20 February 2012

2012 Mahashivaratri Legends and Significance

Each month there is day known as Sivaratri and once a year there is Mahashivaratri (maha=great) -- the Great Festival of Shiva. The dates of these occasions correspond to certain phases of the new moon when it is believed that the mind (which is adversely affected by the power of the moon) is less susceptible to low, animalistic forces and thus more tractable to the power of meditation and prayer.

It is for this reason that Mahashivaratri is believed to be the one 24-hour period in the year which is of the greatest benefit. It has been stated in the scriptures that if a man fasts, stays awake and meditates for the whole of Mahashivaratri, it will give him his best chance to achieve mastery of the mind and attain liberation.

Mahashivaratri always falls on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight of Phalguna (February-March), and is dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva. (Mahashivaratri in 2012 falls on Monday, February 20th). On this day devotees sing Shiva bhajans, recite verses from scriptures, offer prayers in the morning and evening, and some observe fasting throughout the day. People visit Shiva Temples and in the case of Arunachala, premier Shiva site of South India, circumambulation of Arunachala Hill is observed by many.

The name Shiva signifies a quality that means 'Auspicious' or 'The Auspicious One'. To a few, Shiva is Paramatman, Brahman, the Absolute, but many more prefer to see Shiva as a personal God given to compassion for his worshippers, and the dispenser of both spiritual and material blessings. Related to the Absolute concept is Shiva as Yoganath, the Lord of Yoga, wherein he becomes teacher, path and goal. As such he is the Adi Guru or Highest Guru of sannyasins who have renounced the world to attain the Absolute.

One of the early traditions, is Shiva in the form of Dakshinamurti; the South-Facing Guru. In this form, seated on a low platform, with one leg hanging down in front, he communicated the Sanatana Dharma or Eternal Wisdom to the four Kumaras who appeared early in creation. The Guru spoke no words but taught them by the transmission of mind-to-mind, and its purpose was to show that man can realise the Absolute when the human mind is in complete equipoise with the Cosmic Mind.

While almost all other festivals are celebrated during the day, Mahashivaratri is celebrated at night: and night stands for all that is evil; ignorance, darkness, sin, violence, treachery, falsehood, and misfortune. Mythology says that Shiva appeared to save the world from Tamoguna (darkness and ignorance).

There are a number of legends connected with the origin of Shivaratri. One such legend is that Lord Shiva and the Goddess Parvati were married on this day.

Our own Arunachala legend, proclaims it to be the day Lord Shiva appeared as a luminous Jyotilingam before Brahma and Vishnu.

On Mahashivaratri, Lord Shiva is Lingodbhavamurti, the pillar of fire that spans all, with no beginning and no end. The devout believe that they are on their way to oneness with Shiva, that they will join with the Supreme after hours of darkness spent in fasting and prayer. The worship of Lingodbhavamurti is with the leaves of the bilva, gathered from quince trees. The lingam is showered, unceasingly, with basketfuls of these, and other flowers, (just as the hunter in the below legend once did).

And it is believed that on the day of Mahashivaratri, all twelve Jyotirlingams of India manifested.

Shiva Purana legend about the Hunter and the Lingam:-

“In ancient times, a Bheel (forest inhabitant) named Gurudruha trudged through a forest to hunt deer. At night, without having sighted a single animal, he climbed a Bilva (Aegle marmelos) tree on the banks of a lake. Later at night, a doe arrived to drink water. Gurudruha aimed his bow and arrow at her. While aiming, he unknowingly dropped some Bilva leaves and his drinking water below on a Shivalingam that happened to be under the tree. The deer then requested him to allow her to entrust her fawns to her husband, after which she would return. After much haggling he agreed.

While awaiting her return, he stayed awake by aimlessly plucking leaves and dropping them below. Again they fell on the Shivalingam. Thus he unknowingly performed its puja (worship) while remaining awake all night. Finally the doe returned with her family, She informed him that along with her, he'd have to kill her family too. As he aimed, some more leaves fluttered down on the Shivalingam.

The collective punya (spiritual merit) accrued from the puja performed unknowingly, eradicated all his sins. This purified his heart. Repenting his flawed life of sin, he set the deer free. As he sat repenting, Lord Shiva manifested in front of him and granted him a boon, "You shall be born in a town known as Shrungver, as a man named Gruha. Lord Vishnu will grace your home as Lord Rama and redeem you." (This event is described in the Ramayana.) Shiva also blessed the deer, which attained a better destiny.”

Another legend of Mahashivaratri traces the origin of this festival to the churning of the Ocean of Milk by devas (gods) and asuras (demons). It is said that when both gods and demons were churning the Ocean of Milk to obtain amrita (water of immortal life), they came across many unusual substances, including the deadly poison Kalakuta. As soon as they touched the poison, it exploded into poisonous fumes that threatened to envelope the entire Universe with darkness.

When the destruction of the Universe seemed inevitable, the gods ran for assistance from Brahma and Vishnu, but neither was able to help. At last they ran to Lord Shiva, who raised his trident and condensed the fumes. In order to save the creation, Shiva swallowed the poison without spilling a single drop. The poison left a dark blue mark on Shiva's throat. The gods praised and worshipped Shiva for saving the Universe.

The Ocean of Milk represents the ideal world that is full of peace and happiness for all human beings. Churning the Ocean of Milk signifies the human activity in the world. The amrita symbolizes happiness and the poison represents human greed and selfishness. Shiva symbolizes the atman (self), and worship of Shiva denotes meditation and contemplation by an individual on his or her own self.

Thus the only way to achieve peace and happiness is by worshipping Shiva at night, that is, by meditating on one's own self during the night when the individual is free from the distractions of the physical world. When the individual attains self-knowledge, he or she can live in the world without being affected by anger, greed, and selfishness, the three enemies of one's soul. Mahashivaratri symbolizes the worship of the atman within.

On the night of Mahashivaratri one can devote oneself to the chanting of the Vedic Rudram, or the five-syllable mantra of Shiva - Om Namah Shivaya - and on meditating on Him, thereby remembering one's ultimate goal, which is God Realization, the purpose of human birth. By ascending to the top of Arunachala within oneself, and trying to experience the presence of the God Shiva within as one's very own self, and simultaneously as the Universal Self permeating the entire universe, one draws close to Lord Shiva on this night.

On this day it is easy to please Lord Shiva by fasting and prayer. The main prayer is usually conducted during the night. Every three hours the devotee worships Lord Shiva in the form of a Shiva Lingam and bathing the Lingam with milk, ghee, honey, curd, rose water, etc. Lord Shiva is also greatly pleased by the offering of Bilva leaves. This worship is replicated in the worship at the Arunachaleswarar Temple which will take place tonight:

1st Kala Puja Night (20th February) 8.30 p.m.
2nd Kala Puja Night (20th February) 11.00 p.m.
3rd Kala Puja Morning (21st February) 02.00 a.m.
4th Kala Puja Morning (21st February) 04.00 a.m.

I will post photographs of the Mahashivaratri celebrations at Arunachaleswarar Temple when they become available.

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