What is the Spiritual Significance of Maha Shivaratri?

Lord Shiva

What is the Spiritual Significance of Maha Shivaratri?

by Jayaram V

Question: Is it necessary that devotees shall keep a vigil on the night of Maha Shivaratri?

Like many other rituals of Hinduism, celebrating Maha Shivaratri is a symbolic act with a hidden meaning and great spiritual significance. You are probably aware that Shiva is the lord of the night. The night or the dark color symbolically represents tamoguna, which is responsible for the animal nature (pasutvam) of the living beings. In Shaivism all jivas (living beings) are called pasus (animals) because they are predominantly filled with tamas and to some degree with rajas. The mode of sattva is predominant only in a few people who are pure and spiritually advanced.

However, it does not mean that Shiva is a force of darkness, but the controller of it, which is symbolically depicted in his iconography as him riding the bull, Nandi. If you observe the night sky, you will find that the whole universe or space is rather dark only, and light is confined to a few blinking stars. Therefore, Shiva is rightly considered, Isvara or Maheswara, the lord of the universe. Shiva is your essential nature, your true self, whose nature is pure consciousness (sahaja vidya). He is the resplendent light which pierces through that darkness and which you may occasionally glimpse in moments of heightened awareness.

When you worship him, he awakens in you along with his pure energies (shaktis) and rids you of your animal nature, transforming you into a living embodiment of Shiva. Liberation is the journey of the jiva from animality to divinity, and from being a suffering and bound jiva to a blissful and self-existent Shiva. When you are caught in samsara, you are subject to the play of Maya shaktis. When you awaken, you become their lord. Your body then becomes a playground of higher shaktis, with your head as Kailash, the mountain of lofty thoughts and the seat of pure consciousness.

Those who are interested in the ritual aspects of Maha Shivaratri and worship Shiva as the supreme deity know that it is an auspicious day for his devotees, a day of awakening, expiation and reckoning which offers an opportunity to cleanse oneself and start over again. On this day, they worship him with great fervor, visit his temples, make various offerings to Shiva lingams, chant prayers, sing bhajans and observe complete fast until the worship is complete in the midnight. Devotees also keep a vigil and remain awake throughout the night.

Maha Shivaratri (the great day of Shiva) is so called because it is the most auspicious of the 12 Shivaratris which recur on every Chaturdasi or the 13/14th day of the dark half-moon period in a year. Maha Shivaratri is celebrated on the day in which Chaturdasi falls completely in the night, unlike the other Shivaratris. It usually happens in the lunar month of Magha (February/March), or according to some calendars in Phalguna, while according to the standard Gregorian calendar which we all follow worldwide, it falls on the same date in both cases.

From a spiritual perspective, for the beings who are caught in the cycle of births and deaths and suffering from the triple impurities of egoism (anava), attachments (pasas) and delusion (moha), every day is a day of Shivaratri, since they are all caught in tamasic ignorance or in the darkness of their own minds and cannot perceive the resplendent Shiva who is hidden in them and who represents their essential nature. We are all Shiva’s who are caught in the darkness of our own minds. We cannot see the truth of ourselves and cannot realize our true nature because we are asleep.

The day when we awaken the Shiva in us is the day of Maha Shivaratri. Those who awaken thus, do not have to keep the night vigil because they always remain awake. As the Upanishads declare, for such awakened souls, what ordinary people consider day is night, and what they consider night is day. For them, every day is not Shivaratri but Maha Shivaratri, the auspicious day of awakening. They perceive the world as an extension of themselves and as a play of their projection. Even though they seem to be a part of the dream, they are not in the dream since they are awake in all the four states of consciousness, and they have suffused their wakeful, dream and sleep states with the brilliance of the transcendental pure (turiya) consciousness.

Therefore, it is up to you, whether you want to ritually worship Shiva on the day of Maha Shivaratri or spiritually awaken him in you and celebrate it every day.

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