Updated: Feb 21, 2020
As a longtime and dedicated practitioner of yoga, I enjoy learning about and honoring the spiritual and cultural roots of this tradition, which includes the rich mythology of India.
This Friday, February 21st is Maha Shivaratri, or Great Night of Shiva, a Hindu
Festival dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is celebrated with all-day fasting and all-night chanting and dancing. Elaborate and beautiful pujas (devotional ceremonies) are performed in which the Shiva lingam, a stone icon, is worshipped, bathed in holy water, honey, butter, milk and sacred leaves, and is adorned with garlands of flowers.
I’ll offer here a very simplified encapsulation of the story (which has many, many versions):
The Devas and Asuras (gods and demons) were churning the bottom of the ocean, both parties in search of amrita, the nectar of immortality.
In the process of this churning, a terrible poison was released-- a poison so potent that even just breathing its powerful fumes would destroy every living being on earth.
What to do? They enlist the help of the all-powerful god Shiva, who agrees to drink the poison in order to save humanity. However, Shiva knew he could not swallow the poison—he had to hold in it his throat until sunrise, at which point the substance would be neutralized and lose its potency.
In order to do this, Shiva needed to stay awake all night. He could not fall asleep, because he might inadvertently swallow the poison. So, the gods and goddesses danced and sang all through the night to keep Shiva awake. By morning, the poison was transformed, but in the process, it turned Shiva’s throat a bluish color. Hence, another name for Shiva is Neelkanth, the blue-throated one.
While I don’t receive these stories as literal truth, I do enjoy mining for the jewels of wisdom that are glistening within them. So, here is the teaching that speaks to me:
As we churn the ocean of our own being, our own minds, in search of what is immortal and eternal (the Self, or True Nature), we can discover some nasty gunk, in ourselves and in the collective ocean of human consciousness. We find the poisons of greed, fear, possessiveness and attachment. We find the toxins of ignorance of our true nature. We find egoic self-centeredness. In yoga, these common human afflictions are called kleshas.
The kleshas are qualities of the ego, and we all grapple with them to some degree. They’re just a part of our humanity, and they show us where our work is on our spiritual path.
On this Maha Shivaratri, and also each and every day, may we call upon the transformative power of Shiva to help us stay awake and alert enough to purify our being (from the poisons of the kleshas) and touch into the eternal and immortal Self—that which is not bound by time and space.
There’s a beautiful mantra that asks Shiva to help us to remember who we are beyond the body, and beyond the identities held by our minds:
OM tryambakam yajamahe
sugandhim pusti vardhanam
mrtyor mukshiya mamritat
OM. We worship and adore you, O three-eyed one, O Shiva. You are sweet gladness, the fragrance of life, who nourishes all beings. As, in due time, the cucumber ripens and is freed from the vine, may we be freed from attachment and fear of death, and realize the nectar of immortality.
There is a beautiful photo of Shiva sitting in meditation, with his left hand in Jnana Mudra (the mudra of wisdom) and his right hand in Abhaya Mudra (which dispels fear). These two mudras remind us that cultivating the wisdom of the true Self is the great antidote to fear. When we really know who we are as infinite and eternal, we do not fear the death of the body, nor do we fear the dissolution of who we believe ourselves to be.
This night and always, may we drink the sweet nectar of the remembrance of our own divinity.
OM Namah Shivaya!