Thoughts on Shivarathri

Brahmachari Arvind Chaitanya

Oṁ Śrī Gaṇeśāya Namaḥ | Oṁ Śrī Sarasvatyai Namaḥ | Oṁ Śrī Gurubhyo Namaḥ | Oṁ Namaḥ Śivāya

na tatra suryo bhāti na candratārakam nemā vidyuto bhānti kuto'yamagniḥ|

tameva bhāntamanubhāti sarvam tasya bhāsā sarvamidaṃ vibhāti ||

Neither the sun nor the moon and the stars illumine IT, not even the flashes of lightning, what to say about fire. Because IT shines that all else shine in reflection. All this is made known in ITS light alone.

(Kaṭhopaniṣad 2.5.15)

Fragrance is formless. Yet, to get a hold on it, we identify it with a form, like a flower. So also, the formless and attributeless Truth chooses to manifest itself through forms, in order to help us get a hold on it. It is this manifestation of the beginningless, absolute and intangible God-principle (Shivatattva) in the tangible form of an endless column of light which is celebrated as Mahashivarathri. It is this act of the formless taking on a form which is often regarded as the marriage of Shiva and Parvathi in stories connected with Shivarathri. Shiva stands for the absolute and imperceptible Truth. Taking the help of Parvathi, His own sakthi or power who stands for prakriti (nature), He appears to us in the tangible form of pure light. It is this column of light which becomes the object of contemplation and worship on Shivarathri and which is captured in the Shivalinga – as the formless form.

The Light of Shiva

Light in general is connected with the idea of seeing. It is because of light that we perceive the world around us. In other words, without light, no perceptible world would exist. In that sense, one can say that light is the substratum for the visible world around us. Extending this idea, Shiva as the endless column of light stands for that substratum upon which the entire world exists. The entire world is thus contained in that substratum of the God-principle and thus, the entire world is but God alone. The Shivalingam thus represents the entire universe, along with its essence.

Seen this way, the entire phenomenal universe is but the physical body of Shiva and it is in this form that Shiva is Mahavishnu too (vyāpakāt vishnuḥ – due to all-pervasion, He is the pervader or Vishnu). Thus, on Mahashivarathri, every entity in this world becomes a pulsating medium of the God-principle radiating at its utmost intensity. 'See the world, every bit of it, as enveloped with the God-principle' proclaims the Iśāvāsyopaniṣad (īsā vāsyamidam sarvam yatkincha jagatyām jagat). It is this attitude which we should hold on to on Shivarathri and everyday of our lives.

Seen subjectively, the light signifies the essence behind our notion of our 'self'. When one is stuck in a pitch dark room, we may not be able to recognise things around but not for a moment would be fail to recognise our own presence. Do we ever need to turn on the light to confirm our own existence? In which light then are we able to recognise ourselves as 'I'? It is this light which is the light of Shiva, the very spark of awareness in us without which no consciousness or perception would be possible and without which no 'known' world would exist. Is this then not the substratum of the entire phenomenal world as well? It is this self-luminous and ever-effulgent Self in us which is present at all times, the very basis for the world perceived, that is indicated by the infinite column of light of Mahashivarathri and embodied as the Shivalinga we worship.

It is on this basis that the highest principle of Advaita Vedanta (the philosophy of non-duality) states that this light inside us, the substratum of the world outside us and the Shivalinga that we worship as Ishvara or Lord are essentially one and the same. It is for realisation of this knowledge that one must pray for on this auspicious day.

The Darkness of Shiva

Night is generally associated with darkness which means the absence of all perception. However, sometimes even an extremely bright light can 'blind' us. As Swami Krishnanandaji says, the darkness of the night of Shivarathri is not due to the lack of light but due to the excess of light.

In the light of Shiva, in the light of knowledge of our true Self, what one acquires is differentiation-less perception. Due to knowledge, when our regular perception ends, when we have transcended the phenomenal perceptual world based on the triad of the knower, known and knowledge, then the world of names and forms that one knew and considered to be real would be in complete darkness, and one would be awake in a new light. It is this state that Lord Krishna refers to in the Bhagavad Gita when He declares 'that which is unknown to beings, in it the enlightened one is awake and that world in which beings are awake is but utter darkness for him who is wise' (yā niśā sarva-bhūtānāḿ tasyāḿ jāgarti saḿyamī | yasyāḿ jāgrati bhūtāni sā niśā paśyato muneḥ ||2.69).

The light of non-duality implies the darkness of duality. This light is the darkness of Shiva, the primordial state of non-differentiation. The darkness of the night of Shivarathri is the occasion where you can deny everything 'known' but never the awareness of yourself, the true knower. This is that night when the Shiva in us asserts Himself most easily and one can most easily discover that true 'I', the absolute Self behind all the relative notions of ourselves and the world that we frame.

The world is inevitably formed on the basis of differences and our perception of the world too is based on the idea of differences alone. It is based on the idea of definitions which intrinsically implies the idea of separating one entity from another, done through the vehicle of language. It is these differences that determine our assessment of situations, objects and people and in-turn, guides our response towards them. Evidently, every definition is individual, personal and arbitrary and so also our responses. That being so, it is but unavoidable that all this leads to conflicts and contradictions.

The spiritual force of Shivarathri is meant to push us to transcend all these differences to look at the substratum behind things. It is this view of the substratum which must shape our attitude behind the actions we perform. The acts no doubt will depend on the world of relative differences, but the attitude behind them should solely be based only on the understanding of absolute singular Truth-principle that underlies everything, just as a mother who treats her many children differently as per age and disposition but nevertheless, with the same love knowing well that they are all but her own.

The Occasion of Shivarathri

There is a famous story in connection with Shivarathri. It is said that it was on the occasion of the argument between Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu about their superiority that the God-principle manifested as the infinite column of light. To sort their argument, one was asked to find the head and the other the foot of the column, the person attaining the destination first being superior. Thus, Lord Brahma went head-ward as a swan and Lord Vishnu went foot-ward as a boar. In spite of much effort, the destination was no where in sight. Eventually Lord Brahma lied and was caught and Lord Vishnu realising the futility of the effort submitted to the column of light each agreeing that both are inferior in comparison to the God-principle which alone is Absolute.

The story in short tells us that God or Truth cannot be obtained either through our ego or intellect or any protracted efforts but only when all is discarded. It is pure-hearted love and devotion and surrender alone which will enable the Truth to reveal within us. Lord Shiva is also called as Ashutosh or the one who is pleased easily. It is said that Lord Shiva is pleased if we just think about Him for a moment, but without ego, and with love and purity. This is exactly what we have to do on Shivarathri.

This constant expression of our love to Him, when external is commonly known as bhakti (devotion) and when internal, is known as meditation or contemplation.

The entire effort of Shivarathri is to turn all our attention and thoughts only on Shiva – both outside and inside us. Having fully turned it to Him, one must remain silent so that we get absorbed in Him. Thus, the day is not meant to exhaust and tire our selves but express our devotion purify our mind so that at night, our mind in all its elevated quietness is directed wholly and solely onto the Supreme principle of Shiva. We must lose ourselves that night. We must find our true Self that night.

Our mind and sense organs are constantly caught up with worldly objects and issues which prove detrimental towards turning their attention solely on God or Truth. Therefore, during the day of Shivarathri, we engage ourselves through the senses but with objects only related to God. Thus, we participate in pujas, we chant the holy Panchakshari and other mantras, we witness the abhishekam, we listen to and sing His glories. In this way, even while our sense faculties are engaged, they have been disciplined with only one kind of material to play with. The practice of a vrata or vow and other means of restraint also is only to aid this process, further increasing our self-will and determination. Thus, bodily and mentally, we have turned to Him.

In this way, having controlled every instrument of ours through the day, filled with the fervour of Shivatattva, we MUST slip into quietude. Shivarathri is an occasion for silent contemplation. We must strive to 'constantly think of Him and be contained in Him', as the great Sage of Kanchi advices. This night when everything in this world is radiating with Shivatattvam at its utmost intensity, focussing our mind only on Him, one must strive to be quiet...and just BE.

It is for this that one must stay up all night. Imagine, that for one hour, a million people are awake but absolutely quiet or silently chanting Om Namah Shivaya, with their mind focussed only on the Supreme God-principle. Imagine the peace that the world and every individual in it will get by this. This is how Shivarathri is most powerful, as a million people are turned towards and actively thinking about one thing which happens to be the Supreme. Thus, on this day, if one remains quiet, one will be able to benefit by this power of collective thought, to discover this principle in oneself.

'How far is wave from water, that far is God from you,' says Pujya Swami Chinmayananda. What better occasion than this auspicious night, to discover God – around you, in you, AS YOU.

HariOM Tat Sat