Yoga studios around the world will be celebrating Maha Shivaratri on March 10, 2013. It will not be a religious event in numerous studios who have members of all faiths, but it will be an affirmation of the universal meaning of yoga–the communion of the little or individual self with the big Self or cosmic Self (universal consciousness). I find the meaning of Shivaratri echoed in The Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross, showing how all paths are illuminated by the same Light.
Here we have the allegory explained by the late and renowned yoga master Swami Satyananda Saraswati, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Shivaratri–Union of Shiva and Shakti
By Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Yoga Magazine March 2007, published by the Bihar School of Yoga. Printed here with permission from the Bihar School of Yoga.
There are two concepts of spiritual illumination. One is that Shakti awakens, goes up sushumna nadi and unites with Shiva in sahasrara chakra. Shiva represents the higher cosmic consciousness and Shakti represents evolution of energy. Kundalini yoga is based on this concept.
The other concept is that consciousness goes to meet Shakti, and this is Shivaratri. The concept of Shivaratri is the awakening of consciousness at the material level of existence and uniting with Shakti at a higher point in evolution. Therefore, the word used is ratri, meaning dark night. What are the night and day of consciousness? When the individual experiences existence, the objective reality all around him, that is the day of consciousness. The night of consciousness is when the consciousness is all alone and no objective experience takes place. You don’t hear, see, feel or know anything. Time, space and objectivity-–three qualities of mind-–fall flat. Consciousness alone remains. That is the dark night of the soul, the stage just before illumination. (Readers may want to refer to a previous blog post with commentary written by Ivan Granger on The Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross–who would have thought that the famous poem describes the same concept as Shivaratri. As I read the two together, it becomes quite clear.) So Shivaratri is a symbol of the spiritual state of samadhi. But for us, Shivaratri means the state preceding samadhi, illumination.
In the story Shiva, who lived in the forest, went to marry Parvati, daughter of the Himalayas, who lived up in the snow peaks. He was the master, guru and controller of ghosts and demons, and so they were part of his marriage procession. Some had one eye in the back of their head, some had no eyes, or eyes in their belly. Some had only one ear, others had huge elephant ears or only holes for ears. Some walked on one leg, others on three.
Parvati’s family sent out a reception party to escort them to Parvati’s house, but when they caught sight of Shiva and his strange companions, they took to their heels and ran for dear life. At Parvati’s house they related what they has seen in awe and horror. “Oh, he is terrible! The son-in-law has come riding on a bull. He is naked and his body is smeared with ash. He has snakes all over him and his companions are most hideous.” Parvati’s mother was so upset. How could she accept such a horrible son-in-law? But Parvati remained calm and resolute.
The moment Lord Shiva’s procession entered the Himalayan kingdom, he and his funny companions turned into dazzling divine beings with beautiful faces, fine clothes, fragrant flowers and so on. The demons changed into lovely people. Everything was transformed in the twinkling of an eye, and so the marriage took place.
Shiva is symbolic of consciousness. For the individual, consciousness is moving higher and higher towards Shakti. It moves along with all the instincts and animal propensities, with all that we are. Even as you practice yoga, everything is still with you-–fear, anger, passions, worries, anxiety-–you are moving with all your companions. Your soul is also evolving, progressing, along with all your companions. But there comes a point in spiritual life when all these companions are transformed, and the same instinct becomes intuition.
During the course of spiritual evolution, you try many times and fail-–you go to the church for the wedding but when you get to the door, you find that the bride is not there and you have to return home disappointed. You have inspirations, you may catch a glimpse of the higher state, but it is not complete. When the time comes and the transformation occurs, the ugly companions turn into divine attendants with suits and ties! The horrifying aspects of your personality become your ornaments, your helpers.
Parvati symbolizes the higher energy; she also symbolizes the kundalini shakti in tantra. The divine union which takes place when Shiva comes to meet Shakti represents enlightenment in absolute darkness.