Reflections on Maha Shivaratri

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Whenever I think of Shiva, I think of Him seated in a meditative pose in the Himalayas, ash-smeared body burning with and radiating tapasya. I think of the moment I had darshan at Amarnath, surrounded by snowy peaks and glaciers, gazing upon the majestic ice linga in the cave. It was the most blessed moment of my life. It was the culmination of many pilgrimages attempted and undertaken. To me, Shiva represents all that is lofty and pure, all that is auspicious, the epitome of tapasya (fire born of spiritual practice).

While Sri Radha-Krsna is my ishta-devata (preferred form of Iswara for personal worship), I also have a special relationship with Shiva. Some of my most intense spiritual moments have been during pilgrimages to Shiva’s abode—in Kedarnath, Amarnath, and Tunganath, for example, and also, curiously, in Puri. As moved and inspired as I was by my visit to the Jagannath Mandir in Puri, my most memorable moment during my first trip to Puri came during an evening aarti at the Bharat Sevashram Temple in Puri. There was a Shiva linga there, and during the aarti, I felt Shiva asking me, “Will you surrender your life to Me?” I responded wholeheartedly and instantly, “Yes!” Since that moment, I have tried to make sadhana the first priority in my life. I haven’t always succeeded, but no matter how many times I fall, I remember that moment and somehow it gives me faith and strength to come back to the path of sadhana.

If Hinduism / Sanatana Dharma were stripped down to one deity, one form of Iswara, I think it would be Shiva as he embodies all aspects of our Dharma. No other deity encapsulates as perfectly both the nirguna (without form) and saguna (with form) aspects of Iswara, as explained in the Shiva Purana. Shiva belongs both to the acharyas (the mainstream preceptors of Hinduism) and to the avadhutas (realized ones who generally shun mainstream society and social conventions). He embodies the Vedas—perhaps the most sublime of Vedic hymns, the Rudram-Chamakam, is in His honor—yet, he is also the favored Lord of those who follow the Tantras. He is attainable by those who follow Dakshinachara (the right-handed path of sadhana, for those who follow socially accepted forms of worship) and those who follow Vamachara (the left-handed path of sadhana, associated with non-conventional forms of worship and what most people stereotypically associate with Tantra today). He is the most severe renunciate, yet He is also worshipped with Parvati as the Divine Couple in the form of Ardhanareeswara. He is the master of formless meditation and world-negating philosophy, but He is also the master of all the arts as Nataraja, Lord of music and dance. He represents the path of unrelenting austerity and penance, but He is also most pleased by the simple offering of abhishekha, bathing Him in his linga form. His favorite ganas (associates) are wild, grotesque and sometimes frightening, but of all the devas, He is the one who is most easily pleased, most easily moved to dispense boons and blessings. He is Iswara for all beings, in both his fierce and gentle forms, attainable through an astoundingly diverse number of paths and forms of worship.

Of all the different Hindu holidays, Maha Shivaratri is the most important one for me. It is the one day and night into which I can pour all the love I feel for Shiva. My regular routine of sadhana and puja does not include much worship of Shiva, at least not as much as I would like. This is the occasion when I can make it up to Him. This is one 24-hour period in which I can focus solely on Shiva.

I usually spend Maha Shivaratri at the Ganesh Temple in Flushing, NY, where the occasion is celebrated in an elaborate way with a lot of pomp and devotion. If for nothing else, I will always be grateful to this temple for the beautiful Maha Shivaratris I have spent there over the course of several years. As it happened, this year, due to various circumstances and Shiva’s wishes, I ended up spending Maha Shivaratri at the Broome Street Temple. It was a very fulfilling experience, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to observe the all-night vigil there.

The puja was beautifully performed with a lot of bhava, melodious chanting of Vedic hymns and uplifting kirtan that was performed all night. I was in an enraptured state all night, and the nearly twelve hours I spent there passed in a flash! It was also an inspiration to me to see what Eddie Stern-ji and the team of volunteers at the Broome Street Temple have accomplished—what is unique about this temple is its meticulous adherence to traditional worship in accordance with Adi Sankara’s parampara while also being modern, welcoming and inclusive. We should all support this temple and the great work that it is doing.

Last but certainly not least; this was a very special Maha Shivaratri for me because of an unexpected gift I received on this day. Since my trip to Mayapur in early January, I have been gripped by a desire to learn how to play the harmonium. I do not know exactly what I would do once I learn to play the harmonium (I have a feeling the neighbors in my apartment building aren’t going to be too thrilled about it! J ), but I feel Sri Radha-Krishna want me to play for Them as a way of pleasing Them. For the past two months, I have been doing some research on classes and teachers, but nothing was quite coming together. Then, all of a sudden, in the span of the last week or so, I was able to join a class that feels like it will be perfect for me. Once I found the class, my next thought was, how do I get a harmonium? The day before Maha Shivaratri, in a serendipitous way, without any effort on my part, I got connected with a devotee who was able to provide me the harmonium I wanted. He brought it for me to the Broome Street Temple on Maha Shivaratri night. This turn of events also led me to participate in the special Maha Shivaratri celebration at the Broome Street Temple, which I may have otherwise missed.

This was a blessing to me and deeply meaningful for a variety of reasons. One, anything coming on Maha Shivaratri is auspicious, and this was especially true with respect to the harmonium since Shiva is the Lord of Music and Dance. Second, wherever my harmonium practice leads, it is a comfort to feel that I have Shiva’s blessings as well as Sri Radha-Krishna’s. Perhaps most importantly of all, I think Sri Radharani, Sri Krsna and Shiva wanted the harmonium to come to me on Maha Shivaratri to remind me that I need in my life both worship of Shiva and worship of Sri Radha-Krishna, that my Vaishnava practices are not in conflict but in harmony with other modalities of worship, that worship of one strengthens my worship of the other. This reminds me that when I worship one, I worship the other as well. There is no greater blessing for me than to know that an instrument through which I will practice devotion for Sri Radha-Krishna has come through the hands and with the blessings of Shiva. I think that is how Sri Radha-Krishna wanted it, too. This is a reaffirmation to me of the famous shloka from the Skanda Purana:

shivAya viShNu rUpAya shiva-rUpAya vishnave;
shivasya hRdayaM viShNuH viShNoshcha hRdayaM shivaH
yathA shivamayo vishnur evaM vishnumayaH shivaH;

(Shiva is the form of Vishnu and Vishnu is the form of Shiva. Shiva’s heart (essence) is Vishnu and Vishnu’s heart is Shiva. Just as Vishnu is full of Shiva, so is Shiva is full of Vishnu.)

My heartfelt obeisances to Shiva! Har Har Mahadev! Om Namah Shivaya! I hope all of you have had a blessed and auspicious Maha Shivaratri!

As a bonus treat, while I was looking up the exact words of the shloka above, I found this lovely hymn from the Harivamsha Mahapurana (part of the Mahabharata), which I’ve copied below with some minor modifications from http://ramakrishnananda.com/forum/read.php?3,1228:

markandeya uvaca
Shivaya vishnu-rupaya
vishnave Shiva-rupine
yathantaram na pashyami
tena tau dishatah Shivam

(Markandeya said: I do not see any difference between Shiva in the form of Vishnu and Vishnu in the form of Shiva They provide auspiciousness to the world.)

anadim adhya nidhanam
etad aksharam avyayam
tad eva te pravakshyami
rupam hariharatmakam

(I proclaim that the form with the soul of Hari (Vishnu) and Hara (Shiva) has no beginning, middle and end (destruction). This form is imperishable and having no decline.)

yo vishnuh sa tu vai rudro
yo Rudrah sa pita-mahah
eka murtis trayo deva
Rudra-vishnu-pitamahah

(The one who is Vishnu is Shiva himself. The one who is Shiva is the grandfather. The manifestation is one for the three lords, Rudra (Shiva), Vishnu (Krishna) and the grandfather (Brahma).)

varada loka-kartaro
loka-nathah svayam-bhuvah
ardha-narishvaras te tu
vratam tivram samasthitah

(They provide boons, they are the creators of the world, they are lords of the world, they are born from themselves, they are the half woman-man lord, observing severe penances.)

yatha jale jalam kshiptam
jalam eva tu tad bhavet
Rudram vishnuh pravishtas tu
tatha Rudra-mayo bhavet

(As water that falls on water becomes water, when Vishnu enters Rudra (Shiva), he (Vishnu) will become full of Rudra (Shiva).)

agnim agnih pravishtastu
agnireva yatha bhavet
tatha vishnum pravishtastu
rudro vishnu-mayo bhavet

(As fire that enters fire becomes fire, when Rudra (Shiva) enters Vishnu, he (Rudra, Shiva ) will become full of Vishnu.)

Rudram agnim ayam vidyad
vishnuh somatmakah smritah
agni-somatmakam caiva
jagat-sthavarajangamam

(Remember that Rudra (Shiva) has the soul of fire and Vishnu has the soul of soma (nectar, moon). All the world including the fixed and movable beings have the combined souls of fire and soma (Shiva and Vishnu).)

kartarau capahartarau
sthavarasya carasya tu
jagatah shubha-kartarau
prabha-vishnu maheshvarau

(Splendorous Vishnu and the great lord (Shiva) - both do good for the world. They are the creators as well as the destroyers of the fixed and moving beings.)

kartri-karana-kartarau
kartri-karana-karakau
bhuta-bhavya-bhavau devau
narayana-maheshvarau

(Both the lords, Narayana (Vishnu) and the great lord (Shiva) are the creators of the creation and reason. They are the creators of all beings. Both of them are the past, future and the present.)

ete caiva pravarshanti
bhanti vanti srijanti ca
etat parataram guhyam
kathitam te pitamaha

(They alone cause the rain in the world, light up the world (as sun), move in the world (as wind) and create the world. O grandfather! I have described the highest secret to you.)

yash cainam pathate nityam
yash cainam shrinuyan narah
prapnoti paramam sthanam
vishnu-Rudra-prasadajam

(The man who studies this daily and the one who hears it (daily) will ultimately attain the highest place due to the pleasure of Vishnu and Rudra.)

devau hariharau stoshye
Brahmana saha sangatau
etau ca paramau devau
jagatah prabhavapyayau

(I worship the lords Hari (Vishnu) and Hara (Shiva) along with Brahma. They are the supreme lords, responsible for the creation and destruction of the world.)

Rudrasya paramo vishnur
vishnosh ca paramah Shivah
eka eva dvidha bhuto
loke carati nityashah

(The supreme lord of Rudra (Shiva) is Vishnu and the supreme lord of Vishnu is Shiva (Rudra). The same lord is moving in the world always in two forms.)

na vina shankaram vishnur
na vina keshavam Shivah
tasmad ekatva-mayatau
rudropendrau tu tau pura

(Vishnu does not exist without Shankara (Shiva) and Shiva does not exist without Keshava (Vishnu). Hence, Rudra (Shiva) and Upendra (Krishna-Vishnu) have attained oneness, since long before.)

namo rudraya krishnaya
namah samhata carine

(I bow to Rudra (Shiva). I bow to Krishna. I bow to the one moving in the combined form.)

namah shad-ardha-netraya
sad-vinetraya vai namah
namah pingala-netraya
padma-netraya vai namah

(I bow to the one having half of six (three) eyes (Shiva). I bow to the one having two eyes (Vishnu). I bow to the one having reddish brown eyes (Shiva). I bow to the one having eyes as beautiful as the lotus flower (Vishnu).)

namah kumara-gurave
pradyumna-gurave namah

namo dharani-dharaya
ganga-dharaya vai namah

(I bow to the preceptor (Shiva) of Kumara (Subrahmanya). I bow to the preceptor of Pradyumna (Krishna-Vishnu). I bow to the one who holds the earth (Vishnu). I bow to the one who carries Ganga (Shiva).)

namo mayura-picchaya
namah keyura-dharine
namah kapala-malaya
vana-malaya vai namah

(I bow to the one who wears peacock feather (Krishna - Vishnu). I bow to the one having bracelets of serpents (Shiva). I bow to the one wearing a garland of skulls (Shiva). I bow to the one wearing a garland of forest flowers (Vishnu).)

namas trishula-hastaya
cakra-hastaya vai namah
namah kanaka-dandaya
namaste Brahma-dandine

(I bow to the one holding the trident (Shiva). I bow to the one holding the chakra (Vishnu). I bow to the one holding the golden staff (Vishnu). I bow to the one holding the staff of Brahma (Shiva).)

namash carmani-vasaya
namaste pitavasase
namo stu lakshmi-pataye
uma yah pataye namah

(I bow to the one wearing the tiger skin (Shiva). I bow to the one wearing the yellow dress. I bow to the husband of Lakshmi (Vishnu). I bow to the husband of Uma (Shiva).)

namah khatvanga-dharaya
namo musala-dharine
namo bhasmanga-ragaya
namah krishnanga-dharine

(I bow to the one holding a staff with skull on top (khatvanga) (Shiva). I bow to the one holding the mace (Balarama -Vishnu). I bow to the one who smears ashes on the body (Shiva). I bow to the one having a dark body (Krishna-Vishnu).)

namah shmashana-vasaya
namah sagara-vasine
namo vrishabha-vahaya
namo garuda-vahine

(I bow to the one who lives in the burial places (Shiva). I bow to the one who lives in the ocean (Vishnu). I bow to the one having he bull as his vehicle (Shiva). I bow to the one having Garuda as his vehicle (Vishnu).)

namas tvaneka-rupaya
bahu-rupaya vai namah
namah pralaya-kartre ca
namas trailokya-dharine

(I bow to the one having not one (many) forms (Vishnu). I bow to the one having numerous forms (Shiva). I bow to the creator of deluge (Shiva). I bow to the one who holds the three worlds (Vishnu).)

namo stu saumya-rupaya
namo bhairava-rupine
virupskshaya devaya
namah saumyekshanaya ca

(I bow to the one having a gentle form (Vishnu). I bow to the one having a terrible form (Shiva). I bow to the lord who is diversely eyed (Shiva). I bow to the one having a gentle look.)

daksha-yajña-vinashaya
baler niyama-naya ca
namah parvata-vasaya
namah sagaravasine

(I bow to the destroyer of the sacrifice of Daksha (Shiva). I bow to the one who bound Bali (Vamana - Vishnu). I bow to the one who resides on the mountain (Shiva). I bow to the one who resides in the ocean (Vishnu).)

namah sura-ripughnaya
tripura-ghnaya vai namah
namo stu naraka-ghnaya
namah kamaanga-naShine

(I bow to the slayer of the enemies of devas (Vishnu). I bow to the slayer of Tripuras (Shiva). I bow to the slayer of Naraka (Krishna - Vishnu). I bow to the one who destroyed the limbs (and body) of Kama (Shiva).)

namas tvan dhaka nashaya
namah kaitabha nashine
namah sahasra hastaya
namo sankhyeyabahave

(I bow to the slayer of Andhaka (Shiva). I bow to the slayer of Kaitabha (Vishnu). I bow to the one having thousand arms (Vishnu). I bow to the one having many arms (Shiva).)

namah sahasra-Shirshaya
bahu-Shirshaya vai namah
damodaraya devaya
muñja-mekhaline namah

(I bow to the one having thousand heads (Vishnu). I bow to the one having many heads (Shiva). I bow to lord Damodara (Krishna - Vishnu). I bow to the lord wearing garland of grass on his waist.)

namaste bhagavan vishno
namaste bhagavañ chiva
namaste bhagavan deva
namaste deva-pujita

(O lord Vishnu! I bow to you. O lord Shiva! I bow to you. O lord! I bow to you. O lord who is worshipped by the gods! I bow to you.)

namaste samabhir gita
namaste yajubhih saha
namaste sura-shatrughna
namaste sura-pujita

(O lord who is praised by the verses of Sama! I bow to you. O lord who is praised by the verses of Yajus! I bow to you. I bow to you! O slayer of the enemies of devas! O the one who is worshipped by devas! I bow to you.)

namaste karminam karma
namo mita-para-krama
hrishikesha namaste stu
svarnakesha namo stu te

(I bow to the lord who is the action of the performers. I bow to the one having unlimited valiance! O the lord of senses (Vishnu)! I bow to you. O the one with golden hair (Shiva)! I bow to you.)

The author received a B.A. in International Relations, magna cum laude, from Tufts University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. She is a practicing attorney in the greater New York area. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the World Association for Vedic Studies (WAVES). She is a co-editor of Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America. She has published several essays in Outlook India. Her other publications include: “Hindu-Americans: An Emerging Identity in an Increasingly Hyphenated World”, which is included in The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America since 1945; “The Hyphenated Hindus”, in Outlook India; “Hindu-American: Both Sides of the Hyphen”, in Silicon India; and “Hindu Pride”, in Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America (Jon Butler
et al. eds., Oxford University Press). She is interested in the preservation and revival of the spiritual practices and traditions associated with Sanatana Dharma. Her blog is Click here to read.

Also read
1. The Great Night of Shiva and Parvati
2. Pictures of 12 Jyotirlings
3. Pictures of Shiv Temples
4. About Shivaratri
5. Siva – His Cosmic Form and Dance by T N Sethumadhavan
6. Mrityunjaya Mantra
7. Basavanna and Vir Saivism – Lingayat Movement
8. Pictures of Mount Kailash Yatra