Indian thought and practices over time immemorial have commemorated certain days and festivals as ways and means for people to understand, remember and reunite with the Universe and the divinities of the Universe.
These festivals become gateways for people to reach out and be in communion with the divinities.
Shivaratri is one such festival which is a gateway to reach out and understand the divinity called Shiva or Shiva Tattva.
Once we understand the meaning of Shiva Tattva and the celebration of Shivaratri, no doubt, our celebrations and the enjoyment of the Tattva of Shiva will be enhanced manifold. It will make our celebrations more relevant and meaningful.
Ithihasa Purusha-Historical Personages
Among the Indian pantheon of divinities, few are historical and many others are Tattva, principles, essence in nature.
The prominent historical divinities are Rama and Krishna for which reason they are called as Ithihasa Purusha, historical personages and Avathara Purusha, those who came down to this earth, to live with us.
Rama and Krishna – Historical Personages
Shiva, a Tattva
In contrast to this, Shiva is not an ithihasa purusha but is a tattva. .
What is Shiva Tattva?
Shiva – A Tattva
Meaning of the term Shiva
The word Shiva simply means Mangalam, auspicious. Anything that is auspicious is Shiva. This auspiciousness which is all pervading throughout the universe, is a constant presence during the lifetime of this universe, before the creation of the universe and continues to be so after the dissolution of this world, this solar system, this galaxy and this entire universe.
Thus this Shiva, auspiciousness is the very life of the universe. Not just the life we see around us in a very limited perspective of life in humans, animals or plants but the very concept of life itself.
The meaning for Shiva as auspiciousness is evident from the following examples.
The traditional way of wishing “Goodbye” was through a phrase “Shivaasthe Panthaanaha” meaning “Let your ways be auspicious”. Ways here, meaning your paths, your deeds and ways of life.
The term “Shiva” also has a much larger connotation which includes
- having the potential,
- being capable of,
- boding well,
- being favourable, promising.
All of these meanings of Shiva are also attributed to the Indian term “Mangalam”, which also has a similar all encompassing meaning of denoting the potential to manifest something good.
From a metaphysical perspective, Shiva can be split as sha+ee+va where
- sha stands for Shareeram, body,
- ee stands for eeshwari, life giving energy and
- va stands for vayu or motion.
Thus Shiva represents the body with life and motion.
If the “ee” is removed from Shiva, it gets reduced to sha+va or shava.
Shava means a lifeless body.
Anything with Shiva is with life and anything without Shiva is Shava or without life.
Here we see that while Shava is motionless or lifeless, Shiva is with the potential of life.
Making this potential manifest as matter, life and the cosmos, is Shakti the energy tattva, the female counterpart of Shiva. Without Shakti, Shiva stays as the potential. It is Shakti that triggers Shiva into manifesting as life.
This body is composed of many cells. It is the Preeti, the forces of attraction which keep the cells together to produce a body with life or with Prana. When this Preeti is gone, the cells disintegrate and Prana goes away from the body and the body is considered to be dead.
Thus Shiva along with Shakti together go to produce the universe as we can and cannot see it.
So, Shiva is auspicious, Shiva is potential and Shiva is Life. Shiva is all encompassing – the universal soul or consciousnss, Chaitanya. Realizing this Shiva Tattva leads to Ananda, bliss.
Understanding Night, Ratri
This Creation resonates with a rhythm or a natural heartbeat. Every object in this Creation has its own cycle or rhythm, in which it rises to a peak and ebbs to a low. This low is called the night, ratri.
The word Ratri means “comfort giver”. It is derived from the root word “ram” meaning “to be content”, “to give contentment”.
3 Levels of Activities
Ratri is that which gives one comfort or rest from the 3 types of activities namely:
- Kayika or bodily actions,
- Vachika or speech
- Manasika or thoughts.
A person is afflicted physically, mentally and spiritually by 3 types of agents, namely
- Adhyatmika – pertaining to the self, the Atma
- Adhi Bhauthika – pertaining to the elements of Nature, the Bhuta
- Adhi Daivika – pertaining to the cosmic, the Divya
During night, as man sleeps and gets regenerated, all 3 types of actions are subdued and mind is completely at rest, free from all types of afflictions.
Hence night is called ratri or the comfort giver.
What a beautiful way to form a word such that its very formation implies its meaning and function.
It is during the ratri or night of any being, that the being gets rejuvenated and refreshed for its next cycle or day.
The Natural Rhythm
For man, this natural rhythm is daily day and night. Every night, the body gets regenerated and refreshed for the next day. The old cells are discarded and get replaced with new cells every day. Blood in the body is purified and circulated every day. New blood cells are born each day. This is Nithya Pralaya or daily Pralaya.
What is a Pralaya?
Only when there is dissolution of the old, can there be scope for regeneration of the new.
There is a continuous cycle of dissolution and regeneration going on in the Universe.
The process of dissolution is called Pralaya. Pralaya is limitedly understood as waters or fire engulfing everything.
Infact there are 4 types of Pralaya defined in ancient Indian texts, they being,
- Nithya Pralaya, daily Pralaya
- Naimitika Pralaya, occasional Pralaya
- Avantara Pralaya, seasonal Pralaya
- Maha Pralaya, the great Pralaya
Laya means to merge or dissolve into. Music that makes one forget everything and makes one blend with the music is said to have Layam. It is also a rhythm.
The prefix Pra denotes special as in Prakrithi which is primordial or ultimate Nature. Pralaya thus simply means the rhythmic, special dissolution or merging back into ultimate natural form.
Shiva, being the potential to manifest, is the divinity for dissolution and regeneration. Hence the time one readies for rejuvenation and regeneration that comes with a Pralaya, is associated with Shiva as Shivaratri.
Not so commonly known is the monthly celebration of Shivaratri, which falls on the Krishnapaksha Chaturdasi every month or the night preceding the New Moon.
Maha Shivaratri or the Great Shivaratri is celebrated annually on the Krishnapaksha Chaturdasi night. i.e. the night preceding the New Moon, in the penultimate month of the year, the month of Magha or the month of Masi in Tamil calendar, which typically occurs in the month of February – March these days.
History of Shivaratri
Rishi Kahola Kaushitaki in his Kaushitaki Brahmana records that Maha Shivaratri was celebrated even during the Mahabharatha times, i.e. 5100 years ago.
In cosmology, when the entire Creation starts contracting, it is expressed as the start of the night of Brahma and the final collapse is called the Maha Pralaya. This Maha Pralaya then leads to the start of the next cycle of Creation and is thus a regeneration of the entire Srishti, Creation.
The interim state between a dissolution and a regeneration is a period of both serenity and tranquility when all bodies are calm and preparing for regeneration. Following this tranquility is the joy and celebration which comes with having been regenerated and refreshed.
Change through celebration
The change that comes with dissolution can primarily be accepted in two ways,
- With pain
- With celebration
When there is resistance to a change, there is pain. Where there is willful acceptance, there is no pain. When we understand and willingly accept that a dissolution is only for a regeneration, the dissolution or change ceases to cause pain.
Shivaratri is an occasion that makes us aware of the need to change along with the ever changing cosmos and to renew our cosmic connect.
It is a window to prepare ourselves to accept the change, to let go of the past, to make way for the new and the rejuvenation that comes forth.
It is a celebration to welcome the change, the rejuvenation.
Therefore for time immemorial our ancestors have given this night of regeneration, a feeling of serenity through fasting and praying and have followed it with celebration through singing.
Every Shivaratri, let us connect with this Shiva Tattva and get rejuvenated to face the coming phases of our lives.
More information on these aspects of Shiva is available in our book, “Understanding Shiva”, and a film, “Understanding Shiva” which are a part of the Bharath Gyan Series.