March 4: Maha Shivaratri Day
In the pantheon of Hinduism, there are very few gods and goddesses that capture the attention and wonderment of the entire world. Sure, Ganesh, Krishna, and a few others are well-known for their charming qualities. But one among them stands out as something very different: Shiva, the god of destruction.
According to Hindu lore, Shiva is one of the three primordial forces in the universe — creation (Brahma), preservation (Vishnu), and destruction (Shiva). To some, he’s even considered to be the primary god.
Shiva is often depicted as a strong man sitting in the Himalayas atop a meditation blanket made of tiger skin, his beads and other ornaments adorning him. Sometimes he even has a multitude of weapons around him. He doesn’t look like he should be messed with! In the Hindu mythos, Shiva has taken many forms including humans and animals, but the ‘real’ Shiva — the deeper meaning, at least — is considered to be unlimited, transcending, and formless.
There are many fascinating holidays celebrated by Hindus throughout the world. Some, such as Diwali, are so popular they’re even celebrated by non-Hindus. But the Maha Shivaratri festival is particularly unique.
A few quick Shiva facts:
Many people, particularly in the west, tend to dismiss Shiva as pure myth and fantasy. But in reality, Shiva is actually a very deep representation of life and spirituality. Everything about him is symbolic.
Here are a few quick facts about the lord of destruction:
- Shiva lives on mount Kailesh with his wife and two sons, Parvati, Ganesh, and Kartikeya. It’s their meditations maintain balance in the universe.
- The tiger skin Shiva sits atop represents his conquest of primordial nature and its ferocious creatures.
- The small drum that usually appears in his hand or nearby represents the sound of Om — the sound of creation.
- Varanasi is Shiva’s favorite city, and therefore a place of pilgrimage. In Sanskrit texts, it’s known as Kashi.
- The waning moon on his forehead is symbolic of the cycle through which creation moves — beginning to end.
- The snake that envelopes Shiva is a holdover from the days before the current mythology. They are known as Nagas and held an important role in Hinduism. Now they serve Shiva.
- The trident is Shiva’s all-powerful weapon. It represents the three gunas- Sattva (harmony, positivity, virtousness), Rajas (passion, activity, drive), and Tamas (delusion, inactive, ignorant).
- His axe (similar to Ganesa’s) symbolizes severing ties to the material world.
- Just like the tiger showcases his mastery over fearsome animals, the cow that frequently accompanies him represents his mastery over the sweetest of animals. The cow in particular in India is representative of Dharma- which means Shiva is the protector of all Dharma.
Understanding Maha Shivaratri
There are many accounts of why this day is celebrated: in some stories, it’s described that Maha Shivaratri is celebrated to mark the time when Shiva drank poison ‘negativity’ to save the world. In this story, it’s believed Shiva stored the poison in his throat, turning it blue. In another, he appears before an ignorant hunter with and bestows them with wisdom, supposedly removing the desire to hunt and kill forever. And still another, he saved the world from almost certain destruction, only asking for those remaining to meditate upon him.
It’s really interesting to speculate on which story was the first to come about, but the deeper meaning of the festival is really what’s crucial — to remember the fact that light always overcomes darkness and ignorance, both in life and the world. Because with their desctruction comes lasting happiness.
A symbolic celebration in India
Maha Shivaratri is celebrated on the new moon day in the month of Maagha according to the Hindu (Vedic) calendar.
Because of the context of the celebration, it’s a bit different than the others. Actually, the festival is at night! Again, this is the reference to overcoming darkness with light. Many participants actually fast and meditate all night and into the morning to mark this significant event. It’s a quiet, deep event with introspective intentions.
All night mantras and prayers are performed as well, offering leaves, various fruits, milk and even desserts to Shiva altars. But this profound celebration isn’t just celebrated one night or day. Instead, it’s done over a period of three or ten days, depending on what the Vedic calendar points to. In fact, every lunar month there is a Shivaratri, but this time of year is the great, or ‘Maha’ Shivaratri.
It’s widely believed that those who fast, pray and meditate throughout the night bring good luck into their life — sometimes erasing the negative karma they’ve been carrying with them for many lives.
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