The Esoteric Aspect of Maha Shivaratri
Maha means great, Shiva is a name of God and ratri means night. Except for consciousness, all else is impure, but here impure should not be taken in the negative sense. It simply implies ‘mixedness’. Consciousness is pure, ‘qualityless’, beyond name, form and colour. Shivam is the Sanskrit word for it, therefore Shiva means Pure Consciousness.
But how do the words ‘maha’ and ‘ratri’ come to be associated with Shiva? There is a deep esoteric dimension of this festival. Shivaratri or Maha Shivaratri is a message or a pointing finger, as I usually call it, for the whole of mankind towards the highest reality of life. In fact, like many other religious festivals, this one too reveals the aim of human existence. But alas! People have made religion become a prey to their unconscious mind. Fortunately enough, time and again a few mystics appear to lift up the veil of mythology in order to show the naked truth.
God is pure and boundless consciousness – Shivam or Shiva. What does this have to do with ratri, the darkness of night? It is said in the scriptures that before the birth of the universe, there was nothing but darkness. Both the Bible and the Vedas agree on this point. That darkness, also known as Mahantam or the Great Darkness, is the time of dissolution when creation remains in a seed state and inactive. It is the maha ratri, the great night of God or of Shiva, hence the term Maha Shivaratri.
Furthermore, man is essentially consciousness, pure consciousness. It is the same stuff that underlies the phenomenal creation and the infinite ocean of energy. Thus, Shiva is present in man. The mind, however, is unaware of this fact. The mind or the individual soul is blissfully ignorant of the absolute Truth. The darkness of the individual soul or the mind existed since its origin.
Having passed through innumerable animal and human lives in the ignorance of its ultimate nature, the individual soul or mind is said to have been through a great night of unconsciousness, in a maharatri and remains in that state till the ultimate awakening. The Egyptian calls it the dark night of the soul. The individual soul continues to remain in this great darkness of ignorance so long as he does not realise his fundamental nature. Such a realisation comes not by the mere performance of rites and rituals, but by transforming the unconsciousness of the mind.
The pilgrimage to the sacred lake points towards the inner journey. The soul has been on an outer journey since millions of years, struggling to attain peace, bliss and liberation. And he continues to seek these unconsciously. Existence is always beckoning him to turn his gaze inwards to achieve real understanding of his true nature, but the call of the senses is too strong and the commitment of the mind to the outer world is of yore. It is not an easy affair to get out of this snare, but there is always a way out. The different rituals performed during the Maha Shivaratri festival symbolise nothing but the different stages of the inner pilgrimage.