Maha Shivaratri: From wakefulness to awakening

In Indian culture, the quest for such a deep understanding is indeed its hallmark, and has been the concern of our rishis or sages from the very beginning of our Vedic civilisation. Such a pursuit is what one would today call a spiritual journey

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Nobody will deny that life is the most precious gift that we have been bestowed – whether that ‘we’ is plant, animal or human, for it is the same ‘life’ that is present in all. What demarcates us humans from plants and animals, however, is that we are uniquely endowed with the capacity, and therefore the possibility, to not only enjoy this life at more than just the survival level, but also to make sense of it. That is, to find out its purpose especially for us as humans in the overall context of the existence that includes not only living things – the plants and animals – but also non-living things. This implies using our faculties to gain an understanding of the phenomenon of life in its essence, and be guided to conduct our lives based on such understanding. And that is what would make living beautiful.

Thus, even as we pursue a life of fulfilling our biological and emotional needs (kama) and ensuring our material comfort and security (artha) by performing whatever actions are required (karmas) for the purpose in a righteous or dharmic manner, we are led to humbly accept whatever comes our way as being kripa or divine grace. This attitude grants the serenity and equanimity of mind that allow us to progress on the path towards moksha or freedom from worldly bondage, which is the ultimate goal of human life – and is a journey which may require us to go through more than one birth.

Such a life demands discipline and a certain rigour, and it would be a tough, stifling and monotonous call to follow if that were the only thing life was all about. In this world, we need a change of routine and some entertainment every now and then. Fortunately for us, in the Hindu calendar, there are several occasions throughout the year which answer to this need. They are festivals, several of which may be of a religious nature.

These differ from other festivals in that they are not of the ‘eat, drink and be merry’ type. As the word festival implies entertainment, it is worthy of note that the Sanskrit word for entertainment is manoranjan, which means entertaining or delighting the mind.

That is why during our festivals there isn’t only feasting, singing and dancing and merry-making, but one also takes part in prayers and pujas which are preceded by period of fasting. These help to purify the mind, preparing it to gain the deeper understanding – and this is the equivalent of ‘entertainment’ for the mind. And as a result, although one may feel physically exhausted on such occasions, they also prepare us to face life with more enthusiasm to go through it more happily and fully.

It goes without saying that all festivals are premised on a) determination of the date of the festival, b) preparations for the festival, c) the actual celebrations, d) the symbolism of the festival, and e) the post-festival. In popular accounts of festivals, the emphasis is on the first three of these; but it should be clear to all that the fundamental aspect of any festival is, of course, the symbolism that underlies it in all its dimensions.

Sadhguru of Isha Foundation, internationally known mystic and yogi, goes around the world to foster the deeper understanding that the current troubles times demand, and he has an original take on the significance of Maha Shivaratri.

As he explains, ‘The fourteenth day of every lunar month or the day before the new moon is known as Shivratri. Among all the twelve Shivratris that occur in a calendar year, Mahashivratri, the one that occurs in February-March is of the most spiritual significance. On this night, the northern hemisphere of the planet is positioned in such a way that there is a natural upsurge of energy in a human being. This is a day when nature is pushing one towards one’s spiritual peak. It is to make use of this, that in the Indian tradition, we establish a certain festival which is night-long. One of the fundamentals of this night-long festival is to ensure that – to allow this natural upsurge of energies to find their way – you remain with your spine vertical – you stay awake.

‘In the yogic tradition, Shiva is considered as the Adi Guru, the first Guru from whom the knowledge originated. After many millennia in meditation, one day he became absolutely still. That day is Mahashivratri. All movement in him stopped and he became utterly still, so ascetics see Mahashivratri as the night of stillness. Legends apart, why this day and night are held in such importance in the yogic traditions is because of the possibilities it presents to a spiritual seeker.’

Modern science has arrived at a point today where everything that makes up existence – life, matter in the form of the cosmos and galaxies, is deemed to be ‘just one energy which manifests itself in millions of ways. This scientific fact is an experiential reality in every yogi. The word “yogi” means one who has realized the oneness of the Existence… All longing to know the unbounded, all longing to know the oneness in the Existence is yoga. The night of Mahashivratri offers a person an opportunity to experience this’.

He goes on to add that ‘Shivratri is the darkest day of the month. Celebrating Shivratri on a monthly basis, and the particular day, Mahashivratri, almost seems like celebration of darkness. Any logical mind would resist darkness and naturally opt for light. But the word “Shiva” literally means “that which is not.” “That which is,” is existence and creation. “That which is not” is Shiva. “That which is not” means, if you open your eyes and look around, if your vision is for small things, you will see lots of creation. If your vision is really looking for big things, you will see the biggest presence in the existence is a vast emptiness. A few spots which we call galaxies are generally much noticed, but the vast emptiness that holds them does not come into everybody’s notice. This vastness, this unbounded emptiness, is what is referred to as Shiva. It is in this context that Shiva, the vast emptiness or nothingness, is referred to as the great lord, or Mahadeva.

‘Every religion, every culture on this planet has always been talking about the omnipresent, all-pervading nature of the divine. If we look at it, the only thing that can be truly all-pervading, the only thing that can be everywhere is darkness, nothingness, or emptiness. Generally, when people are seeking well-being, we talk of the divine as light. When people are no longer seeking well-being, when they are looking beyond their life in terms of dissolving, if the object of their worship and their sadhana (spiritual discipline) is dissolution, then we always refer to the divine as darkness.

‘…The immature minds in the world have always described darkness as the devil. But when you describe the divine as all-pervading, you are obviously referring to the divine as darkness, because only darkness is all-pervading. Light always comes from a source that is burning itself out. It has a beginning and an end. It is always from a limited source.

‘Darkness has no source. It is a source unto itself. It is all-pervading, everywhere, omnipresent. So when we say Shiva, it is this vast emptiness of existence. It is in the lap of this vast emptiness that all creation has happened. It is that lap of emptiness that we refer to as the Shiva. In Indian culture, all the ancient prayers were not about saving yourself, protecting yourself or doing better in life. All the ancient prayers have always been “Oh lord, destroy me so that I can become like yourself.” So when we say Shivratri, which is the darkest night of the month, it is an opportunity for one to dissolve their limitedness, to experience the unboundedness of the source of creation which is the seed in every human being.

‘Mahashivratri is an opportunity and a possibility to bring yourself to that experience of the vast emptiness within every human being, which is the source of all creation. On the one hand, Shiva is known as the destroyer. On the other, he is known as the most compassionate. He is also known to be the greatest of the givers. The yogic lore is rife with many stories about Shiva’s compassion. The ways of expression of his compassion have been incredible and astonishing at the same time. So Mahashivratri is a special night for receiving too. It is our wish and blessing that you must not pass this night without knowing at least a moment of the vastness of this emptiness that we call as Shiva. Let this night not just be a night of wakefulness, let this night be a night of awakening for you.’

That, in its deepest sense, is what the Char Pahar puja is all about.
Aum Namashivaya.


* Our attention has been drawn to security arrangements at Ganga Talao for the thousands of devotees who are presently making their way to Grand Bassin. There are hundreds of associations and Mauritian families as well as business houses who graciously offer some form of hospitality and refreshments to the pilgrims, and this has been the case for many decades now. Shivratri pilgrims are hopeful that the concerned authorities will remain vigilant so that there is no repeat of the incident involving adulterated or poisoned beverages that were distributed by anonymous donors last year. We would like to think that the different movements on the field will also monitor the situation with the seriousness it deserves.

* Published in print edition on 1 March 2019

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