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The meaning of Shivratri

The meaning of Shivratri

Shivaratri is one of the holiest nights of the year. It is the night dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva. Literally, Shivratri means, “The great night of Shiva.” It is celebrated on the 13th or 14th day of the dark half of the month of Phalguna (February - March).

In the trinity of the manifestations of the Supreme Reality – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – Lord Shiva is the one who destroys that which is old and impure in order to make room for a new creation of that which is pure and divine. Lord Shiva annihilates our egos, our attachments and our ignorance. Many fear Lord Shiva’s destructive capacity, and yet it is destruction for the purpose of regeneration. Without death, life cannot begin anew. Without the annihilation of old habits, attachments and ego, we cannot progress toward the goal of God realization. Unless our “vessel” has been emptied of all that is old, negative and impure, it cannot be filled with divine qualities.

The holiday of Shivratri is celebrated by performing special Shiva puja and Abhishek as well as by remaining awake at night in meditation, kirtan and japa. During the course of the night, the Abhishek can be performed every three hours with water, milk, yogurt, honey, etc. Bel (bilva) leaves are frequently offered during Shiva puja, as it is believed that Maha Lakshmi resides within them, and it is considered particularly auspicious to offer them on this occasion.

It is said that the offering of Bel leaves on the occasion of Shivratri is so auspicious that even one who offers them unknowingly (as in the case of the hunter Suswara) will attain liberation.

Bhagwan Shiva is portrayed with ash on his forehead, and devotees of Lord Shiva frequently apply sacred ash to various parts of their body. This symbolizes two things. Everything that today has a form on the Earth once was ash in the ground and again will be reduced to nothing but ash. Therefore, the ash serves to remind us that all that we are, all that we do, all that we earn and acquire will only be reduced to ash one day, and therefore we should live our lives dedicated to God and dedicated to serving humanity, rather than to the accumulation of temporary possessions and comfort. When we apply the sacred ash or see it, we are reminded “Ah yes, it is only by the grace of Lord Shiva that I am still here today, and that I have not yet been turned to ash. It is His grace that my home, my family and my possessions are still with me and that they have not become ash. Therefore, I should remember Him, pray to Him and devote myself to Him.”

The stories and the messages of Bhagwan Shiva are innumerable; however, one of the most important is the story of how He – for the sake of humanity – swallowed the poison which emerged from the ocean.

The story says that the devas and their brothers, the demons, were churning the ocean in search of the pot of the nectar of immortality. However, after a great deal of effort, what emerged was not nectar, but poison!! This happens frequently in life as well. When we embark upon a divine plan or when we undertake a noble challenge, frequently before the success comes, before our effort bears fruit, we face failure or condemnation or seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Yet, we must never give up.

The devas and demons knew that in order to continue churning, and ultimately to unearth the Divine nectar, they could not simply toss the poison aside. Someone had to drink it. But, naturally, no one was willing to drink the poison. Everyone had some excuse for why he or she was too valuable to be sacrificed. Finally, Bhagwan Shiva came forward, very calmly and with serene poise. He said “I will drink the poison if it will preserve peace in the family and enable my brothers and sisters to attain the nectar of immortality.”

After drinking the poison, and thereby enabling the churning to continue, Bhagwan Shiva held the poison in his throat – hence the name Neelkanth which means Blue Throat – and sat peacefully in meditation for eternity.

In our lives, in our families, so much poison emerges – between parents and children, between husband and wife, between in-laws. We wait and wait for the divine nectar to emerge, but it seems that only poison comes. So many times people come to me, complaining, “But why should I always be the one to compromise? Why should I always be the one to sacrifice? Why should I always say I’m sorry? It’s not fair!”

On this night of Shivratri, as we worship Bhagwan Shiva, it is also the night that we must pray for the strength to take his message to heart! Let us not only worship him, but let us emulate him. He who is willing to peacefully swallow the poison, he who is willing to sacrifice for the family, for the community and for humanity is the true Mahadeva.

Bhagwan Shiva went to the Himalayas, to the land now called Neelkanth to meditate after he drank the poison. The message is that when poison emerges in the home, when poison emerges anywhere in our lives, when we feel like if we swallow it we will die, but if we don’t drink it then the fight will continue – the secret is to meditate! You don’t have to go to the Himalayas. Just create your own Himalayas. Wherever you are. First, be the one to accept the poison. Be the one to sacrifice, apologize and concede humbly. Then go, sit and meditate peacefully. This is not weakness, but strength.

Poison always comes; obstacles always come. When we work for good causes, when we embark upon divine work, the poison always comes before the nectar. However, we must never get discouraged. We must never give up. If the devas and demons had forfeited the churning at the sign of poison, the nectar of immortality would never have emerged, and it would have been a tragedy for the world. Similarly, we must always have faith that the nectar WILL come. It is only a matter of time. We must be willing to churn and churn, no matter what comes – be it poison or nectar.

On the night of Shivratri as we remember the churning between the devas and demons for the nectar of immortality, we must take another lesson to heart. After the nectar emerged, the demons tried to abscond with it. Thus they would be ever more powerful and ever more able to destroy their brothers, the devas. However, through a series of divine interventions, the devas emerged the victors and the ones with the gift of immortality.

The night of Shivratri is especially auspicious for winning this same battle within ourselves – the battle between good and evil, between right and wrong, between poison and nectar, between death and immortality. Let us use our puja, our prayers, our meditations on this night to pray for divine intervention so that within ourselves the good might vanquish the evil, the nectar within us might emerge, rather than poison, and that we too may be carried from death to immortality.

May God bless you all.

Author: Swami Chidanand Saraswati

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