Shivaratri or Mahashivaratri is one of the popular festivals among Hindus all over the world. But for Kashmiri Hindus (aka Kashmiri Pandits), Shivaratri is the most significant festival. Why? Because Kashmiri Hindus are Shaivites and Shiva is the Ultimate Reality in Kashmir Shaivism. All other Hindus (non-Shaivites) worship Shiva as the 3rd member of the Hindu Trinity (Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva), the Godhead. But in Kashmir Shaivism Shiva is the Godhead.
Kashmiri name for Shivaratri is Herath, derived from Hararātri – Hara being another name of Shiva. There is a subtle difference in the manner Shiva is worshipped by Kashmiri Hindus compared to other Hindu deities. When deities other than Shiva are worshipped, they are worshipped as being external, i.e. the deity worshipped is separate from the worshipper (duality). But when Shiva is worshipped, He is worshipped as one’s own Self (Consciousness). Thus, there is no duality of the worshipper and the worshipped.
On Shivaratri, Shiva is worshipped during the night, but other deities are worshipped during the day (except Janamashtami) on their respective festivals. Also Kashmiri Hindus worship Shiva on Shivaratri using a unique system called Vatuk Puja.
Kashmiri Shivaratri (Herath) is celebrated on trayodaśī (13th day of the dark half of Phalguna) (February-March). All other Hindus celebrate Shivaratri on caturdaśī. It is not known why Kashmiri Hindus celebrate Shivaratri (and Janamashtami) one day earlier. According to Nilamata Purāna, in ancient Kashmir Shivaratri was also celebrated on caturdaśī of Phalguna.
Origin of Shivaratri
There are several legends in the Purans (Hindu mythology), which describe the origin of Shivaratri. According to one such legend, Shivaratri is the celebration of marriage of Shiva and Parvati (Shakti). According to another legend Shiva manifested himself in the form of Jyotirlinga (pillar of light) to settle a dispute between Brahma and Vishnu. Since it was on the 14th day in the dark fortnight of the month of Phalguna that Shiva first manifested himself in the form of a Linga, the day is extremely auspicious and is celebrated as Mahashivaratri – the grand night of Shiva.
Yet according to another legend when gods and demons (devas and assures) were churning the ocean of milk to obtain the nectar of immortality, a deadly poison emerged which threatened to suffocate and destroy the entire universe. Gods approached Shiva for help and he drank the poison himself to save the universe. This saving of the universe by Shiva is celebrated as Shivaratri.
Spiritual Significance of Shivaratri
The word ‘Shivaratri’ is comprised of ‘Shiva’ and ‘ratri.’ ‘Shiva’ means ‘Consciousness’ and ‘ratri’ means ‘night,’ which is a metaphor for ‘rest.’ Thus Shivaratri actually means ‘Consciousness at rest.’ Consciousness in motion is called the mind. Consciousness at rest means ‘deep meditation’ or ‘Samadhi,’ in which one realizes one’s true nature, i.e. identity with Shiva. This knowledge or realization of one’s true identity is intuitive and transcends reason. Shivratri is thus another name for Samadhi, and celebration of Shivaratri is the attainment of Samadhi, the ultimate goal of human life in the Hindu religious and spiritual tradition. The annual celebration of Shivaratri is thus a reminder that the goal of human life is to become one with Shiva, i.e. to attain Self-realization (Samadhi), Moksha, Mukti or enlightenment, i.e. to celebrate Shivaratri.
How Does Samadhi Occur?
According to Yoga philosophy, there are seven chakras (psychic centers) located in the spinal column of the human body. These are vital centers of the body’s energy system. They are not visible to the naked eye, but can be perceived by yogis in deep meditation. These chakras include muladhara (also called kundalini chakra) located at the base of the spine, swadhisthana is a few inches above muladhara, manipura is opposite to the navel, anahata is near the heart, vishuddha at the medulla oblongata, ajna (also called 3rd eye) is between the eyebrows, and sahasrara is located at the top of the head. Sahasrara chakra is center of the cosmic consciousness in the human body, as shown below:
According to the Tantric literature, there are three major psychic channels (nadis) in the human body, known as sushumna, ida, and pingala. These channels originate at the base of the spinal column (muladhara) and extend upwards towards the head. Sushumna runs through the center of the spinal column and is connected to the top of the head (sahasrara chakra). Ida and pingala run parallel to sushumna on the left and the right side of the spinal column, respectively, and terminate at a point between the eyebrows, known as ajna chakra.
Intense spiritual discipline (sadhana) including meditation and pranayama rouse the kundalini shakti (latent energy present in the muladhara) and when properly activated it begins to rise upward within the sushumna nadi. In its ascent, kundalini shakti activates the chakras and brings about total purification and rejuvenation of the entire being. When kundalini shakti reaches sahasrara chakra (symbolically marriage of Shiva and Shakti), one attains Samadhi, i.e. celebration of Shivaratri. (Reference: Kundalini – the evolutionary energy in man- by Gopi Krishna)
In Kashmiri Vatuk means “assemblage of things” and Vatuk Puja involves the use of several earthen or metallic round pots containing water and walnuts for Shivaratri puja. In this setup, Natu, a round pot with a short neck and open top, symbolizes Shiva. Dalu is another round pot open on the top and denotes Shakti or Parvati. There are several other small round pots with open tops called Sanivaries, which symbolize Bhairavas and Gannas, the associates of Shiva. In the popular notion of Shivaratri being the marriage of Shiva and Shakti, Natu symbolizes the groom, Dalu the bride and the other pots denote the wedding guests (bharatis) who accompanied Shiva for his wedding ceremony.
Why are walnuts used in Vatuk Puja? The walnut represents deep symbolism. A walnut consists of outer shell which is hard and when broken one finds the soft and tasty kernel inside. The water in the Vatuk pot softens the walnut so that the hard shell can be easily broken to obtain the soft fruit inside. Water symbolizes divine grace. The walnut signifies the human being and the hard shell represents the ego. With divine grace when the ego is dissolved the Self denoted by the soft kernel is freed from the clutches of the ego and realizes its true nature (moksha).
From the spiritual viewpoint, the seven pots used in the Vatuk Puja symbolize the seven chakras of the human body as shown above. The Vatuk Puja thus symbolically denotes the ascent of kundalini Shakti from the muladhara chakra through sushumna and reaching sahasrara chakra, thus resulting in Samadhi, i.e. celebration of Shivaratri.
Nature of Shiva and Shakti
In Kashmir Shaivism, the nature of Consciousness is activity or dynamism (kriyā or spanda). Shakti is just the name given to this dynamism. Thus Shiva and Shakti are inseparable. Symbolically, if Shiva is water, Shakti is the water flowing; if Shiva is fire, Shakti is its heat; if Shiva is the cloud, Shakti is the rain and if Shiva is still air, Shakti is the wind, which can vary from a cool breeze to a mighty storm. This is the nature of Shakti, the Divine Mother of the universe.
We don’t have a perfect symbol to indicate the eternal identity of Shiva and Shakti. In all traditional images and icons, Shiva and Shakti are shown as two persons. This should not be taken literally. For this reason Arddhanārīshvara was created to show the identity of Shiva and Shakti, but it shows half Shiva and half Shakti. Each of them is whole, not half. They are two sides of the same coin.
Shivratri means ‘Consciousness at rest,’ i.e. ‘Samadhi,’ a state in which the individual self (jivatman) unites with the Supreme Self (Shiva), which is the goal of human life in Hindu religious and spiritual tradition. Thus Shivratri is the ‘celebration of attainment of the ultimate goal of human life.’ Since Shiva is one’s own Self, the true essence of Shivaratri celebration is meditative worship and Puja with total attention focused inside one’s own being. Shiva and Shakti are inseparable. They connote one but denote two. At the human level, Shiva and Shakti denote male and female principle in nature’ and at the cosmic level they represent consciousness and matter.