By Kumkum Bhatia
Mahaśivārarti – the great night of Lord Śiva – falls on 20 February. For most Hindus, it is a day and night of fasting and prayer. Devotees throng temples, sing beautiful bhajans, chant ‘Om namaḥ Śivāya’ and worship the Śiva Liṅgaṁ with milk, honey, bilva leaves etc. They pray to the Lord to shower them with blessings and auspiciousness.
Origin of Śivarātri
There are several legends about the origin of this festival. The auspicious marriage of Śivā and Pārvati is said to have been on Śivarātri. It is also the day when the Lord, in order to save the world, took the poison that emerged during the ‘Churning of the Ocean’. A legend in the Skanda Purana mentions that Śivā manifested as an endless pillar of fire. Both Brahmā and Viśnu tried, in vain, to locate the source or end of the wondrous column of light. Finally, Śivā appeared and stated that He would manifest on Śivarātri in the form of a Jyotir Liṅga.
The most famous tale is that of the poor tribal hunter who, chased by wild animals, climbed up a tree. In order to keep awake all night, he kept on plucking leaves and throwing them down. In the morning, the hunter saw that, inadvertently, he had thrown the leaves of a bilva tree on a Śivāliṅgā. Lord Śivā appeared and gave him liberation. This legend explains the importance of the nightlong worship of Śivā with bilva leaves on Śivarātri.
Symbolism of the Liṅgaṁ
Western scholars of the 19th century and later, failing to understand Hinduism, declared that the Śivaliṅgā was a phallic symbol. Unfortunately, many ‘educated’ Indians believe it too. In Sanskrit, the word liṅgā means a symbol or an indicator. Since the mind is incapable of directly comprehending the Formless, the Linga is an intermediary between the form and the formless. Its oval shape represents the entire universe. The top is the Pure Consciousness; the horizontal part depicts the interaction of matter with cosmic energy and the base represents the manifested world – one’s total world of objects, experiences, thoughts and emotions.
Hence, we worship this beautiful image so that we can see the Supreme in and through all the forms of the universe and awaken to our true infinite, divine and blissful nature.
Facets of Śivā
From the highest standpoint, Lord Śivā is the formless absolute Reality – the nature of pure Consciousness. From the cosmic perspective, He represents the Lord of the universe – the creator, sustainer and destroyer. In the departmental position, He is worshipped as the deity in charge of the power of destruction. Thus, we invoke the Lord to give us the capacity to destroy our attachments and ignoble thoughts. In His fourth aspect as a form that manifested on earth, Lord Śivā is said to have appeared in numerous incarnations as a guru avatar who teaches the knowledge of the Self to his disciples.
The Infinite is formless, but in order to bless humanity and make it easier for us to pray, He assumes various forms. Thus Śivā is worshipped as the Śivāliṅgā; as the Meditator in His ascetic form; as Śivā-Śakti – the creative aspect of the Supreme – and as Natāraj, the cosmic dancer that balances the rhythm of the universe by constructive destruction.