Maha Shivaratri: Of restraint and self-control

Maha Shivaratri should be an occasion for us to renew our journey of discovery of our atman so as to light our inner fire

It’s been over a century now since the discovery of Ganga Talao, and from that time onwards devout people have been undertaking the yatra (pilgrimage) to this sacred place in growing numbers. This event has become the largest religious movement of people in the annual calendar of our country, involving upwards of 400,000 people, and attracts overseas yatris (pilgrims) as well.

Because of the sheer numbers and the security issues that arise as a result, especially as regards transport, law and order and sanitation, it is quite natural that this event should become a matter of concern to the authorities. They are therefore duty bound to ensure the deployment of adequate facilities and make logistical arrangements for the safety not only of the pilgrims but also of citizens at large. Over the years, therefore, the road network and other facilities have been continuously upgraded, regular advisories have been issued to the pilgrims in particular, and measures taken with regard to the environment and so on.

On the other hand, as the history of the pilgrimage shows, people have been walking even before any socio-cultural organizations were set up, and will continue to do so if they were to disappear tomorrow. In fact, it would probably be a good thing if some of them did, as they are quite unlike the pioneer ones in the past that were led by dedicated and genuinely pious individuals. This would spare us the cheap polemic and the public, lowly tamasha that the current protagonists indulge in as they vie for equally cheap attention and photo-op occasions with politicians.

Let it be said clearly that this is a reflection more of such shifting and selfishly motivated allegiances than of the Hindu community or of Hindu culture. It is these people’s utter ignorance of the true purport of the latter that leads to these behaviours, and in so doing they do not do honour to the spirit of Maha Shivaratri, which is about restraint and self-control.

Shiva: Lord of tapa

For the genuine devotee, it is more important to gain an understanding of the larger context of his spiritual journey and how Shiva can help him to lead a fulfilled life. The following account gives an overview, and the sadhak (individual on a spiritual quest) must fill in the details by his own effort, which will be immensely enriching and rewarding as it will open the door to inner growth.

According to Swami Harshananda, writing in his ‘The Prasthana Traya: An Introduction’, all the Hindu scriptures, starting with the Vedas and continuing with the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, the Puranas, the Bhagavad Gita as also the two great epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, deal with four fundamental and universal concerns about existence: 1. The cause of the universe; 2. The creation and evolution of the universe; 3. The nature of the individual, and 4. The goal of human life and the means of achieving it.

Brahman is the causeless cause and source of the universe, and through the power of maya (mayashakti) Brahman becomes active or manifest as Ishwara, bringing forth the universe. Thus is initiated a cycle of creation-preservation-destruction which characterizes all objects that exist, and this includes human beings as well. Ishwara as creator is known as Brahma, as preserver Vishnu and as destroyer Shiva. These three facets of the One Ishwara are together referred to as trimurti.

In order to create, knowledge is needed, and thus Brahma is associated with Saraswati, who symbolizes learning and wisdom; to preserve, wealth is required, represented by Lakhsmi; Shiva is associated with Parvati who embodies shakti or divine power, which is also capable of destruction. It is important to understand that destruction does not signify devastation; instead, it refers to the dissolution of created objects that are made up of the five primordial elements or panchmahabhuttas – akash (space), agni (fire), vayu (air), jal (water) and prithvi (earth) — into their constituent elements which are then recycled to create new objects. Thus, we can consider that Shiva is the essential link between destruction and creation.

The individual human being is made up of a gross body and a subtle mind both of which keep changing. But underlying this changing body/mind complex is the atman, which is changeless and of the same nature as Brahman, who is changeless and eternal. The ultimate and highest goal of human life is for the individual to discover for himself that he is not the perishable, mortal body/mind but the immortal Brahman who is embodied within him as the atman.

Liberation from worldly bondage

To gain this knowledge and then experience the Truth of Brahman, the individual has to pursue a life of dharma or righteousness, and undergo spiritual training known as sadhana (hence sadhak – vide above) which involves gradually freeing oneself from the attachments that bind us to this world of endless desires. When this process is complete, the person achieves liberation from worldly bondage, a state known as moksha. Reaching this state requires that one make sacrifices, and engage in spiritual practices such as prayers, yoga and meditation. The latter are mental disciplines which still the mind, and are best pursued in places where there is peace and silence. In ancient times, such places were forest ashrams or mountain retreats.

Both Brahma and Vishnu actively engage with the world, but Shiva ‘sits with his eyes firmly shut, unresponsive to any worldly stimuli. His sense and action organs are in a state of total suspension.’ Shiva therefore guides us towards freedom from worldly shackles. As he does so himself, he thus retains all his energy within, and this energy transforms into tapa or inner fire which allows one to be fully detached from the world and concentrate on the inner world wherein resides atman. A person who does this is known as a Tapasvin – and Shiva is the Supreme Tapasvin, the Lord of tapa. He is ‘still and unmoving, as the mountain he sits on. There is so much tapa in Shiva’s body that water does not flow around him; it freezes to become snow.’ And that is why Shiva is found on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas which is his abode, where there is absolute stillness, silence and peace, ideal conditions for practising meditation. The mountain also represents strength and solidity that never change, symbolizing permanence.

And thus, Maha Shivaratri should be an occasion for us to renew – or start if we have not done it before — our journey of discovery of our atman by engaging in spiritual practices, the sublime one being regular sitting in meditation as Shiva does so as to light our inner fire — not the fires of desire that can destroy us but the one that illumines and enlightens and takes us towards moksha. That is the supreme goal and what Maha Shivaratri is fundamentally about.

Aum Namashivaya.


* Published in print edition on 9 February 2018

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