February 20th is the celebration of Maha Shivaratri, a festival honoring Shiva. Without going into the complexities of Hinduism, or placing this in a “religious” or sectarian context, let’s sum up the more universal meanings of Shiva.
Shiva is depicted as embodiment of yogic asceticism, often portrayed sitting in meditation, wearing a loin cloth and snakes, very skinny, with long matted dreadlocks, perfectly at ease and detached from the impermanent world. Until he gets PO’ed. All that “burning zeal” of asceticism builds the fire of rajas (passion) and he acts a bit rashly.
Which brings us closer to the topic at hand. Shiva is the destructive element of Truth (or the Godhead, or the Divine, or Singularity. Choose whatever fits you best, they are all the same), destroying all creation to make way for new beginnings. This is not done out of malice, spite, or anger. Total dissolution is a natural part of creation: things change, often quite drastically.
We naturally fear change. If we look at The Yoga Sutras (primarily a philosophical work, not a religious one), Patañajli describes in detail that we take the unreal for the real, and he provides instruction for overcoming this wrong view. He tells us that even those who have progressed extremely far down the yogic path still have to constantly practice, because the mind will want to go back to the way things were (taking the unreal for the real). But we must progress. Very, very, very slowly if we do nothing; faster (but scarier) if we put in effort.
The archetype of Shiva lets us know that change is natural. It is supposed to happen. It’s going to come whether we choose to fear it or accept it. Aging, death, taxes, things coming, things going, sunrise, sunset they will not stop no matter how much we fight.
What we can do is change our mind. We can choose to accept the inevitability of change. When we do that, all those little demons that plague us and make us fear turn into angels guiding us along the path.
So we have Shiva as a reference point—the embodiment of total change. Within the world but not attached to it. Acting when action is required, then immediately returning to center.
Whether you identify a three-eyed, trident wielding, mountain dwelling hermit as an object of worship or not, we can all benefit by remembering that change will come, and it is absolutely necessary in order to move forward.
One other thing—Shiva digs a song.
One of my favorites is sung by Krishna Das:
Hara Hara Mahadeva Shambho, Kashi Vishwaanaatha Ganga
(I call the names of The Great Lord Shiva Who lives on the Banks of the Ganges at Kashi [Benares])
Another favorite is a line from Bhagavan Das’ “Shiva Shambho”:
“My Daddy taught me how to pray, and if I ain’t praying all of the time, it ain’t nobody’s fault but mine.”