Ever thought why is Shiva the subject of such deep wonder and worshipped so widely in India? Could Shiva be an actual person? Does divinity possess a human form ? And would it be limited if that divinity was in a human body?
What is Mahashivratri and Why it is Celebrated?
Mahashivratri, “The Great Night of Shiva” is the most significant event in India’s spiritual calendar. 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.
In Indian culture, traditions, and festivals have a deeper meaning. All of them are associated with a specific divine energy. This divine energy is given a name and form for us to understand the virtues, qualities, and its blessings clearly. One among these energies, and the presiding energy, is Shiva.
Meaning of ‘Shiva’
The word Shiva simply means mangalam (auspicious). In fact, the term Shiva has a much larger connotation which includes:
Shiva can be split into:
- Sha + ee + Va
- Sha stands for shareeram or body
- ee stands for eeshwari or life giving energy
- Va stands for vayu or motion.
If the ee is removed from Shiva, it gets reduced to sha+va or shava, which means a lifeless body. We also use the term shavasana in yoga, where one is motionless and in an absolute state of rest.
While Shava is motionless or lifeless, Shiva is with the potential of life. Anything with Shiva is with life and anything without Shiva is shava: lifeless.
So, Shiva is auspicious, Shiva is life and Shiva is potential. Shiva is all-encompassing – the universal soul or consciousness. This realization of the eternal fact that Shiva is an energy, tattva, leads to ananda, bliss.
The symbolism of Shiva
Shiva’s blue skin
Blue means infinite like the sky. Blue signifies the all-pervading infinity which has no limits and no shape. Knowledge has no shape, but it exists in each and every particle of the universe. The whole world is filled with Shiva. Hence blue was used to represent infinity.
The crescent moon
Wisdom is beyond the mind, but it needs a tinge of mind to be expressed. This is what is symbolized by the crescent moon.
The Shiva experience is where there is “no-mind.” The moon signifies the mind. When there is “no-mind,” how can this state be expressed? In the manifest world, the infinite consciousness requires a little bit of mind to express itself. So the crescent moon symbolizes that little bit of mind that is required to express the inexpressible.
In India, the bull has been used as a symbol of righteousness for a long time. The form of Shiva depicted riding on the bull simply means that when you are righteous and truthful, the infinite, innocent consciousness resides with you.
The third eye
Shiva’s third eye represents the knowledge that is beyond the reach of the senses. One kind of knowledge is that which we receive through our sense organs, and the other kind is the knowledge that is beyond the limited perception of the senses, represented by the third eye. The third eye is the seat of knowledge and awakened wisdom.
Shiva’s drum, the damru
Shiva’s drum, called damru, symbolizes the universe, which is always expanding and collapsing. From expansion, it collapses, and then it re-expands. This is the process of creation and destruction. If you see your heartbeat, it is not just one straight line. It is a rhythm that goes up and down.
The whole world is nothing but rhythm—energy rising and collapsing only to rise again.
The damru signifies this cosmic rhythm and the non-dual nature of life and the universe.
River Ganga on Head
The River Ganga, or Ganges, is seen to flow downward from Shiva’s matted hair. What does the Ganges mean here?
The River Ganges symbolizes knowledge—the type of knowledge that purifies your soul. The head symbolizes knowledge, and the heart means love. The Ganges is shown flowing down from the matted hair on Shiva’s head. If the River Ganges were love, it should have come out of Shiva’s heart. However, the water comes down from the head, meaning knowledge.
Knowledge liberates. It brings freedom. It purifies.
Shiva is a state of meditation where there is nothing but the inner sky of consciousness.
In this state there is alertness without action. This state of meditation when the eyes are closed gives the impression that the person is sleeping. However, he is not asleep, but alert. To symbolize this alertness and express this state of consciousness, the form of the snake is depicted around Shiva’s neck.
Shiva’s trident represents three states of consciousness, waking, dreaming, and sleep. Holding a trident signifies that the state of Shiva is beyond all three states, yet it also encompasses these three states.
Shiva’s trident also represents the three gunas, or qualities of positivity, activity, and rest (sattva, rajas, and tamas). Consciousness is beyond the three qualities, but it also holds the three together.
The Creator and the creation are one and the same. Creation is formed out of the creator, just like dance comes out of the dancer.
One beautiful form that has been given to Shiva is a figure shown dancing in absolute bliss, called Nataraja. The essence behind this image is so unique and beautiful.
One of Shiva’s hands in the dance is placed in the gesture of fearlessness, called abhaya mudra. It means there is nothing to fear. Be free of worries. Be happy.
The other hand reaches across and bends slightly downwards, pointing to the feet in the dance. What does that mean? It means: Dance! Rejoice and celebrate! Be humble in life, but also walk confidently with your head held high. One who is arrogant is not necessarily free from fear. So it means to be free from fear without becoming stiff with ego; it means to be simple and natural. It is also a reminder that you have everything that you need.
This is the deeper meaning behind the representation of Shiva in blissful dance.
Also, the whole universe is itself the dance of one consciousness. The one consciousness dances, and that dance is the manifestation of nature in all its variety and splendour. So this infinite creation is the dance of consciousness. Shiva is that in which everything in the universe has taken birth and which encompasses everything.
Importance of Mahashivratri
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 this tradition, it is established a certain festival which is nightlong. To allow this natural upsurge of energies to find their way, one of the fundamentals of this nightlong festival is to ensure that one remain awake.
Spiritual Significance of Mahashivratri
Why this day and night are held with such importance in the yogic traditions is because of the possibilities it presents to a spiritual seeker. Modern science has gone through many phases and arrived at a point today where they are out to prove to you that everything that you know as life, everything that you know as matter and existence, everything that you know as the cosmos and galaxies, is just one energy which manifests itself in millions of ways.
Shivratri – The Darkest Night of the Month
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.
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.
Mahashivratri – A Night of Awakening
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.
“Every Mahashivratri is meant to wake up every particle of your body. The festival is a wake-up call to move away from conflicts and move towards truth, beauty, peace, and benevolence – the ethereal qualities of Shiva.”
“Mahashivratri is an occasion to remember the eternal truth of Shivoham, meaning ‘I am that principle. I am Shiva. I am the truth, benevolence, eternity, beauty“