18 Feb 2012

Śiva and the Mystic Night

Monday, 20 February 2012 is Maha-Śivaratri (Mahashivaratri | महाशिवरात्रि).


aha-Śivaratri is a Hindu festival celebrated every year on the thirteenth night/fourteenth day of Phalguna, the twelfth month of the Hindu calendar –– this year it falls on February 20th in the Western calendar. It is the night dedicated to reverence of Lord Śiva. “In our religious tradition, Lord Śiva is represented as an aspect of God, the Almighty,” Swami Krishnananda has said. “He presents before us the ideal of supreme renunciation born of Divine Realisation.”

The term Maha-Śivaratri translates as the great (maha) night (ratri) of Śiva (the auspicious one).  On this night it is believed the Lord is in close proximity to humankind. At midnight, Śiva’s divine vibrations will resound in the human heart. If you are engaged in sacred tasks –– such as fasting, prayers and making offerings –– then it’s believed you will be suffused with Śiva’s divine vibrations.

Throughout India and around the world the day is observed in various ways, basically by fasting during the day and engaging in a vigil during the night:

  • A traditional way is for devotees to “keep as severe fast, chant the sacred Panchakshara mantra Om Namah Shivaya, make offerings of flowers and incense to the Lord amidst ringing of temple bells,” then to “maintain long vigils during the night, keeping awake to listen to stories, hymns and songs. The fast is broken only the next morning, after the nightlong worship.”
  • A simpler but just as beneficial way is to begin the day by offering bilva leaves to Lord Śiva, to do a full or modified fast during the day (explained below) and a night vigil that aims only to reach the sacred midnight hour.
  • Even simpler is to set down a clean white cloth and place a flower upon it to honour Śiva. Then repeat the Panchakshara mantra in your mind throughout the day, as you endeavour to abstain from solid foods.

These are just three ways, there are others, and no one way is better or more holy than the other. The efficacy of any sacred task lies in your love and the clarity of your intent.

Bilva leaves

The bilva tree has been called Lord Śiva’s Tree and it’s leaves are considered particularly blessed. From Swami Satyananda’s commentary on the Śiva Purāṇa we learn:

The bilva tree is the manifest form of Lord Śiva himself.... One who worships the Śiva lingam while sitting under the bilva attains the state of Śiva. Washing the head by this tree is said to be the equivalent of bathing in all the sacred rivers. One who performs bilva puja with flowers and incense achieves Śiva-loka, the abode of pure consciousness, and has happiness and prosperity bestowed upon them. The lighting of the deepak (lamp) before this tree bestows knowledge and enables the devotee to merge in Lord Śiva.


There are many feasting and fasting days in Hinduism, with the Śivaratri fast considered to be the most important for the devotees of Lord Śiva – as the Lord is the supreme renunciate, we fast to temporarily partake of this supreme state. In the Śiva Purāṇa it is said that if you fast on this day with sincerity, devotion and love, you will be blessed with Śiva‘s divine grace.

While some people fast by foregoing any sustenance, even water, others modify the fast according to their age, health, constitution and the demands of their work and home life. A modified fast could mean simply abjuring any solid foods (having only clear soups, juices, water, etc.) or limiting the diet to a two or three simple foods –– one classic modified fast consists of only fruit and milk.

The point of fasting is not to feel desperate and suffer, but rather to exercise your spiritual muscles, so to speak. By fasting you forego normal eating in order to introduce discipline to the day and to help you control two great natural forces: rajas (the guna or quality of yearning, appetite and passionate activity) and tamas (the guna or quality of inertia and apathy). When devotees spend an entire day fasting with sincerity, they get a better understanding of the qualities of commitment, determination and surrender.

Spiritual fasting is not supposed to be an act of gritting your teeth and suffering through, but of letting go and feeling closer to God.

The Lingam

An evening vigil for Maha-Śivaratri could include chanting of a sacred text such as the Rudram, puja, meditation, aarathi and traditional abhisheka – the enacted prayer or worship of the Lingam.

Lingam ritual is often artlessly translated into Western language and thought as ‘phallus worship’ and sadly burdened with a great deal of Victorian-era academic theories and later Western psychoanalytic baggage that are alien to the Hindu tradition. While interesting on a theoretical level, these theories have little to do with how practicing Hindus think of God.

For the Hindu, the Lingam and the base it sits within, the Yoni, are not naïve penis and vulva substitutes, they are paradoxes in that they are ‘forms’ meant to signal the divine ‘formlessness’ or ultimate attribute-less (including genderless) nature of God.

Religion journalist Subhamoy Das explains it this way:

Shiva Linga speaks to the devotee in the unmistakable language of silence, and it is only the outward symbol of the formless being, Lord Shiva, who is the undying soul seated in the chambers of your heart, who is your in-dweller, your innermost self or Atman, and who is identical with the supreme Brahman.

The Linga is like an egg, and represents the Brahmanda or the cosmic egg. Linga signifies that the creation is effected by the union of Prakriti and Purusha, the male and the female powers of Nature. Linga also signifies Satya, Jnana and Ananta - Truth, Knowledge and Infinity.

Abhisheka for Maha-Śivaratri usually includes bathing the Lingam with milk, honey, butter, ghee, or rose-water.

The Mystic Night

Swami Krishnananda wrote a chapter in his book Spiritual Import of Religious Festivals on Śivaratri called The Mystic Night. In it he encapsulates the significance of this beautiful night and gives an outline of traditional activities and rituals and the meanings behind them.

Śivaratri is a blessed occasion for all to practise self- restraint, self-control, contemplation, Svadhyaya, Japa and meditation, as much as possible within our capacity. We have a whole of the night at our disposal. We can do Japa or we can do the chanting of the Mantra, Om Namah Sivaya. You can also meditate. It is a period of Sadhana. Functions like the Maha Śivaratri, Ramanavami, Janmashtami, Navaratri are not functions in the sense of festoons and celebrations for the satisfaction of the human mind; they are functions of the Spirit, they are celebrations of the Spirit. In as much as we are unable to think of God throughout the day, for all the 365 days of the year, such occasions are created, so that at least periodically we may recall to our memory our original destiny, our Divine Abode. The glory of God is displayed before us in the form of these spiritual occasions.


“Lord Siva is easily pleased. He is called Asutosh.
Asutosh means 'easily pleased'. He is not a difficult Person.
You can quickly please Lord Siva. If you call Him, He will come.”

-- Swami Krishnananda


On Sunday, 19 November 2012, Swami Ambikananda of the Traditional Yoga Association
spoke on BBC Radio Berkshire about Maha Shivaratri.