Lesson 1: About Mahāśivarātri
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Every year, in late winter, under the crescent moon, we celebrate a truly sacred event: Mahāśivarātri, the great night in honor of Lord Śiva.
It is one of the most holy - and to some, the holiest - times in the year. Most sacred celebrations occur in the daytime; this is one of the few that is at night. In fact, it is traditional to stay up and practice all night - the modern Hindi term for this practice is jāgran. We also practice upavāsa, which is a very specific and gentle type of fast that you can learn more about in Lesson 2.
Throughout the night, we invoke and experience Mahādeva Śiva’s presence and blessings through worship, (generally by performing abhiṣekha of the śivalinġa), mantra recitation (japa), chanting ancient prayers and hymns (for example, the Rūdram or Liṅgāṣṭakam). Most of all, we experience Bhagavān Śiva by turning towards our innermost self and silently meditating. These practices continue throughout the night until sunrise.
All of this might seem quite intimidating and intense, especially if you are new to the tradition. In fact, Lord Śiva himself might seem quite intimidating and intense! But who is he and what are we honoring exactly? And why do we honor him in this way?
Lord Śiva is one of the most misunderstood deities in the tradition - and in fact, so much so that even the ancient mythologies joke around about how even other deities do not always recognize or understand him. In the West, we inaccurately refer to him as “the Hindu god of destruction”.
Destruction connotes violence and horror. However, Śiva-jī is the absolute opposite - his name means “auspiciousness”, and he is an embodiment of pure love and compassion. He doesn’t destroy so much as effortlessly dissolve. Dissolution can seem like destruction, at least superficially, but its purpose is benevolent. It frees us from duality and limited states of being that cause suffering.
For example, when we sit for meditation, we slowly let go of certain judgments, opinions, and toxic feelings. Our concepts and even our pride may get destroyed, but we are actually happier and more free as a result. This is the sort of "destruction" Śiva blesses us with. If we embrace it, we experience it as pure grace.
Speaking of meditation, Lord Śiva is also the lord of meditation and yoga. He exists in the highest state of absolute truth, consciousness, and joy (sat-cit-ānanda). This is also why he is called the primordial guru - he embodies the highest state of self-realization. Whenever we experience pure presence, pure beingness, we are experiencing him.
As a deity, Lord Śiva has many fascinating and even paradoxical qualities and forms. For example, he is a total ascetic and also a passionate husband. He is pure self-mastery dressed as a crazy wild man. He is pure love and total annihilation. He contains all the active power of the universe and yet remains in total stillness. He is both the Supreme Presence (bhava) and the Eternal Void (mahāśūnya)...
It would actually take eternity to describe everything he is, but we invite you to start discovering some of his many amazing attributes in Lesson 3 anyway.
And, to be clear, even though we are using the masculine pronoun to refer to Lord Śiva, “he” is not a he, as in, a male person! For the purpose of communicating teachings through mythology and sacred art, we personify Lord Śiva as a "he". To learn more about this, explore Lesson 4.
In Śaivite lineages, Lord Śiva refers to the eternal, formless, infinite beingness from whom all creation emanates and returns, i.e. God. (Vaiṣṇava traditions ascribe this role to Śrī Viṣṇu; Śāktas claim that Śaktī - the Goddess - is everything, and so on... but the underlying principles are similar).
For Śaivites, Lord Śiva is not only our source, he is EVERYTHING that exists, existed, and could exist. Whatever is happening is happening within Śiva. In fact, WE are all Śiva. He is the cosmic oneness. To honor Śiva is actually to honor everything, including our own self.
Each one of our Mahāśivarātri practices helps us experience him. Each one cultivates his qualities within us:
Stillness. Self-mastery. Clarity. Freedom. Love. Unity. Presence.
As we stay awake through the night, we strengthen our resolve and self-discipline. Like Mahādeva Śiva, we remain fearless, still, and alert even in the darkness. Like him, we also allow the beautiful crescent moon to soothe and illumine our minds.
As we practice upavāsa, we lovingly bring stillness and balance to our minds and bodies, and support our ability to turn within.
By reciting scriptures, we affirm the highest truth. As we repeat mantras, we immerse our entire being in sacred and quiet pools of vibration. Our mind, body, and soul experiences the bliss of unity, of unbroken presence.
As we do pūjā (ritual worship) and abhiṣekha (ritual bathing) of the śivaliṅga, we experience the deep protection and blessing power of the sacred column of light within. We recognize, with awe and humility, the vastness and sovereignty of divine power. As the milk, honey, sugar, ghee, yoghurt, and rose water cascade down the liṅgaṃ, we remember not to be afraid - we see how sweet, gentle, nourishing, radiant, and beautiful the divine is.
Lastly, as we meditate, we too experience the unconditional love within our hearts and the pure bliss of being. As we turn within, we understand why they say Lord Śiva is the easiest deity to please - just look inside, call his name, and he is right... there. In you. As you. And always with you.
May you have a blessed and beautiful Mahāśivarātri.