The Glory of Śivarātri

Śankarābharaṇaṃ (“the ornament of Śiva) raga, a Ragamala folio from Bilaspur; two priests worship a Liṅgā within a shrine’s inner sanctum. On the right, a priest in a lavender dhoti lustrates the lingam by pouring water from a silver ewer, and the priest on the left bears a plate with offerings. The rāga Śankarābharaṇaṃ, is more common in Carnatic music; it is musically equivalent to Bilaval in the Hindustani system. ca. 1680–1690 Bilaspur. Freer Gallery of Art

On a certain occasion Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śivā asked Śiva, the great soul. “What rite satisfies you to bestow worldly pleasures and salvation?”

When asked thus, Śiva replied, “I shall mention it now. It quells the sins of those who listen to it: There are many rites yielding worldly pleasures and salvation.”

“The most important among them are ten in number. Those who have mastered the text ‘Jābālaśruti’ have mentioned ten sacred rites of Siva. These rites shall be performed by brahmins always strenuously with great devotion.

On Aṣṭamī days, meals shall be taken only at night, and O Viṣṇu, on Kālāṣṭamī day, food shall be eschewed altogether. O Viṣṇu, on the 11th day in the bright lunar fortnight, food during the day is forbidden and in the dark, half food shall be taken at night only after my worship.

On the 13th day, food shall be taken at night and forbidden to those who follow Śiva’s rites. O Viṣṇu, in both the halves on every Monday, food shall be taken only at night by followers of the Śiva cult. The excellent brahmin devotees of Śiva shall perform these rites regularly and by abandoning these vratas, brahmins become robbers.

The four vratas that bring about salvation are the worship of Śiva, the repetition of the Rudra mantra by way of japa, observance of fast in Śiva’s temple and death in Vāraṇāśi. That salvation is eternal.

O Viṣṇu, among the four, the most powerful is the rite of Śivarātri. Hence that alone shall be performed by those who desire the fruits of worldly pleasures and salvation. There is no other rite more beneficial to men and it is the most excellent means for virtue for all. To those without desire, to those with specific desires, to all men of all castes and stages of life, even to women and to children, this rite is very beneficial.

In the dark half of the month of Magha, Śivarātri is specifically glorified. The rite of Śivarātri is performed when the Caturdaśi extends up-to mid-night. The observance of the rite on that tithi quells the sin of even a crore of human slaughters.

O Viṣṇu, what shall be done on that day from morning onwards, hear with attention. I shall explain it to you with pleasure.

Rising in the morning, the intelligent man with great delight, shall perform his daily routine of bath with care. He shall then go to the temple of Śiva for worship. After making obeisance to Śiva, he shall observe the ritualistic affirmation of his performance according to the prescribed course.

“O lord of gods, “O blue-necked, obeisance be to you. O lord, I wish to perform the Śivarātri rite sacred to you. O lord of gods, thanks to your power, let it conclude peacefully. Let not passion and other enemies afflict me.”

After this affirmation, the devotee shall collect the articles of worship. The Liṅgā shall be taken from a good place by the devotee himself at night and shall be that which is prescribed in the Āgamas. The materials of worship shall be placed on a good spot near Śiva either to the South or to the West. Then the devote shall take bath again duly.

The devotee shall perform the Ācamana thrice and begin worship. Śiva’s worship shall always be performed in accompaniment with the mantras. The intelligent devotee shall repeat the mantras and worship with music, song, dance and devotional services. The devotee shall offer flowers to Śiva and make charitable gifts. After Jalādhāra, the devotee shall worship Śiva with gingelly seeds, barley grains, lotus flowers and the leaves of the Bilva tree. Arghya shall be offered with citron fruit and naivedya shall consist of milk pāyasa…

If the rite is performed without attachment, salvation shall come to him and Śiva is not inaccessible to him. Śiva, the destroyer of all miseries shall grant all desired benefits, worldly pleasures, and salvation.

Once, this excellent Śivarātrivrata was performed and excellent benefit was obtained even by performing it without full knowledge. Sūta proceeded to narrate the story of the hunter which destroys all sins:

Formerly there was a hunter in a forest, Gurudruha by name. He had a large family. He was strong, ruthless and engaged in cruel activities. Everyday he used to go to the forest incessantly and kill deer. There in he forest he committed theft also in various ways. No auspicious action was performed by him from his childhood. In this way the wicked fellow passed a long time in the forest.

Once it was Śivarātri day but the wicked hunter, staying in the great forest did not know that. On this occasion he was requested by his parents and wife who were starved, “O forest-roamer, give us food.”

Thus requested he took up his bow and started immediately for hunting deer. He roamed here and there in the forest. Due to adverse fate, no game was secured by him, the sun too had set and he was greatly distressed.

“What shall I do? Where shall I go? Nothing has been obtained by me. What will happen to my parents, wife and children? I must return home only with something in my hand. It is impossible to face them empty-handed. Thinking thus, the hunter went near a pond and stood near the path leading to water. “Some animal is sure to come here. I shall kill it and go home with pleasure. My purpose will be served fully.”

Thinking thus the hunter climbed up a Bilva tree, taking some water with him. He sat on its branch. With hunger and thirst oppressing him he waited and thought. “When will some animal come here? When shall I kill it?”

During the first part of the night thirsty hind came there springing and jumping timidly. On seeing it he was much delighted. He fixed an arrow to his bow immediately in order to kill it. When he did this, some water (that he had with him) spilt and a few leaves of the Bilva tree fell to the floor.

There was a Siva Liṅgā beneath the tree. Hence this became his worship for the first part of the night. As a result of this his sin was dissolved. On hearing the noise, the hind became frightened. It was very much distressed on seeing the hunter. It spoke thus.

“O hunter, what is it that you propose to do? Please speak the truth.”

The hunter said: “My family is starving today. I shall satisfy their hunger by killing you.”

On hearing these terrible words and seeing that ruthless knave, the hind thought “What shall I do? Where shall I go? Well, I shall use a trick”

Thinking thus the hind spoke.

“There is no doubt that I am blessed. You will be happy with my flesh. What greater merit can have through this body which is in every respect harmful? It is imposible to expatiate the merit of a person who helps others even- if we take a hundred years. But all my infant fawns are in the hermitage. I shall entrust them to the care of my sister or husband and return. O forest-roamer, do not take my words to be lies. Undoubtedly I will come again to you. The earth stays steady through truth, the ocean is steady through truth, water flows steadily through truth. Everything is founded on truth.”

When the hunter did not accept its proposal even after being implored thus, the bewildered and frightened hind spoke again:-

“O hunter, listen. I shall explain. I take this vow. After going home if I do not return to vou let me be smeared with the sin that these people incur: A brahmin who sells the Vedas, one who does not offer Sandhyä prayers, women who transgress commands of their husbands, an ungrateful person, one who is averse to Śiva, one who ill-treats others, who violates Dharma, a person committing a breach of trust, and a person who deceives others.’

When the hind made these promises the hunter believed its promise and said “Go home”. The delighted hind drank water and went to its hermitage.

By that time the first part of the night came to a close and the hunter did not have a wink of sleep.

The sister of the hind, not able to find her sister and thus distressed came there in search of that hind. It too was thirsty. On seeing the hind, the the hunter drew the bow and was about to shoot an arrow. As before, water and Bilva leaves fell onto Śiva. Incidentally it became the worship of the second part of the night.

The hind asked “O forest-roamer what are you doing?” and the hunter replied as before. On hearing it, the hind said again.

“O hunter, listen. I am blessed. My life is fruitful. A service can be rendered through this evanescent body. But my fawns, young ones, are in the house. I shall entrust them to the care of my husband and come again.

The hunter said: “I do not agree to what you say. Undoubtedly I am going to kill you.” On hearing that the hind said on the oath of Śiva: “O hunter, listen. I shall explain. If a person breaks his words he forfeits his merits. If I do not return let me be smeared with the sin that accrues to such people who forsake their legally wedded wife and cohabit with another, who transgress the Vedic virtue and follow imaginary and fictitious cult; who profess to be devoted to Viṣṇu and censure Siva, who perform the Kṣayāha rites of their parents on a Sūnyatithi day and who add insult to injury.”

Implored by the hind, the hunter said to her, “Go.”

It drank water and delightedly went away its hermitage. By that time the second part of the night too came to a close without a wink of sleep to the hunter. When the third part arrived, the stag who was bewildered by the delay caused by the hind came there in search of it.

The hunter saw it standing on the path leading to water. On seeing the stout stag the hunter was delighted. He fixed the arrow to the bow and was about to kill it. While be attempted to do this, a few Bilva leaves fell on Siva as a result of his Prārabdha. The worship of the third part of that night became realised due to his good fortune. Siva’s merciful nature was evident in this.

On hearing the noise the stag asked, “what you doing?”

The hunter replied “I am going to kill you for the sake of my family.”

The stag said: “I am blessed that I am well-nourished and enough to satisly your needs. Of a person everything is useless if his body is of no avail. If a person does not help others though he capable of it, all his efficiency is vain. He will fall into hell after death. But I must entrust my young ones to the care of their mother. I shall console them and return again.”

Thus he requested the hunter was much surprised in his mind, With his heap of sins destroyed and with purified mind he spoke these words.

The hunter said:-

“O stag, every animal that came here has gone after promising in the manner that you have done. They have not yet come. You too are in distress and want to go under a false pretext. How, them, will I have my livelihood?

The stag said: “O hunter, listen, I shall explain. I do not utter lies. The entire universe including the mobile and immobile beings is steady, thanks to truth. The merit of a liar melts away in a trice. Still O hunter, listen to my truthful promise. If I do not come again, let me acquire the sin of these activities: in having sexual intercourse at dusk, in taking food on Śivarātri day, in perjury, in misappropriation of Trust funds, in neglecting Sandhyā prayers. in not uttering Siva’s name with the mouth, in not helping despite the ability, in breaking cocoanut on Parvan days, in taking forbidden food, in taking food before worshipping Śiva or without applying Bhasma.”

On hearing these words the hunter said “Go and return quickly.” Thus permitted by the hunter, the stag drank water and went away. All these animals who had promised in good faith met at the hermitage.

Hearing the news of one another’s predicament, they decided that they should go because they were bound by the promise. They consoled the fawns and became eager to go back.

The senior hind spoke to its mate “O stag. without you, how can the young fawns stay here? O lord, it was I who promised at the outset. So I shall go. Both of you stay here.” On hearing those words the junior hind spoke “I am your servant. Hence I go. You shall stay here.”

On hearing this, the stag said “I am going. Both of you stay here. Infants should be guarded and looked after by their mothers.” On hearing the words of their husband the two hinds did not consider it righteous. They lovingly told their husband, “Fie upon that life in widowhood.”

Then all of them consoled their fawns and entrusted them to the care of their neighbours. They went to the place where the hunter was waiting. The fawns too, on seeing all this followed them thinking. “Let what befalls them happen to us as well.”

On seeing them, the delighted hunter fitted the arrow on to his bow. Water and leaves of the Bilva fell onto Śiva again. Thanks to that, the worship of the fourth part of the night too became auspiciously performed. Thereafter his sins were reduced to ashes in a trice.

The two hinds and the stag said — “O excellent hunter, make our body purposeful. Be merciful to us.” On hearing their words the hunter was surprised. Thanks to the power of the worship of Siva, he acquired perfect knowledge inaccessible to others. The deer are blessed. Though devoid of knowledge, yet are ready to help others by offering their own bodies. What have I achieved despite being born a human being? I have nourished my body by torturing others. I reared my family by committing many sins every day. Alas! what will be my fate after committing these Sins? Sins have been committed by me ever since my birth. What goal shall I attain? *Fie, Fie upon my life!”

Acquiring perfect knowledge thus, he withdrew the arrow and explained: “O excellent deer! you are all blessed. You can safely go back.”

When he said this, Śiva became delighted. He revealed his form that is worshipped and honoured by the good. Touching him mercifully Śiva spoke lovingly the hunter, “O hunter, I am delighted at your vrata. Ask for the boon you wish to have.” On seeing Śiva’s form, the hunter became liberated in a trice. He fell at Siva’s feet saying, “Everything has been attained by me now.”

Śiva, delighted in his mind, gave the hunter the name Guha. Glancing at him mercifully he gave him a divine boon.

Śiva said: “O hunter, listen. Have your capital at Śṛṅgaverapura and enjoy divine pleasures at your will. Your race shall fourish without any calamity. O hunter, certainly Lord Rāma praised even by the Gods will come to your house and make an alliance with you. Cooperating with my devotee, your mind indulged in rendering service to me, you will attain salvation rare to others.”

Having viewed Śiva, the deer bowed to him and attained liberation from their birth as deer. They acquired divine bodies, ascended the aerial chariot and went away. Released from curse at the very sight of Śiva, they attained heaven.

From that day on, the hunter attained godly pleasures and being favoured by the god attained Sāyujya* salvation with Śiva. Despite performing this rite in utter ignorance he attained Sāyujya; what about those who are endowed with devotion?They will surely attain complete identity with the lord.

After considering all śāstras, and the sacred rites enjoined by these Śivarātrivrata, has been glorified as the most excellent. Different vratas, various holy pilgrimages, gifts, diverse sacrifices, austerities and japas, are not equal to Śivarātrivrata.

Hence this auspicious vrata shall be performed by those who wish for beneficence. Śivarātrivrata is divine and it always yields both worldly pleasures and salvation.

*Sāyujya is a type of mokṣa which refers to the merging of individual’s soul into the body of God and their identification of themselves with the enjoyment of God in His own body.

From a translation of the Śiva Purāṇa by J. L. Sastri

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