We all celebrate MahaShivaratri, but do we know what is the story behind celebrating the festival?

Om Asato Maa Sad-Gamaya |
Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya |
Mrtyor-Maa Amrtam Gamaya |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

Shiva or BholeNath as he is called by his devotees represents Mangalam or the Most Auspicious One. While MahaVishnu is shown as representing Sattvik tendencies & Brahma is shown as being Rajasic, Shiva alone is both Sattvik and Tamasic. When He dances as Nataraja, He exudes Sattvik frequencies and when He does the terrible Tandava, He is Destruction personified. When we say the above Shloka, we ask the Divine to take us from our mortal coils towards eternity…. Mahashivaratri is that day when we are made more aware of this prayer. Let us see how …

As per our Puranas, once Brahma and Vishnu were arguing about who was the greatest – each one wanted to present Himself as the greatest. As we all know, arguments amongst Gods are only to make humans more aware of the goals they have to aim in life. (When any God seems angry or seems to fight, it is only when we reach the end of the story that we realize the higher aim that is brought out in the story. So folks, please don’t pass unnecessary taunts about our Gods showing human tendencies.) Now as per this story, suddenly there appeared a flash of light, a very powerful beam of unending light; it had no beginning nor did it have an end. It seemed to reach out to the skies & also to the beyond, below.

Both Brahma and Vishnu were awestruck and try as they might they could not fathom the beginning or the end of this divine light. Finally they decided to go to the opposite ends to figure out the beginning and the end of the strange beam. Brahma reached out in the direction of the skies and Vishnu, the netherworld. After a while, they met. Vishnu (who was always Sattvik in nature) blurted out that He was unsuccessful in reaching the end of the beam of light. Brahma, who did not want to accept defeat, said that He had seen the beginning & as proof He produced the Ketaki flower that had just fallen from Heaven; the Ketaki flower also accepted that Brahma had indeed seen the beginning of the light. Suddenly the divine light disappeared and Shiva stood in its place. Both Brahma and Vishnu realized that the light was none other than Shiva Himself. Shiva cursed Brahma and said that henceforth He would not be worshiped and while cursing the Ketaki flower too, He said that this flower would never be used in His worship henceforth. It is believed that the day the divine light appeared is the day of Mahashivaratri.

So what is the importance of the story & its connection to Mahashivaratri? ‘Tamaso Maa Jyotir Gamaya’ – take me from darkness towards light. The Darkness is the Darkness of Ignorance – ignorance about our own self, ignorance about the Supreme One, ignorance about how to merge into Him. The Divine Light is the Brightness of Knowledge, about Gyaan, banishing our ignorance and helping us merge into Him. When that happens – ‘Mrytyor Maa Amrutam Gamaya’ – we go from this mortal coils towards Eternity. Shiva could have appeared in His own form or just as a Shiva Linga, but He chose to appear as the Divine Light which had no beginning or any end, to show that Knowledge itself has no beginning or any end. It is that divine light which bursts forth from Shiva Himself, into the hearts of the Rishis, the Sadhus, the Sannyasis and all who reach out to Him. It is a light which is bright but cooling, since true knowledge can only bring peace in one – Sattvikta. It cannot be seen by one who indulges in egoism, in falsehood and a feeling of one-upmanship – like Brahma did. Only the pure hearted are blessed to see Him and be a part of Him.

Why do we pour Ganga water on Shiva, especially on Mahashivaratri? Ganga, is the daughter of Vishnu. When Vishnu’s big toe was hurt during the Dev-Asur war, Ganga flowed out of Him. In Sanatan Dharm, we touch the feet of our elders, our Gurus for a reason. It is believed that knowledge flows out of realized souls through their feet. That is why Raja Bali gave his head to Vaman (Vishnu Avatar) to keep His third foot. That is also how Sri Ramakrishna showed Narendranath (Swami Vivekananda) a glimpse of Maa Kali, by putting his foot on young Narendranath’s head. Thus Ganga is not just any river, but the River of Knowledge of the Divine, personified. When knowledge runs unbridled in our minds, it either dissipates or is used to do misdeeds. Therefore it is necessary to regulate its flow. Who better than Shiva, the Supreme One, to regulate its flow? That is why Ganga flows down Shiva’s locks (Jata). When we pour Ganga water over the Shiva Linga and then accept it as ‘theerth prasada’, we are acknowledging His powers as the All-Knowing and pray to Him to bless us with the flow of divine knowledge which will grant us Moksha.

Shiva is worshiped in both His Avatars – Sagun and Nirgun ie. with a form (as Shiva Linga) and without a form (as Shiva Tattva). On Mahashivaratri day and night, subtle energies of Shiva permeate Mother Earth in greater quantities and thus on that day and night, we say the Panchakshari Mantra (OM Namah Shivaya) repeatedly through the day and night, trying to imbibe those energies in such a way that we too gain from the Shiva Tattva and lead our souls on the right path of knowledge towards the Divine. We keep our hearts and minds pure, worship Shiva with the continuous flow of water on the Shiva Linga, offer Him Bel leaves and do the Panchakshari Mantra Japa – thus thinking of Him through Manasa, Vaacha, Karma (thought, speech and deed). Those who can, do recite the Sri Rudram. This very powerful MahaMantra, when said with devotion, definitely puts us on the path to burning our mortal coils and achieving Moksha. Bam Bam Bholenath !!! Om Namah Shivaya !!!

Rati Hegde