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mahA-shiva-rAtri - Why and How should we celebrate it..?

The Shiva-Vishnu paradigm

Across our vedic scriptures, Shiva refers to the unmanifest, detached witness of something and Vishnu refers to the unmanifest, detached witness that makes that something out of Shiva. 

It's like what we call as Energy, which we do not understand but know that it makes the Universe and Mass, which is holding the energy in a specific region of space that becomes the foundation of all Universe (be it Higgs or Strong). 

As the witness, it is Shiva,  As the action initiator it is Vishnu. Hence every new beginning is associated with Vishnu and what exists just before it is Shiva. Since new things arise after destruction in karmic cycles, Shiva got referred to destruction.

Our new year is in the month of Chaitra. Our new month beginning is the day of amavasya. Our new day beginning is dawn at 5:30 to 6am. All these are associated with Vishnu.

Hence the month before the new year, the month of phalguna, the day before amayasya, the time before the dawn, is usually referred to as Shiva's time. We celebrate maha-shiva-ratri on that day and time.

Why do we celebrate maha-shiva-ratri..?

All human beings have a 'self' (aham) which is the identity that they develop as they grow as a person. They have a mind (manas) that controls their body, that originates thoughts. They have a physical body that is identified by the functioning of ten indriyas (speech, hearing, touch, smell, taste, circulatory system, nervous system, excretory system, respiratory and digestive/metabolic system).

When we go to deep sleep, aham, manas, indriyas shut down. When we are in REM sleep or dream our aham wakes up. When we are in light sleep our indriyas alone shut down. But there's something in us which does not shut down.

It's called the manas-sAksi by Adi Shankara in eka sloka prakarana. Freud calls it 'id'. We colloquially call it conscience. As just conscience, it is typically developed by our own moral values and cultural values. So conscience is variously developed in different people.

But shankara says this manas-sAksi is a manifestation of that Universal sAksi, the Shiva. Hence we have to develop this manas-sAksi as a truly detached witness in us. How do we do that.?

His solution is to move the 'aham' or 'self' closer to that Universal detached witness. It means we need to start seeing like that detached witness, seeing our body, mind and thoughts as similar to other's body, mind and thoughts. 

We need to look at all perspectives including the perspective of the mind that holds our self/aham equally and analyze. This is the 'jnAna' or wisdom of being detached and witnessing that we need to realize.  It is easier said than done. It is never possible to achieve this and our life is a journey towards it. As people advance more in this journey, they become more and more happy.

Hence Shankara propounds bhakti as a way towards seeing in a detached witnessing perspective, in all stages of our life. Many gurus who followed Shankara have also propagated different meditative techniques that detaches our 'self' from our body and mind. 

But bhakti, meditation have to be consistently practiced for long times, to move our 'self' towards that detached witness. 

Hence for common people, the practice of keeping their aham or self awake during mahA-shiva-rarti was propounded.

How should we celebrate mahA-shiva-ratri..?

mahA-shiva-rAtri was about the 'awakening' of that witness or manas-sAksi or conscience in us. The awakening is not about the body, mind awakening or even being self awake. It is about how we awaken that sAksi in us, as that day/time is the time associated with Shiva, the ultimate witness.

How we awaken that Shiva, the ultimate witness or sAksi in us..? 

In those days, nights meant darkness. In that darkness people used to remain awake. do the mAnasik pooja of Shiva, recite various chants and mantras mentally, all through the night. It's a night of intense bhakti and meditation. To initiate the night, they may visit a temple or in case it's not feasible, just begin with a puja at home.

The idea is through that night, in that darkness, you spend time with your 'self' and 'Shiva' and not others. Your self or aham, sees/witnesses that Shiva in some form you relate, chant, meditate etc and spend time.  This intense bhakti through night distances your 'aham' or 'self' from your own mind, thoughts and body and makes it closer to that witness. It develops that detached witnessing ability in you.  We need this detached witnessing ability to succeed in our daily struggles of our life. It's not about feeling a sense of momentary euphoria.

When that detached witnessing ability in you get slowly developed, then Shiva, is said to awaken in you as that manas-sAksi. 

What do we do today..?

With advent of technologies, nights were converted to day with huge lights. With ease of travel, people started doing external pooja and bhajans in groups and then go home later. Then it descended into just being awake and people started watching film shows through the night.

With the induction of media, glamor and marketing, now it has become through night dancing parties and we have invented new convolutions as logics for our being awake. Today it is almost about feeling a sense of momentary euphoria in lights, sounds and group dancing parties. Apart from that momentary euphoria, they may not aid us in developing jnAna that is required for our daily life struggle.


Let's remember mahA-shiva-rAtri is the time of night you spend your 'self' ALONE with your 'witness', your 'sAksi'. It's a personal time. It's the time you can do puja mentally, meditate, chant mantras, do japas etc.. etc.. But it's a time for your 'self' to develop that detached witnessing ability through intense mind practices that helps you fight your life struggles.