The Hindu holiday Maha Shivaratri, celebrated this year on February 13th, is one of the most spiritually powerful festivals in the entire year. Maha Shivaratri means ‘The Great Night of Shiva,’ and devotees honor the holiday by observing a complete fast for 24-hours and also staying awake all night, meditating and chanting devotional hymns to Lord Shiva.
But who is Lord Shiva?
First and foremost, Shiva is an embodiment of the Supreme Consciousness, the timeless Divine Reality that is the true Self of all beings and the Substratum of all phenomena. Shiva is known as ‘the deathless One,’ ‘the Immortal,’ ‘ the unlimited Being,’ ‘the One beyond time.’ The name Shiva is synonymous with the Atman, our infinite Divine Self.
It is interesting to explore the symbolism hidden in the form of this great deity.
Shiva’s trident (or trishul) represents his dominion over the past, present, and future, as well as in his mastery of the three gunas, the cosmic qualities that pervade all of creation, namely tamas (laziness or dullness), rajas (self-centered activity), and sattva (spiritual purity).
The rudraksha beads Shiva wears signify detachment and discrimination. The japa mala in Shiva’s left hand symbolizes concentration on the divine name, and constant absorption in the Supreme Reality.
Shiva sits on a tiger skin, which symbolizes the conquest of the animal tendencies. Shiva’s drum symbolizes the primordial sound, as well as the words of the Vedas, the sacred scriptures. The snakes around Shiva’s neck symbolize the ego, which once mastered can be worn as an ornament.
The small female face at the top of Shiva’s head belongs to Ma Ganga, the Goddess embodied in the sacred River Ganges, which is said to flow from heaven to earth via Shiva’s matted locks. The legend of the descent of the Ganges from heaven to earth symbolizes the flow of divine grace to the world through the Avatars, and the incessant flow of the scriptural teachings, which pass divine wisdom from one generation to another.
One of the names of Shiva is Nataraja, which means the Cosmic Dancer. He is the Consciousness dancing in every atom of the universe, the actor in each character, the divine Being hidden within each one of us. According to this conception, Shiva is the only power, the supreme will that maintains and directs the entire universe. And if we want to dance with Shiva, we simply have to ask him, because He is always ready to enter our hearts and show us the cosmic dance.
The scriptures also say that Shiva is a member of the Hindu trinity comprised of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. What does that trinity symbolize?
It is an obvious fact that everything in the universe has its moment of creation, is then sustained for some time, and is finally destroyed. Those three qualities of creation, sustenance and destruction are considered by Hindus to be fundamental functions of God. The Rishis, the ancient sages of India who gave us the basic principles of Hindu philosophy, visualized three separate names and forms for those three functions: 1) Lord Brahma, the Creator; 2) Lord Vishnu, the Sustainer; and 3) Lord Shiva, the Destroyer.
Unfortunately, when Westerners hear that Shiva is the Destroyer, they sometimes think this might mean that Shiva is somehow bad or evil, since destruction is a potentially harmful quality. But this is not at all the case; it is merely a Western misunderstanding. For what is it that Shiva destroys, exactly? To put it simply, Shiva destroys our ignorance and our ego — that is his primary work! And when the ego is destroyed, what is the result? Enlightenment! Many saints in India have attained full God-Realization through the worship of Lord Shiva. So, not only is Shiva not evil or bad in any way, he offers us the supreme treasure of life, namely, God-Realization.
It could be said that while Lord Brahma creates our desires, and Lord Vishnu fulfills our desires, Lord Shiva destroys our desires, thereby giving us Realization of the Divine Self that is beyond all desires. For this reason Shiva is honored as Maha Deva, ‘the Great God,’ and Deva Deva, ‘the Lord of Lords.’
In addition to his role as the Destroyer, Shiva is also shown as the husband of Shakti (also known as Parvati), the Divine Mother. But what is the symbolism in the relationship between Shiva and Shakti?
One of the fundamental teachings of Hinduism is that all things in the universe are made of a combination of Consciousness and the creative energy of God. The creative energy of God is responsible for creating the entire play of names and forms, the vast, mirage-like illusion encompassing all manifestation, whereas Consciousness is the primary Reality, which witnesses God’s creation, while remaining untouched by any duality. Those two components, Consciousness and the Creative Energy of God, combine to form the sum and substance of all things.
So how do those concepts connect to Shiva and Shakti? The Rishis have given us the form of Lord Shiva as a symbol of Consciousness, and the form of Shakti as a symbol of God’s creative energy.
You can see that resting in the hair of Lord Shiva is the crescent moon. This symbolizes the fact that Shiva is not merely an individual or even a deity; he represents the omnipresent Consciousness, vast like the sky. The word ‘shakti’ in Sanskrit, the language of the ancient Hindu scriptures, literally means ‘energy.’ So while Shiva represents Consciousness, Shakti represents the creative energy of God. The marriage of Shiva and Shakti therefore symbolizes the union of Consciousness and creative energy, that union being the basis for all manifestation. So, behind the numerous stories about Shiva and Shakti in the Hindu scriptures there is a profound significance, a mystery which quantum physicists are exploring even today.
Above all, Lord Shiva symbolizes the Supreme Consciousness, also known as Brahman, the Absolute. When we worship Shiva, we are not merely worshiping one deity among thousands of other Hindu gods. We are worshiping the one Supreme Reality which underlies all names and forms, and which is manifest within all deities, and indeed, within every atom of the universe. It is none other than the Atman, the Divine Self, the true identity of all beings.
One way of understanding the various gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon is to see them as being facets of a great divine diamond, the diamond of the Supreme Consciousness, which includes all deities and yet is beyond all forms. Although the facets may be slightly different from each other in shape and appearance, and glow with subtly different hues, they are all inseparable aspects of the one Divine Totality, which is behind and beyond all forms. The various Hindu deities are all windows into the Absolute.
Shiva is not merely one of the facets; Shiva is a name of the entire Diamond.
And where is the center of that Diamond? The center of that divine Diamond is in our hearts. The Supreme Being which pervades and transcends the entire universe dwells within us, as the silent pure Consciousness at the very root of our minds. And our true identity is the totality of that Diamond.
To realize this great truth fully and directly, is the lofty goal of Hinduism. It is an experience open to each and every sincere seeker.
To make this great discovery of our oneness with the all-encompassing Divine Diamond, we must dive deep into the Silence that precedes the thought ‘I’. That Silence is pure Consciousness, which remains forever untouched by any thought or perception. It is none other than Shiva, the deathless One. Never has it taken birth; never can it die; never can it suffer. Permanent, changeless and indivisible, that Silence alone truly exists. That alone is what we truly are.
And when we discover this great truth through meditation, and come to experience that Divine Self directly and permanently, the false ego-identity dies, and the timeless Reality is revealed as our only true identity. This revelation is called Enlightenment, Nirvana, God-Realization, or Self-Realization. It is the great goal of life. We will then behold the one Divine Self within all manifestation, and naturally become embodiments of Love and compassion towards all beings, who will be seen as expressions and embodiments of our own Divine Self.
May this Maha Shivaratri be an opportunity for all of us to take a giant step closer to that great goal known as God-Realization.