One Teacher pointed out that wherever you go in the world, it is universal to say, ‘Sh...’ to keeping quiet! He also continued that wherever you are, you will exclaim ‘Wha or Va!’ in wonderment! Put that together and you get ‘Shiva!’ On this night, it is believed by delving deep within, one could just discover this wonderful power of Silence lying dormant within us. Sometimes we ‘stumble’ on this by a Presence of nature, meditation or by the Grace of a Master. To tap and maintain this, many in the Saivite-Shiva tradition observe this night of vigilance.
It is my personal observation that when people from different backgrounds are drawn to Hinduism, it is primarily to the aspect of Lord Shiva, perhaps because Lord Shiva is the oldest form of God, since civilisation began, as recorded in the Harappa and Mohenjodaro excavations.
Even in ordinary use of language in daily life, it is customary for an Indian to say, “If you have energy do it, if not keep still.” The word for energy is ‘Shakti’ and for stillness is ‘Shiva.’ Everyone in the culture knows that Shiva is not a human being but pure consciousness, or matter, which when given a form is depicted as masculine and energy or the force is shown as feminine.
These deep concepts, which is at once grasped by the man-in-the-street and yet too abstract are given the male and female forms for people to relate to. But there are many instances recorded by great disciples and mystics where people have achieved the ultimate realisation through simple ardent devotions. There are many stories of Lord Shiva, both in form and in formless, in folk-lore, legends and mythology as well as history.
One such story refers to the Sage Ashtavakra who visited King Chitrabhanu, of the Ikshvaku dynasty, who ruled over the whole of Bharat/India. When the Sage asked why both the King and his wife were observing a fast on Mahashivarathri, the King said he had the gift of remembering his previous birth, as a hunter. The day before the new moon, before he could take aim at a deer with his arrow, he noticed the deer’s family and let the deer live. He had not caught anything by the night when darkness fell, so he climbed a tree for shelter. It happened to be a Bilva tree. Hungry and thirsty, as his water container was leaking and tormented by thoughts of his starving wife and children, he shed tears of anguish and tried to keep himself occupied by plucking and dropping down the Bilva leaves. Unbeknown to him the leaves fell on a Shiva linga under the tree.
When day dawned, he bought some food for him and his family. Just as he was about to break his fast, a stranger came and begged for food. The hunter served him first before he started eating.
After several years, at the moment of his death, instead of Lord Yama, the God of Death’s messengers, he was met by Lord Shiva’s, who took him to Lord Shiva’s abode. For the first time he learnt of the immense blessings, he had earned completely by chance, offering the Bilva leaves on the Shiva linga. The water leaking from his container and his tears had ritually washed the lingam and of course he had fasted! He lived in Divine Bliss for a long time, before being born again, as King.
Another narrative which had a strong impact on me is the story of Kannappa Nayanar, perhaps because it showed that rules and strictures and caste of class were only relevant up to a point. The boy Thinnan was born to a chief and his wife of a hunting tribe, after they had done a lot of penance. He was ‘apple-of-their-eye.’ He was strong and had mastered all the martial arts and become a skilful archer and was their natural leader.
One day, Thinnan and his friends had chased a wild boar into an unfamiliar forest area. When he had killed the boar and was in the process of carrying it back, he saw a beautiful Shiva lingam in the clearing of the woods. Thinnan was instantly drawn to this and felt he could not part from this icon. The Shiva-Linga had its origin in the idea of Yupa-Stambha/sacrificial post, as an iconic pillar of light, an abstract symbol of the formless Eternal Brahman.
Thinnan made a fire and cooked the boar and offered it to Lord Shiva. He found himself unable to leave and everyday he would hunt, cook the meat, offer it and because he had no utensils would carry water in his mouth to spit out to wash the image, take flowers out of his matted hair to adorn the Lord, as his hands were carrying an animal he had just hunted. This went on as his daily routine.
There was also a staunch devotee of the same Shivalingam, Sage Kochariyar, who came by every day. He thought it a great sacrilege, to see the meat and cleaned up thinking that maybe an animal had its kill there. However, he became very disturbed to see the Lord was being desecrated on a daily basis. He begged in earnest for the Lord to solve the mystery. That night he had a dream, in which the Lord appeared in his dream and told him it was his most fervent devotee who was doing this out of his unconditional love. The ascetic was also instructed to hide behind a bush and see the extent of the man’s devotion.
The next morning the Rishi-Sage watched Thinnan’s usual ritual of worship. He recoiled, especially when the tribal man pleaded with the Lord to accept the meat. As he spoke endearing words, suddenly blood started to pour out of the left eye of the image. Thinnan was shocked and tried to stop the flow with first his garment, but as it only bled more, he ran into the forest to collect herbs and crushed them to apply on the eye, to no avail. Then, Thinnan picked up his arrow and dug out his left eye and placed it in the depression of the Lord’s eye. The bleeding stopped. Thinnan was overjoyed!
However, now the other eye started bleeding. Thinnan knew what to do, but how would he know where to place his right eye? For a moment Thinnan thought, then lifted his leg, placed it on the Lord’s right eye to the horror of the Rishi, and was just about to pull his other eye out, when a loving voice called out to the hunter to halt, saying, “You are Kannappa (Apple-of-My-Eye) now, since you offered your eye to me!”
Thinnan’s eyes healed and he was blessed with the appearance of the Lord. The sage too had the blessing of the Lord’s darshan/appearance, for he now understood the depth of love and devotion Kannappa had for Lord Shiva. From then onwards Thinnan became known as Kannappa Nayanar, one of the sixty three Saivaite Saints.
In a corner of the world, in our home in Wales U.K., we look forward to our puja to the eternal ‘Time Lord’ also known as ‘The Lord of Dance’ in his on-going re-generation cycle; connecting to the worship of Lord Shiva all over the world. I remember as children, in Singapore, on one Mahashivarathri, my brother aged five trying to keep sleep at bay with a staff in his hand. Our parents found us both slumped in the sofa, in our living room. Although they laughed, they also commended our efforts.
This year, on March 7th, we will keep up our vigil to the best of our ability, but I wonder where I could obtain some Bilva leaves? Maybe I could try to get some seeds and grow them in time?
Om Namah Shivaya!
Image of Natraj
Nataraj is a symbolic figure of Hinduism. It reveals the artistic form of Lord Shiva. It was in the 10 th century , the Nataraj sculpture became popular in South India. tHe sculpture shows Lord with his four hands . On his upper left hand he holds the lamp, while the lower hand points down to a dwarf holding a cobra. The lower hand shows the assertion be without fear. The upper right hand holds a dumru which shows the male and female principle. He is dancing with his left feet raised and right foot on Apsmara Purusha, who is the personification of all ego and illusion.