Maha Shivaratri, the Great Night of Shiva, is upon us. Said to be one of the most sacred and auspicious nights on the Yogic calendar, Maha Shivaratri honors Lord Shiva, one of the three energies of the Hindu trinity (the trimurti). Of all the Hindu dieties, Shiva’s pretty intense. He’s the “god of yogis,” both creator and destroyer, timeless, formless, nameless. Shiva is consciousness and bliss. He wears a cobra for a necklace. And he really likes kirtan.
Maha Shivaratri can be intense too. It’s traditionally celebrated with a series of elaborate pujas (sacred ceremonies) that pay homage to Shiva (in the form of linga) with offerings of flowers and incense, baths of milk and honey, and non-stop kirtan that goes all night. The ritual culminates in the marriage of Shiva and Parvati (Shakti), which is symbolic of the union of consciousness and matter — the dance of universal creation. As dawn breaks and a new moon rises, a sumptious feast of prasad is shared as a final offering to Shiva.
Wait a Minute, Did You Say Linga?
In case my Dad is reading this (unlikely), or anyone who is new to Hindu culture or Maha Shivaratri, I know what you may be thinking. Ritualistic worship of linga? Bathing them in milk and honey? Marriage, union and creation? Some people go right to the gutter with this, like there’s some kind of cultish sex worship going on (not to be confused with the cultish sex worship allegedly going on in the Anusara kula).
Indeed, a friend once described a Shivaratri event he attended in Colorado as “beautiful young women pouring yogurt over a huge stone phallus.” Huh? At the time, I had just registered for a Krishna Das retreat at Sivananda Yoga Ashram in the Bahamas and had decided to extend my stay to experience Shivaratri at the ashram. Frankly, I knew little about the significance of the night; I just saw “all-night chanting” and signed up. My friend’s description of his experience made me wonder what I had gotten myself into…
Samadhi By Sunrise?
I can assure you that there wasn’t anything remotely sex-cultish about the Sivananda celebration. It was sacred, beautiful, and profoundly moving. As my first introduction to a “real” puja — performed by a bona fide Tantric priest from South India in the ashram’s little open-air temple — it made an impression on me. If felt authentic. And powerful.
The legends surrounding the significance and power of Shivaratri as a holy night for spiritual purification and rebirth are many. It is said that those who please Shiva on this night, worshiping him in accordance with the rituals set forth in Hindu scripture, will be freed from all past sins, dwell with Shiva in enlightened bliss and be blessed with moksha, liberation from the cycle of life and death.
Freedom from past sins? Dwell in enlightened bliss? Who doesn’t want that?
I don’t know if that’s all possible, but it makes for good story-telling. And when it’s 5 a.m. and you’ve been chanting every incarnation of Om Namah Shivaya for eight hours straight and haven’t eaten or slept for 20 hours but somehow are feeling incredibly clear and energized and ready to jump right onto the “shiva train” that is about to slither its way through the ashram grounds in a joy-filled chant-along version of the dorky wedding chain-dance, you might even start to believe it.
Where’s the Shiva Bhav?
India would be a good place to start. Just about anywhere there will do, neighborhood Shiva temple or home puja. Or, you could celebrate with SRI SRI RAVI SHANKAR, (NOT the sitar maestro; the founder of the International Art of Living Foundation), who will be leading the festivities at his organization’s headquarters in Bangalore. If you can’t be there, you can still be there (sort of) through the magic of LIVESTREAM. The broadcast starts Saturday 2/18 at 8 a.m. EST (6:30 p.m. IST).
Sivananda Yoga Ashram (Paradise Island, Bahamas) continues their annual Maha Shivaratri tradition with pujas throughout the night by Ashram priest Krishnan Namboodiri and continuous Shiva chants from dusk until dawn led by senior staff. The prasadam buffet served at dawn is a feast fit for Lord Shiva himself. Festivities begin Monday night, 2/20 (the astrologically correct day of observance). Here’s a sliver of the festivities from last year:
Sivananda has a worldwide network of ashrams, and many others will be marking Shivaratri as well. At the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center in Marina Del Rey, Calif., festivities and chanting begins at 9 p.m. Monday 2/20. And at its Hollywood and Santa Barbara locations, the Vedanta Society of Southern California hosts celebrations Monday 2/20 beginning at 6 p.m. till 1:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m., respectively. These are described as traditional fests marked by fasting, meditating, praying and singing to Shiva. (Hat tip to Joni Yung, deva of yoga events tracking in L.A., for posting these.)
In Venice, at Exhale Center for Sacred Movement, superstar yogi SHIVA REA is joining forces with superstar kirtaniya DAVE STRINGER for what I’m guessing will be a somewhat UNtraditional initiation to the auspicious period surrounding Shivatri. The event starts with “body mala-based yoga” led by Shiva (all levels) and ends with ecstatic kirtan. Sunday 2/19, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (If you can’t make it to LaLa Land, you can join a free Shiva meditation led by SHIVA REA via teleconference on Monday 2/20.) Also on Sunday at Exhale Venice, SAUL DAVID RAYE presents Shiva Nataraj, the Cosmic Dance of Shiva, an immersion in Shiva teachings and practices that includes Shiva mantras, meditation, kirtan and a flowing asana/pranyama/mudra practice. 1 p.m. to 4:30 Sunday 2/19.
Way up the coast in San Francisco, CHRISTOPHER “HAREESH” WALLIS will lead Shiva-focused satsang, kirtan and storytelling at The Center SF, Friday 2/17 beginning at 9:30 p.m.
The Shiva bhav starts flowing early in Colorado too. At Boulder’s Studio Be, Colorado’s vibrant kirtan community joins up for ecstatic chanting and shivalingam puja with BHAKTI SHAKTI, Friday 2/17, 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.
In New York City, the place to be for Maha Shivaratri is the Broome Street Temple, which kicks off the celebration Saturday 2/18 (4-10 p.m.) with a SIX-HOUR KIRTAN (part of the Bhakti Center’s monthly chant marathons) featuring SRIKALA KEREL ROACH, ACYUTA GOPI, ANANTA GOVINDA, special guest RAGHUNATH and others . Festivities continue Sunday, 2/19 (8 p.m.) with an all-night puja consisting of a series of abhishekas, or ritual baths of the shiva linga. Kirtan will be provided all through the night by NINA RAO, DEVADAS, ANJULA PRASAD, SHYAMA CHAPIN, AMBIKA COOPER, JEREMY & LILY FRINDEL, and other special guests.
Ananda Ashram in Monroe, N.Y., about an hour north of NYC, will mark its fifth annual Maha Shivaratri All-Night Music & Dance Celebration from 9 p.m. Saturday 2/18 to sunrise Sunday. DEEPAK KUMAR PAREEK has organized a “Concert for Positive Change” with a line-up of musicians including NAREN BUDHAKER (tabla), KEDAR NAPHADE (harmonium), ANDREA BRACHFELD (flute), KRISHNA DEVI (leading kirtan), MITALI BHAWMIK (vocals), AMIRA DVORAH (bansuri flute), INDRAJIT ROY-CHOWDHURY (sitar), STEVE GORN (bansuri flute), SHEETAL KARHADE (vocals), SRI KALIMA (dance), AQUEEL BHATTI (tabla), and DAVID KEEN (violin).
Not to be outdone by New York or L.A., the little Hridaya Hermitage in Industry, Maine will be marking the occasion with an open forum on the meaning of life, from the yogic perspective. The 5-hour program on Sunday 2/19 includes bhajans from the Hermitage’s high-energy house band SHIVA LILA, shivalingam puja and dinner, concluding with an intention-setting ceremony to alleviate suffering in the world.
Where are you getting your Shiva Bhav this weekend?
Learn More About Shivaratri
Maha Shivaratri: Celebrating Lord Shiva. Glimpses of Divinity
Maha Shivaratri Significance (a secular overview from the India tourist board)
Who is Shiva? (from the Chopra Center, Archetype Series)
Shiva Linga and Its Significance (from Rudraksha-Ratna)
Maha Shivaratri Puja Overview & Shiva Symbolism