received the grace of the Lord by worshipping Shiva with bilva leaves on this night. The hunter was followed by a tiger and had to climb a tree to save himself. Fearing that he should fall asleep and tumble down where the tiger was waiting to catch him, the hunter engaged himself in plucking the leaves of the tree one by one and throwing them down. It so happened that the tree was a bilva, and a Shivalinga was installed under the tree. Fearful of the tiger, the hunter kept vigil the whole night through and thus unconsciously worshipped the Shivalinga with the bilva leaves. Even for this unintentional worship he was blessed by the Lord.
The scriptures enjoin that devotees of Shiva wear some of the symbols of Lord Shiva: vibhuti (white ash) on the forehead and body and rudruksa beads around the neck. When any object is consumed by fire, it becomes charred. If that black residue is burned again, it becomes white ash. White ash continues to remain white even when burned again. Similarly, the ultimate reality of the mental plane is Shiva. When we test anything in the fire of Knowledge, the residue is pure Shiva. We smear our bodies with the sacred ash to remind ourselves of Shiva and the fact that the ultimate goal of life is the Lord Himself.
Contributed by: Chinmaya Mission Mauritius