Indian thought and practices, over time immemorial, have commemorated certain days and festivals as a 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 Divine.
The festival known as Shivaratri is one such gateway to reach out and understand the divinity called Shiva or the Shiva Tattva.
Once we understand the meaning of Shiva Tattva and the celebration of Shivaratri, our celebrations and the enjoyment of the Tattva of Shiva will only be enhanced manifold. It will make our celebrations more relevant and meaningful.
These celebrations take on an even greater significance when one realises how this entire civilisation with all its different languages and diversity, has still shared the same understanding of the Shiva Tattva and has chosen the same ways and time windows to relish and celebrate it.
Meaning of Shiva
Contrary to the common depiction of Shiva as a fierce and terrifying God of destruction, the word Shiva simply means Mangalam i.e. 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 will continue to be so after the dissolution of this world, this solar system, this galaxy and this entire universe.
The ‘ee’ sound in Shiva denotes ‘life giving energy’. Anything with Shiva is with life and anything without Shiva is Shava or without life. While Shava is motionless or lifeless, Shiva is with the potential of life. Manifesting this ‘potential’ 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
For what is auspiciousness if not the potential that exists to “be” – bhava from which comes the name for Shiva as Shambhava, Shambo where the prefix ‘Sham’ denotes goodness.
In Indian thought, the Universe is always there, in one form or the other, as subtle alone or with gross, as dynamic or at rest. It only keeps moving through countless cycles of Creation, Srishti and Dissolution, Pralaya.
This aspect of Shiva, as the auspiciousness, mangalam in Universe, is evident from the following examples.
The traditional way of wishing “Goodbye” used to be through a phrase “Shivaasthe Panthaanaha” meaning “Let your ways be auspicious” (‘ways’ here meaning your paths, your deeds, your ways of life).
For many millennia, people across India have bid each other well with this auspicious phrase
“Shivaasthe Panthaanaha”. The term “Shiva” also has a much larger connotation, which includes: l having the potential, l being capable of, l boding well, l 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.
Manifesting this ‘potential’ 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 and Shakti together produce the universe as we can and cannot see.
So, Shiva is auspicious, Shiva is potential and Shiva is Life. Shiva is all encompassing – the universal soul or consciousness, Chaitanya. Realising this Shiva Tattva leads to Ananda, bliss.
Rudra – The Bodily Connect
From modern science, today we know that the space in the Universe contains various particles that are in continuous motion and form the interstellar matter. It is the spread that is left behind after the destruction of various stars and other cosmic bodies.
It is this spread, of these various particles in space, that leads to further creation and regeneration of matter. It is the continuous spread of these particles in space that allows for the various objects in space to connect to one another and can in one sense be called the “body of the Cosmos or Creation” or “fabric of the Cosmos”.
The winds caused by the movement of these particles, which form part of the body of the Cosmos, are not our earthly winds but cosmic winds. These cosmic winds cannot be felt by our five senses nor can their sound be heard by human ears. But all the same, these sweeping and moving cosmic winds make their own howling sound all through the expanse of the universe and are hence Rudra, where Ru means ‘howling sounds’ and dra is ‘that which moves’.
Microcosm and Macrocosm
Adi Shankara, a famous saint of India and a highly realised soul, who lived around 480 BCE, had this to say therefore,
“Na Rudram, Rudram Archayet”
“Without this humanly body, Rudram, and its understanding, we cannot understand that cosmic body, Rudram”
It is only with this human body and its understanding that we, in this human body, can understand the body of this Universe and the forces that act in it.
Cremation grounds are often referred to as Rudra Bhoomi. The human body is also called the Rudra Bhoomi.
Thus, with Shiva being the potential to manifest, Rudra is that attribute of Shiva which continuously sweeps through the Universe and thus keeps the cycle of manifestation and regeneration going on.
The name Rudra is often equated with “Terrific”. Let us understand the term “terrific”. It means super, awesome, tremendous, huge, enormous etc., whereas ‘terrifying’ means frightening, scary or horrifying. So, while Rudra as Terrific is one name for Shiva, Ugra as fierce, wrathful is also another name of Shiva.
The immenseness of these cosmic winds that sweep the entire vastness of this universe is terrific in many senses of the word. Rudra thus represents a terrific phenomenon that is universal, cosmic and great in magnitude. It is the very essence of material manifestation and regeneration.
Shankara – In Every Particle
We can see that the concept of Shiva Tattva is a cosmological phenomenon, which is very abstract and subtle, or Sukshma. Hence even though these concepts have been so lucidly brought forth by our ancients, using various forms for Shiva, it could still be beyond understanding for a few, as it cannot be wholly expressed.
With the aim of making it easier to relate to Shiva Tattva and to indicate that we need to focus our minds to understand Shiva and also to re-emphasise the presence of Shiva in all bodies including humans, we have Shankara, as a meditating human form.
Shankara etymologically comes from “Sham karothi ithi Shankara”, meaning, “that which does good”.
Thus, the form of Shankara brings to bearing that Shiva, the auspicious and with the potential to manifest all goodness, can only be realised through deep meditation, a state when the sound of OM reverberates through our mind, being and senses.
People across India have thus used the calm, human, meditative form of Shankara to align their gross body, Rudra, made of many subatomic particles with the auspiciousness in the Cosmos.
No wonder, goes the saying
Kankar Kankar Mein Hain Shankar.
Shankar resides in every gravel of sand.
Every gravel of sand is also full of good.
This civilisation has discerned this goodness in the Cosmos as Shankara. For them, every particle, both animate and inanimate, embodies Shankara. Hence, the above saying.
Shivaratri: Understanding Night or Ratri
This creation resonates with 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 or ratri.
The word Ratri means “comfort giver”. It is derived from the root “ra, rama” meaning “that which bestows – comfort, pleasantness”.
Ratri is that which gives one comfort or rest from the 3 types of activities namely:
1. Kayika or bodily actions,
2. Vachika or speech
3. Manasika or thoughts.
A person is afflicted by 3 types of agents, namely
1. Adhyatmika – psycho-physical aspects pertaining to the self, the Atma
2. Adhi Bhauthika – aspects pertaining to the elements of Nature, the Bhuta
3. Adhi Daivika – aspects beyond that pertain to the cosmic, the Divya
During the night, as one 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! What is Pralaya?
Only if 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. 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. Blending and being with the rhythm is
Laya – rhythm of music, rhythm of the cosmic cycles too – big and small.
The prefix Pra denotes special and Pralaya thus means the rhythmic, special dissolution or merging back into the ultimate natural form. In fact, there are four types of Pralaya defined in ancient Indian texts, they being:
1. Nithya Pralaya or daily Pralaya that comes every night
2. Naimitika Pralaya or occasional Pralaya,
3. Avantara Pralaya or Seasonal Pralaya,
4. Maha Pralaya or the Great Pralaya.
Shiva being the potential to manifest, is also the divinity for dissolution and regeneration. Hence the time one undergoes rejuvenation and regeneration that comes with a Pralaya, is associated with Shiva as Shivaratri.
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.
Therefore, since 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.
India has been rejuvenating itself for millennia by celebrating the night before Amavasya in the month of Magha, roughly around February as Maha Shivaratri. As a matter of fact, many Indians observe the night before Amavasya in every month as a Shivaratri too.
While Shivaratri is the night spent in the comfort of Shiva, being rejuvenated by the auspiciousness Shiva, the day before Shivaratri is the time one readies to surrender oneself to this process of rejuvenation.
The 13th phase of the moon, Trayodashi, in both the Waxing (Shukla Paksha) and Waning (Krishna Paksha) fortnights of the moon, is observed as Pradosha day.
Pradosha means dusk, the evening twilight. The hours before and after the dusk on Pradosha, is the most important period on Pradosha, wherein ardent worship, puja of Shiva is carried out across houses and temples.
As people go about their everyday life, they accumulate both positive and negative karma. Pradosha is the window dedicated every fortnight as a chance to wipe out the ill effects of these Karmas by observing the Pradosha Vrat so that the Shivaratri on the next night in case of New Moon can bring about complete rejuvenation. This is like a spiritual detox.
Shiva is described as performing the Ananda Tandava at the time of Pradosha, between the horns of His Vahana, the bull, Nandi.
A bull is called a Pashu, which also means a living being. Nandi, the Vahana of Shiva, denotes the natural, physical body which needs to be in tune with the mind to stay in bliss. Once this union is achieved, then the body acts as a support through which the bliss of realisation can be experienced. Nandi then becomes the stage and Shiva is then said to dance between the horns of the Nandi.
On every Pradosha, every Shiva temple across India has been coming alive as a stage for Shiva. People come to pray to Shiva and bend down to watch the Shiva Linga from between the horns of the Nandi in front of Shiva with the hope of catching sight of Shiva’s Ananda Tandava.
What a practice and hope, that has been uniting the people of this land across millennia!
Who is Kala?
A product of Creation is Time and along with that, Space too, which was quickly filled up by Rudra, the body of the Universe.
Kala is understood with the concept of Time. Every moment as its passes by, time elapses.
So, Kala is not only for the word Time but also denotes the concept of time that is elapsing since the start of Creation.
This concept of not just time but elapsing time has been brought out beautifully in the Skanda Purana.
Kalaha srujati bhutani
Time creates everything
Kalaha samharati prajaha
Time takes away everything so created
Sarve kalasya vashagaha
Everything exists in the hands of time
This similar concept of Kala being elapsing time has also been brought out by Veda Vyasa in Mahabharata too.
“Kala or Time, destroys Creation” – Mahabharata, 4.2.
From this statement we can infer that Kala is not only time at our personal level, which we see in our clocks or in our calendar, but is the elapsing time of the earth, the sun, the whole solar system, the entire galaxy, all the galaxies and the entire Universe.
With every moment that elapses, a moment of the created Universe is elapsing and the life of this created Universe is getting that much shorter.
It is very ironic that just before the start of the creation, there is no time and just immediately on creation, there is maximum time. From then on with every passing moment, time and life of the created Universe only keeps getting shorter and shorter until the point when the entire created universe collapses and time ceases to exist.
Thus, Time eats time and the entire Universe. Hence Kala is also called Slayer of Time.
This Kala has been understood and revered in many ways across India across Times.
Kala Bhairava: A Guardian
This concept of the slayer of time is highlighted in one of the attributes of Shiva called Kala Bhairava. He stands guard over the city of Kashi which is seen as the city that glows with the light and power to rejuvenate – rejuvenate people by taking them safely from one life to another or to a state of liberation, Moksha itself.
A Glowing City
Kashi as the name goes, is thus a city that glows with the knowledge of life and liberation.
Kashi also glows with all the funeral pyres burning here, of those who had come here to get rejuvenated, with Kala Bhairava standing there to guard and take them safely through the cycles of Lives, Births, Deaths and Time.
Viswanatha: A Glowing Truth
If Kala Bhairava stands there to give solace that He will take and guard the souls through the process of rejuvenation, it is Lord Viswanatha of Kashi, in the form of the Bana Lingam, the formless form, who stands for another associated Truth. That, as Kala Bhairava, Shiva will guard the process of recycling and rejuvenation.
That, as Viswanatha, Shiva will enable the rejuvenated manifestation in the next cycle.
As a Bana Lingam, Kashi Viswanatha points to the state of manifestation of the gross from the subtle and of the manifestation of form, from the formless.
For the few deserving and ready, Viswanatha promises liberated consciousness that awaits.
For the others, still in the cycles of Births and Deaths, Viswanatha promises and assures a smooth passage as a refreshed and rejuvenated life into the next cycle.
For, as Viswanatha, He is one who delivers the Universe itself through its various cycles of Births and deaths. How can He leave anyone astray?
Kashi, with Shiva there as Kala Bhairava and Viswanatha, has therefore drawn people from all across India, across Millennia. Kala Bhairava and Viswanatha have been a source of comfort and reprieve for people through the last stages of their lives too.
We have just seen how the ancients had understood the concept of Time from a cosmic perspective. They, however, did not limit themselves to that. They had also brought down the concept of Kala, Time to a global and human level.
Today, in the modern world we have the concept of Time Zones along with the Longitudes which are imaginary lines drawn on this globe to demarcate the Time Zones. The Longitude passing through Greenwich in the outskirts of London is considered as the Prime Meridian and the O-hour time of the world today.
For many Millennia, until 1700s, it was Ujjain in India and the longitude that passed through this city, which was the Prime Meridian for all ancient civilisations. The Greeks referred to this city as Ozene and it was represented on their maps with the figure of a temple.
Who was this temple for?
It was for Shiva as Maha Kaleshwara, the Maker and Keeper of Time.
For, Ujjain does indeed lie on the latitude known as the Tropic of Cancer, the farthest point in the journey of the Sun northwards.
This temple of Maha Kaleshwar in Ujjain represented the reference mark for calculating and keeping track of time for the globe, in yester years.
The temple and the deity here seem to bear an apt name.
This city has seen a continuous tradition in astronomy. Since then, there has been an observatory in Ujjain, which can be visited even today.
The whole of India had looked up to Ujjain and Shiva, as Maha Kaleshwara in Ujjain, for keeping and tracking Time for Millennia.
How was all this common understanding and practices possible across such a diverse land?
It is a myth that the common Indian did not travel much in times bygone. People, all across India have been busy criss-crossing the entire region of Bharatavarsha, travelling on specific circuits at different times of the year and stages of their lives. Such travels were called Yatra. By nature, Yatra from the root Ya, is one that bears the nature of spreading, moving.
The Yatra of Bharat were responsible for spreading culture, knowledge and practices all across the land through the people who undertook these Yatra, thereby bringing in a sense of unity in the diversity.
These Yatras were themed around different divinities, natural bodies, holy cities etc. and the different places in these circuits lay far-flung, all over the land.
Of the many Yatra on the land of Bharat, those to places connected with Shiva have been popular across times and still continue to be highly frequented by people from all over India such as:
- The Jyotirlinga circuit
- The Pancha Bhuta circuit
- The Pancha Kedar Yatra and many more.
As people travelled, they honed their knowledge about the civilisation, cultural practices and Shiva Tattva, from the villages they passed through.
Realising The Various Connects
Shivaratri, a night full of Shiva, is a great opportunity to read about, hear about, sing about, contemplate about and realise the Tattva called Shiva.
It is a night that augurs well for embarking on a journey of realising oneself and through oneself, realising Shiva and all the goodness that lies in Creation as Shankara. For, without this goodness, nothing can ever be, Bhava.