Maha-Shivaratri: Wisdom in Darkness

Quick Facts and Stats

  • Summary: A Festival dedicated to the god Shiva.
  • 2020 Date: 21st February
  • Celebrated by: Hindus
  • Linked Holidays: Ram Navami, Janmashtami, Raksha Bandhan.

Background and Theological Significance

Maha-Shivaratri, ‘The Great Night of Shiva’ is the most important night of the year for the worshippers of Shiva. The day before each month’s New Moon, the darkest of each month, is always dedicated to Shiva, the god of Darkness. Of these Shivaratris the one that falls in the month of Magha (anytime between January and March) the darkest of the year, it takes on an extra significance.

Shiva is the Destroyer in Hindu theology, alongside Brahma the Creator and Vishnu the Sustainer, forms one part of the Trimurti; the three most important deities in the Hindu pantheon. However, Shiva is not simply the one who undoes the work of the other two. In the Shaivist tradition of Hinduism Shiva is the supreme deity; creator and benefactor of reality as well as its ultimate destroyer. In fact ‘The Destroyer’ conveys a much more violent image than is usually ascribed to Shiva.

Shiva is related to darkness, and to time, there are stories of him dancing reality into existence. He is seen as a god of wisdom, the first Yogi and when the end comes, it is said to be peaceful and gentle. One way to make sense of other epithets of Shiva: ‘the terrible’, ‘the wild’, ‘the fierce’. Is to try to grasp the sense of scale and depth of the darkness and time that surround us. The universe itself is expanding into darkness, with time pushing the life within it further apart. The stars twirl and dance around each other in the darkness of space. This is a very peaceful way to conceptualise our eventual destruction, and it epitomises Shiva; the Lord of the Dance, the Destroyer.

History

Worship of Shiva has a very long history going back at least 4000 years. Although over this time the worship has transformed and evolved as have the various understandings of Shiva that inform the worship. Worship of Shiva, and the Shaivist tradition in particular, is incredibly varied and complex. The school is thought to be either the biggest or one of the biggest in Hinduism with over a quarter of Hindus identifying as Shaivist. It has a particularly strong presence and a long history in the South of India, from where it spread to many parts of South-East Asia.

Over time specific symbols, items, and stories have become associated with this celebration. For some this is thought to be the night that Shiva married his wife Parvarti, who is also widely worshipped in Hinduism. Worship of the Lingam, a circular platform that is believed to be an abstract representation of Shiva, is believed to cleanse the worshipper of sins and give them a fresh start for the year ahead.

What Happens?

The festival is celebrated differently by different communities. However, in general it is a more solemn affair than most Hindu festivals. For most celebrants it starts with meditation and fasting from the previous day that continues overnight. The most significant portion of the festival happens at night. During the night a special ceremony where songs and offerings are made out to Shiva.

Great significance is placed upon staying awake late into the night. A night long vigil is a common practice for the celebrants, which involves focused veneration of the Lingam, one of the key symbolic representations of Shiva. Some groups are known to sing and dance through the night in a way that may seem appropriate for a celebration of the ‘Lord of the Dance’. However it is celebrated, it remains one of the most important nights in the calendar for many Hindus, a night where the darkness is not just embraced but celebrated, and through that embrace, greater wisdom learnt.

Image by adiyogi from Pixabay

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