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Maha Sivaratri and Hindu traditions

Maha Sivaratri, the great night consecrated to Lord Siva is an important fast which falls on amavasai, the night of the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight in Maasi (mid February – mid March) Through the fast, vigilance, prayer and meditation man strives to free himself from the shackles of the world.

Lord Siva

In Hindu tradition fasting means Upavasa, mentally sitting near the Lord and gaining bliss. The Sivaratri fast is austere and rigorous of all the fasts and observances of the Hindus. The devotee fasts the whole day and engages himself in worship of God.

The vigil at night is all important in this fast; the night is stressed because it signifies the darkness of the world of senses and through fast and prayer the devotee passes from darkness to light; from night to day. Such fasting becomes a self-imposed form of discipline where the senses are controlled and desires are greatly sublimated.

It was on this night that Siva revealed Himself as the lingam in a column of light in Tiruvanaamalai to dispel all doubts as to who is the Almighty God. Tradition has it that a dispute arose between the Creator, and the Preserver, of the universe as to who is the greater of the two - was it the one who created or the one who preserved.

This argument was solved by the Almighty Siva, who manifested Himself as a huge column of Light rising from a bottomless base to limitless heights of this universe saying, ‘Seek the beginning and the summit; who ever could find the one end would be the greater of the two.’

One took the form of a swan and flew upwards to seek the summit, while the other took the form of a boar and burrowed downwards to seek the beginning. They were both seeking with pride and arrogance that great light which has neither a beginning nor an end and they failed. He appeared through this effulgence as the Sivalingam and granted them illumination.

This merely shows that the pride of learning and possessions, creating and preserving are inimical to the realisation of the absolute.

Saint Appar refers to this incident where Siva said, ‘I am here,’ appeared in the form of the lingam between the two as, ‘’ ....Ingutren andru lingaththe thondrinaan….”’

And continues with deep devotion saying, “I sought Him and I found Him in my very being.’

The lingam from which Siva revealed Himself on Maha Sivaratri, is the Sivalingam - the perfect symbol of the formless all pervading divine spirit which is discernible in all the operations of the phenomenal universe. ‘’The lingam is ‘a sign’, ‘an image’ of the rhythmic creation and destruction of the universe which expresses itself in forms and periodically returns to its primal preformal unity before being reborn,’’ describes Eliade.

The concept of the lingam as known to us, came down from the Indus Valley culture and during the Vedic age this concept was beautifully incorporated as the symbolic expression of transcendentalism, the Infinite being rendered in the formless symbol.

To the Vedic rishi, the formless is the lingam and tradition has it that they used the smooth egg shaped stones untouched by human craftsmen as the symbol of worship and placed them under trees supported by the form of a serpent.

God in reality is formless, but yet all forms are His forms. The Lingotbhava form is symbolic of both His formlessness and form, explaining the transcendental essence of God. It is symbolic of form, because it has the oval shape, and it is formless because it has neither head no limbs.

The very conception of a lingam denotes something which has neither a beginning nor an end.

The All-pervading formless Siva as seen in the lingam is the ever pure undying Soul, residing in the chamber of the heart.

He is the Indweller, the Atmalingam deep within each one. He is Omnipresent and all-pervasive. By the very nature of these qualities, He cannot have any form. Hence He is formless, but takes a form in order to bless us mortals.The lingam is the symbol of worship on Sivaraatri and all the observances are connected to it.

The Sivaratri puja

The Maha Sivaratri pujas consist of abhishekams or anointing, archanais or offerings and naamasmaranam singing the name of the Lord, performed in the four watches or yaamas of the night from dusk to dawn.

Abhishekam consists of anointing the deity with materials such as milk, curd, ghee for the first yaama, five varieties of fruits, the panchaamirtam for the second yaama, honey for the third yaama and perfumed water for the last yaama. Milk, honey, fruit, curd and ghee are symbolic of the five internal faculties which sustain the Jiva and through the five faculties observe internal abhishekam. Water, milk, curd, ghee, sandal-paste, honey, fruits, perfumed water used for abhishekam of the lingam or any deity, have been tested and found to produce a rich negative ion concentration after abhishekam. Repeated abhishekams create an electrical charge in the lingam or deity and this energy plus the negative ions are inhaled by the devotees during arati with camphor when the air within the sanctum sanctorum is dispelled into the hall.

Some rituals in progress

Abhishekams are followed by archanai, the floral offerings of lotus, thulasi, vilva and nandiyavatta at each yaama. Of these the sacred vilva is the most important and most effective of the offerings on Maha Sivaratri. The words, eka vilvam sivaarpanam, tell us that even a single vilva leaf is sufficient for this Siva puja and if offered with a full heart and a devoted mind is sufficient to ward off trijanma paapam, the sins of three births.

Of the abhishekams and pujas, the Lingotbhava abhishekam and puja are the most important aspect of the Sivaratri puja. The Lingotbhava murti which is installed in the niche in the outer wall of the sanctum sanctorum in a Sivan Temple, is the object of veneration at the midnight yaama.

The Lingotbhava murti is depicted as emerging out of the lingam with the top half of the head and the bottom half of the legs cut off.

The axe and the deer are seen carved while a swan in flight at the top of the lingam and a boar burrowing the earth at the bottom, are also depicted. This depicts the story where Brahma and Vishnu took the forms of swan and boar, to look for the summit and the base of the column of Light.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Lingotbhava murti is the rare combination of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, the conception of the creator, preserver and destroyer all in one; this clearly shows the tatvam that God is one, Full and All-pervading. Ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti,’ Truth is one but forms are many,’ is the Upanishadic saying.

As one watches these ceremonies, the Lingotbhava murti appears to grow upward and downward - a strange experience which could be attributed to the skill of the artist who sculptured this effect through subtle mouldings.

The Lingotbhava puja is followed by the last yaama puja.

At this last yaama, the slender streak of the first moon in its last phase disappears from darkness by joining the resplendent rising Sun.

This is symbolic of the illumination, the Moksha one achieves - where the Jivaatman the moon, merges with the Paramaatman the Sun, on this Amaavaasai thithi.

Conclusion

Thus when one analyses the arduous fast, one could say that the observance of Sivaratri is a fore-runner of one’s intense and constant saadhana for God realisation. Man’s whole life on this earth could be likened to the raatri. By observing vigil during this raatri of the worldly life in which one tends to get enmeshed, man is made to realise the dangers of getting unduly involved and thereby forgets the real purpose of his life in this world.

Instead of looking for happiness in external objects, these fasts help to look inward. Repeating God’s name, and the Panchaakshara mantram, performing abhishekams and archanais with the vision of His beautiful form in the mind, is indeed a mighty purifying effect on any devotee.May all the aspiring souls in the world be divinely inspired that they may understand the spiritual lesson and the significance of this grand Sivaraatri fast thereby enabling them to reach their ultimate goal.

 

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