SHIVA (HIS FESTIVALS)
he origin of Shiva Ratri, the night of Lord Shiva, is related in a fable.In ancient times near the City of Light, Varanasi, there lived a violent and cruel hunter. Whilst hunting in the woods one day, he killed so many birds that he had trouble carrying them all home. He grew tired from the weight of his catch and was frequently forced to stop and rest. At last night fell and he was so afraid ofbeing attacked by wild animals that he climbed into a Margosa tree with his catch and prepared to pass the night.
It happened to be the no moon night of the month of “Phalgun,” February-March, the night dedicated to Lord Shiva. The hunter spent it hungry, cold and scared to death in a tree. Unknown to him, beneath the tree stood a linga and due to the hunter’s frequent changes of position, dew drops, fruit and leaves fell onto it.
Shiva was pleased with these offerings and the hunter’s unplannedfasting, as this night was specially consecrated to Him. The hunter returned home only to die on the following day. Soon afterwards Yama,the Lord of Death came to claim his soul, as the man was known to be a great sinner. Lord Shiva intervenedfor the dead man and told Yama that since the man hadfasted and offered sacrifices to the linga on Shiva Ratri night, he had earned his place in Kailash, Shiva’s paradise. Thus on Shiva Ratri, devotees, hoping for a place at Shiva’s side, keep a similar vigil.
Shiva Ratri is celebrated all over the Indian subcontinent but the most important centres for this festival are Girnar, situated in the western state of Gujarat,Varanasi and Pashupatinath, the highly revered shrine of Lord Shiva in Nepal.The forest around Girnar is a powerful centre for meditation, as it is believed to have once been part of the Himalayan range; the jungles, lakes and mountains there shelter thousands of ascetics and during the moon’s dark quarter in February-March, the largest celebration of Shiva Ratri is held. According to the local yogis the festival has been celebrated in Girnar for at least 500 years.
Throughout the dark night devotees honour Shiva by fasting or eating only fruits and milk. Cries of “bom Shankar,” “union with Shiva” are heard, as chillums, pipes of hashish,are passed around and offered to the Lord before smoking. Yogis and pilgrims alike share in this ancient ritualistic use of intoxicants in His memory. Pilgrims come to Shiva Ratri from all over the surrounding areas of Rajasthan and Maharastra erecting tents, giving alms and cooking huge feasts, bhandaras for thousands. Yogis walk through the villages collecting rice for the feasts to be eaten as prasad, sacred food.
The central shrine in the Gir forest area is the majestic Guru Shikar peak, where for countless ages,saints and sages have meditated, absorbing its intense energy, which is fabled to be a catalyst for spiritual development. Throughout the three days of Shiva Ratri, the entire staircase up to this power spot is lined with throngs of pilgrims for whom the visit to Guru Shikar is the climax of their entire journey.
This is the birthplace of Dattatreya, the three headed manifestation of God, Lords Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in one body. Thousands of people make the arduous four-hour climb, starting in the early morning to avoid the ascent in the scorching midday heat. They pay their respects and receive blessings at the numerous shrines along the way, carrying the customary offerings of fruit and flowers, littering the floors of the temples with their devotion.
At the summit of the magnificent peak is the shrine containing the shoes of Dattatreya. It is common in such shrines to find the shoes or footprints of the presiding deity or guru, which are worshipped with flowers, fruit, coins and coconuts which symbolize the yoni. In Asia, where feet and shoes are considered unclean, it is a sign of deepest reverence to touch the feet of the guru, either with fingers, forehead or lips.The view is breathtaking with wide expanses of jungle, and mountains, crowned with a sky of clouds racing into the sunset.
In the lush green valley of Kathmandu in Nepal, lies the ancient temple of Pashupatinath which is consecrated by the relics of Shiva’s first wife Sati,whose yoni fell there during Shiva’s grief stricken wanderings whilst carrying her dead body.
The temple complex is spread along the banks of the holy Bagmati River, which springs from Siva- puri mountain on the rim of the valley and eventually joins the eternally sacred Ganges. The river is believed to issue from the mouth of Shiva himself and is revered by His followers. All along the river banks are cremation platforms, which are in constant use as the devout believe that being cremated there will improve their chances of a higher rebirth.
Surrounding the main temple of Pashupati are many other shrines, homes for the sick and dying who await their fate. On the ghat are shelters for wandering yogis, and vendor’s stalls selling all kinds of religious memorabilia which pilgrims delight in buying in such a holy place.Within the innermost sanctum, reserved only for Hindus, is the naturally formed linga of Pashupati which was discovered long ago through the strange behavior of a local cow.
A herd of cows came everyday to the banks of the Bagmati River to graze. One of the cows developed the peculiar habit of separating herself from the herd to stand on a sandy mound, where she would allow her abundant milk supply to fall upon the ground. Curious about this strange phenomena people decided to excavate the mound and to their surprise and joy, a self-existing or adi-linga was uncovered, and a temple built in its honour.
Pashupatinath houses the valley’s main gaus-hala, or retirement home for sacred cows which are never killed but given a pension and a place to live out their last unproductive days.Being one of Shiva’s most important shrines, a large Shiva Ratri festival is held at Pashupatinath each year. Many pilgrims travel from India and other parts of Nepal in extremely difficult conditions, to reach Kathmandu in time for the festival.
In the cold wintery dawn the jostling crowd of pilgrims descends on the temple to bathe in the icyriver and pay their respects to the great linga. Brahmin priests perform elaborate rites to the image. As the priests receive offerings from the devotees they place them on the linga, and give in return flower petals and sacred food which has been touched by it. A tika, forehead marking, made of sandalwood paste and yellow clay, is then given as a final blessing from the Lord.
Pilgrims are not permitted to touch the phallus as it is said to have magical powers, including the ability to turn base metal into gold. As dusk falls the night is filled with the reading of scriptures and the singing of devotional hymns. Multitudes of people wander amid the temples in the forest area, visiting yogis to obtain their darshan, blessing. Ascetics line the pathways performing their austerities before the astonished public hoping to receive boons from Shiva and donations from the pilgrims.
The aspirants pass the night sitting at their holy fires, smoking chillums and drinking huge quantities of bhang, an intoxicating drink made from the lower portion of the hemp plant, which they serve from large buckets. It is believed that these intoxicants raise the consciousness. The atmosphere is charged with a mystical exalted quality, as yogis keep vigil at their sacred fires throughout the night.
Shankaracharya was responsible for the popularization of Saivism in Nepal and allowed many fetishes to be accepted as manifestations of Shiva. The sect of Pashupata, was founded by Lord Shiva himself, when He entered a corpse in the cemetery to pass on His teachings to a chosen devotee. Early observances included simple forms of asceticism, vows of pure speech and action, meditation, and repetition of the mantra Aum, to attain union with Shiva.
Later another branch of Pashupatas became popular and called themselves Kalamukh, meaning the origin of time. They lived in the cremation grounds, wore a black tika, and were predecessors of other lefthand and occult sects, such as the Aghoris.
There is probably nothing more sacred for a devout Hindu than to bathe at a Kumbh Mela, the holiest of all festivals; it is held every twelve years during Jupiter’s entry into Aries, according to the lunar calendar. At this time, millions of people take the ritual bath in the Ganges, believing that their sins will be cleansed.
As millions of salvation seekers pour into the area, massive tented camps are erected to house the multitudes. Yogis in saffron coloured clothes, villagers, souvenir hawkers, Brahmins and beggars create a carnival-like atmosphere.
There are devotees of Lord Ram from central India, who have tatooed his mantra over every inch of their skin and printed it on their clothes. Beggars are dressed up as Kali, loudly singing for alms. Groups of villagers wearing turbans, cymbals, and peacock feathers wander about the festival rhythmically chanting the marriage song of Shiva and Parvati. People of all castes, and from all walks of life congregate, bound by a common belief.
Seeking eternal life, they flock to the yogis for their blessings, believing that their sins will be taken on by the ascetics. They sit with the yogis around their holy fires, smoking chillums and drinking tea. Many of the swamis only leave their hermitages in the high Himalayas once in twelve years to attend this festival. One side of the river is entirely inhabited by devotees of Ram residing in hundreds of tents, smoke curling into the air from their holy fires. On the other side, scores of Shiva yogis hold court in the camps of their acharas, while devotional chants and music are blasted over loudspeakers.
Huge feasts funded completely by donations are prepared for thousands. Delicious food is meticulously cooked and equally shared by all as prasad, blessed food, in the spirit of giving.At the auspicious time, thousands of Naga babas from all over India, their long, matted hair hanging loosely, armed with swords and tridents, walk in a great procession to the holiest bathing site. The naked ascetics are followed to the river by the acharas, warrior yogis. Here they cleanse the accumulated sins they carry, and take on the reservoir of sin which has been deposited in the water by the faithful.
Townspeople and pilgrims alike enjoy the spectacle of parading naked saddhus and orchestras escorting gurus on elephant back. Floats with en¬ throned representations of various gods accompany them to the Ganges for a bath in the waters of immortality.
During the Kumbh Mela, saddhus who are to become Naga babas, are initiated in a secret ceremony, which begins their lives anew. Mendicants from all walks of life and ages choose to undertake this difficult path of total renunciation. The initiates take strict vows not to eat more than one meal per day, not to beg from more than seven houses, only to sleep on the ground, not to speak badly of anyone, not to praise anyone, not to bow to anyone except the highest guru and only to wear the colour saffron, symbolic of Parvati’s blood.
The ritual commences early in the morning, when the initiates shave all the hair on their bodies, after which they take 108 purifying baths in the River Ganges, and cover their bodies in ash. All day they must observe a strict fast and refrain from smoking. Clad only in a loin cloth and blessing string, they carry a staff representing discipline, and a clay cup symbolic of humility, until late in the night when the Shankaracharya appears.
After midnight the initiates of each achara gather within the camps for their funeral rites. The ritual continues into the early hours of the morning as hundreds of voices sing “Svaha,” “so be it,” in unison, as fathers, mothers, and all worldly attachments are offered into the fire a new life begins. The initiates bathe in the cold river once more. Wet and shivering, they hurry to the holy fires of their respective gurus to offer salutations.
The following day thousands of initiates walk barefoot in procession along the flower strewn road in the scorching sun, totally naked, shaven headed, ash covered Naga babas at last - His yogis.