Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Maha Shivaratri

This month brings the Hindu festival known as Maha Shivaratri, or "great night of Shiva" (also called simply Shivaratri). This celebration falls on the eve of the new moon in February-March, and is a night set aside for worship and remembrance of Shiva.

The legend says that the gods (devas) and demons were churning the ocean of consciousness in search of the Divine nectar of immortality. However, after a great deal of effort, what emerged was not nectar, but poison. The devas and demons knew that in order to continue churning, and ultimately to unearth the Divine nectar, they could not simply toss the poison aside-- someone had to drink it. Lord Shiva volunteered to swallow the poison for the sake of humanity. As a result, his throat turned blue, although Shiva was not harmed. The divine doctors advised Shiva to stay awake for a full night to allow his body to be fully cleansed of the toxin. The gods and goddesses responded with energetic dances and ecstatic chanting to keep him awake until sunrise.

Each year, in commemoration of this event, Hindus stay awake all night chanting repetitions of the mantra "OM Namah Shivaya." According to tradition, the planetary positions on this night are such that there is a powerful natural upsurge of energy in the human system. It is said to be beneficial for one's physical and spiritual wellbeing to stay awake and aware throughout the night, immersed in singing and prayer.

Shivaratri is also a day of fasting. Observances also involve elaborate pujas (worship rituals)and abhishekas (bathing ceremonies) to the Shiva Lingam (a stone phallus representing Shiva) that include offerings of special (Bilva) leaves. The lingam is bathed with water, milk, and honey and decorated with flowers, garlands, and sandalwood paste.

The lingam is symbolic of the Divine Creative manifestation. Its shape is representative of the power of Shiva, the Lord of Creation, the masculine creative energy. The markings symbolize the feminine energy, the seed which is fertilized to manifest the creative power in the dance of the cosmos.

The Shiva lingam represents the vast potential and possibility that lies within each and every one of us. If you do a search on Google Images for "Shiva lingam", you will see a wide variety of representations. The lingam is often placed in a holder that represents the yoni, a female symbol of the Divine feminine.

Maha Shivaratri is considered to be the prime time for every soul to touch into the primordial consciousness of Nirvana. One receives Shiva's grace and assistance by keeping vigil during the night.. Maha Shivaratri signifies the transition from the darkness of gloom and ignorance to the dawn of divine joy and knowledge.

As Western yogis, it may not be practical or possible for us to stay up all night chanting. But we can reflect upon how we can stay awake and aware through all the toxicity of our modern world. We can create our own rituals to affirm our commitment to staying present and fully alive, awake to our spirit amidst the the poison of media, global violence, war, racism, environmental destruction, and poverty. Can we stay awake to our divinity through it all?

Hindu mythology suggests that Lord Shiva is the founder of yoga, the Adi Guru (first teacher). Whether one accepts this in the literal sense or not, it can be powerful to remember that this practice of yoga, which transforms our lives, began somewhere as a spark of Divine inspiration many millenia ago. It has been passed along through the generations from teacher to student, via countless great and wise masters whose names we will never know. I like to think of it as a seed that was planted that has grown into a great and mighty tree that is spreading its branches in all directions as many styles and traditions of yoga continue to evolve. Today we enjoy the fruits of that tree, and Shiva is the original seed from which it sprouted. As we taste the sweet nectar of these fruits and offer it to one another, we are honoring Lord Shiva and embodying that Divine spark.

1 comment:

Nickie said...

Beautifully written- especially the part about how we can "stay awake" in our modern western world. Thank you for the history of the holiday. Very interesting.


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