Maha Sivaratri

Sannyasi Ratnashakti (New Zealand)

The night of Sivaratri is described in Ramacharitamanas, in Balkanda, the first chapter. This is the night when Lord Shiva comes to marry Parvati, the daughter of Himavan. In anticipation of the event, Himavan summons the sages and rishis, and they decide upon an auspicious date and time for the marriage to take place. This is amavasya, the dark night, when there is no moon visible in the sky.

In Balkanda, sloka 91, we are treated to a glimpse of Shiva getting ready for the ceremony. You have to imagine the scene. This is not your average bridegroom being outfitted in his family home or residence. This is the Lord who lives on Mount Kailash in splendid isolation, the supreme Lord who has the Ganga and the crescent moon on his head and who fearlessly drank the poison that even the devas and the asuras were afraid to touch. His throat is still the deepest blue from that poison. This is the Lord who can dissolve the entire universe by opening his third eye, thus removing the manifest creation based in duality.

Atop this desolate mountain, he is surrounded by attendants. They are assisting with his hair, by making his matted locks into a crown decorated with a crest of snakes. They place snakes for earrings and bracelets and smear his body with bhasma, sacred ash. His wedding attire is a tiger skin and he has a necklace of human skulls around his neck. Instead of flowers, he carries his trident and his damaru, and his chosen mode of transportation to the wedding ceremony is Nandi, his bull.

Like every bridegroom, he is followed by his procession of attendants. But these are no ordinary group. These are the attendants of Shiva, a pantheon of ghosts, goblins and ganas who live on Mount Kailash, and even Shiva laughs when he sees them all assembled together in their wedding finery. They are a diverse lot, some have no heads while others are hydra headed, some have no hands and feet and some have no eyes instead. Some are hugely fat and some are incredibly long and thin. Dressed for the occasion in their best, with ragged clothing beyond description, smeared with blood and carrying the most frightening ornaments, not to mention skulls and heads of animals, the attendants of Shiva caper around their Lord, singing and dancing as the entire procession moves towards the home of the bride-to-be.

Meanwhile, the father of the bride is preparing. You also have to remember that this is no ordinary bride. This is Parvati, the mother of the universe, who has incarnated as the daughter of the mountain king in order to marry Lord Shiva again. Himavan, the king of the mountains, has called all his friends and these spirits of nature have come out from the rivers, streams, mountains, ponds, trees and assuming the most beautiful of forms are waiting to receive the groom. A huge pavilion has been erected in the beautiful city where the mountain king lives. Every house is decorated with arches and columns festooned with flags and ribbons. Everywhere there are beautiful groves and gardens, flowers and trees, rivers and ponds teeming with life.

Everyone is happy and excited in anticipation of the wedding. The men and women of the city are all dressed in their most beautiful clothes and in their vehicles decorated for the occasion they advance with great excitement and joy to catch an early glimpse of the famous bridegroom who is coming to wed their beloved Parvati. What do they see? In the front are the devas, the illumined beings, the guardians of the four quarters and their retinues and Lord Vishnu, Hari himself. Everyone is delighted to behold such a vision of loveliness and beauty.

But then, following behind, is the groom’s party. Shiva covered in ash and skulls, snakes writhing all over his body, sits calmly on top of a huge bull, carrying his trident. He is surrounded by ghosts and blood-smeared goblins, singing terrible songs and dancing. Upon seeing Shiva’s retinue, panic strikes! The horses are struck with fear, rearing and trying to flee in the opposite direction as fast as possible. The children start screaming and run for their lives, shaking with fear. The adults are trembling and can hardly look.

Mena, Parvati’s mother, manages to light the auspicious lamps to wave around the bridegroom in welcome, but most of the women are terrified and flee to the bride’s house, while Lord Shiva retires to the groom’s chambers. Mena is devastated and she sends for Parvati, crying, “To think that the Creator, who has made you this beautiful, should have been so stupid as to give you a raving lunatic for a bridegroom.” Mena simply cannot accept the appearance of Lord Shiva, and the thought of him being married to her lovely daughter is too much for her to bear – in fact, she forbids it, saying that she would sooner fall from a mountain top or cast herself into the flames.

It is in Parvati’s answer that we see how special she is. Even though her mother and all the other women with whom she has grown up and shared her life’s experiences are completely devastated at the mere sight of the man she is about to spend her life with, she does not budge. She knows absolutely that the marriage is right, and she comforts her mother by saying, “Whatever is ordained by Providence cannot be altered, so do not worry. If it is my destiny to have a crazy skull-wearing madman for a husband, so be it. There is no point in lamenting and wishing that things were otherwise. I must reap the amount of joy and sorrow that is my due in this life.”

Usually in life, we act like the children in this story. We run screaming at the first opportunity from something that looks frightening, or difficult or unusual. Sometimes we can stand still enough to take a look, like Mena, but we can’t shake our expectations of what things should look like, so we can’t see properly. We don’t give ourselves the opportunity to experience something that is beyond our current conditioning and limited view of the world.

In so doing that we may miss the greatest that life is trying to give us and the greatest that we can become. We miss the Divine Lord coming towards us, because he is in the guise of a ‘lunatic’. Instead, if we were Parvati, we would know that no matter how negative and terrible it may seem, it is all appearance, and the reality is simply the grace of God.