Sivarathri is considered to
be auspicious by all asthikas. The Puranas contain numerous stories that discuss the significance of Sivarathri. According to one story, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma wanted to find out the limits of Lord Siva. Vishnu set out to locate Siva's feet and Brahma went in search of Siva's head
Vishnu took the Varaha roopam (boar) because the feet of Siva were not on the earth. We all know that the boar has the capacity to go under the earth. Vishnu was not able to find the feet of Siva and openly confessed his failure. Lord Siva appeared before Vishnu and said - 'Even though you did not find my feet, you did one good thing. You told the truth'. Out of consideration and compassion, Siva gave Vishnu a prize and appointed him as the sustainer, controller and ruler of the universe. Therefore, it is due to the blessing of Siva alone that Vishnu became the ruler of the universe.
Brahma took the hamsa roopam (swan). Like Vishnu, he was also not successful and could not locate Siva's head. But unlike Vishnu, he committed a mistake. He spoke an untruth for which Siva cursed Brahma that he will not be widely worshipped.
Two lessons arise out of this story. The Lord is anantha roopa - limitless. It is only for convenience that we choose a form. The moral significance of the story is 'sathyam vada, asathyam mavada' - speak the truth, do not speak untruth.
The night of Sivarathri
is dedicated for jagaranam, upavasam and puja - keeping awake, fasting and worship. On this occasion Sri Rudra japa is considered to be very, very auspicious. In our tradition, Sri Rudram is supposed to be chanted every day. Rudram is significant not only for a grihasta (house-holder) but also for a sanyasi. The importance of Rudram can be understood from the fact that while a sanyasi is supposed to give up chanting of even the Vedas (barring the Upanishads), he is expected to chant Rudram all the time or at least once a day.
The word 'Rudram' is derived from two words - 'Rud' and 'Ra'. 'Rud' means dukham (sorrow) or paapam (sin, demerit). 'Rud' also means the cause of dukham or paapam. What is the cause of sorrow or sin? It is agnyanam (ignorance). 'Ra' means eliminator. So Rudram means dukham-eliminator, paapam-eliminator. Lord Siva get the name Rudra because he removes sorrow and sin and also the cause
which is ignorance. Sri Rudram talks about the glory of Siva.
Among the 14 sciences (four Vedas, Six Vedangas, Puranas, Dharmashastras, Mimamsa and nyaya),
the Vedas are considered to be the greatest science. And in the Vedas, the 11 sections of Sri Rudram is considered to be the most sacred. Sri Rudram occurs in Krishna Yajur Veda. There are seven chapters in this Veda and Sri Rudram occurs in the fourth or middle chapter. So if Krishna Yajur Veda is like a garland,
Sri Rudram is like a pendant in the middle.
There are two important and well known Mantras in Sri Rudram. Panchakshari Mantra and Mrithunjaya Mantra.
The essence of this mantra can be found in the middle portion - namasivaya, i.e., Siva. (In fact, Siva occurs not only in the middle of Panchakshari mantra but also in the middle of Sri Rudram itself). 'Nama' means salutations. 'Siva' means auspiciousness. Siva, the name is considered to be the most auspicious. The meaning of the mantra is - 'The one who eliminates all inauspiciousness, to that auspicious one, I offer my prostrations'. Chanting the Panchakshari mantra gives many benefits.
The Panchakshari mantra
is also known as saranagati mantra. Saranagati means surrender. We surrender to the Lord. This means we surrender to the order of the law of the Lord - the universal law of dharma and the universal law of karma. Every time we chant namasivaya, we surrender to the law of karma meaning whatever happens in our lives will take place according to the law of karma alone. So we must never refuse or resist to accept karma phalam or the fruit or result of our actions. Whatever happens in our lives is Siva prasadam or Iswara prasadam. Vibudhi is not to be looked upon as useless ash and pongal is not to be looked at with relish. We must accept both with the same attitude - that it is Iswara prasadam. There must be no dwesha (hatred, aversion) towards vibudhi and no raga (liking, attachment) towards pongal. We welcome everything we encounter in life.
Welcoming experiences in one thing. Accomodating experiences is another thing, particularly with respect to family. We must accept our family members -- husband, wife, children, etc. -- as they are. If our child is slow or dull or retarded, we accept it as Iswara prasadam. The acceptance of everything as karma phalam is saranagati. The result is shanti or peace.
Mrithunjaya Mantra: The Mrithunjaya mantra is a beautiful, 'all-comprehensive' mantra chanting which we get all the four purushaartas. It is like obtaining four mangoes with one stone.
(The four purushaartas or objectives of life are dharma, artha, kama and moksha meaning righteousness, wealth, desire and liberation). Three beautiful descriptions of Lord Siva are given in this mantra: Pushtivardhanam, Sugandhi and Thryambaka.
Pushtivardhanam: Pushti means material benefits. In the beginning stages of life, we all seek material benefits - artha and kama. First and foremost we want security in terms of food, clothing and shelter. Once these basic needs are taken care of, we want some comforts. 'Some' can be a fan or an air-conditioner, may progress to TV, VCR or cable TV and can go all the way up to infinity. After artha we look forward to kama. Artha and kama together is called pushti. So Rudram says if you are interested in basic needs and material benefits, come to me.
The Vedas say pushti alone is not enough. There is something subtler. Also material benefits are like planes and trains. They are characterised by arrival and departure. Money and people will follow us only in this janma. After we reach heaven (presumably), were we to write a
letter to our kith and kin, we will likely get the response - 'We have become used to your absence. You please remain there'. So after death, what will help us? Punya karma alone will help us.
Sugandhi: After artha and kama comes dharma. Sugandhi means fragrance. Lord Siva is Sugandhi, the fragrant one. Here fragrance does not mean physical fragrance like that of perfume.
The real fragrance of a person is his character. While the fragrance of perfume spreads a few feet, fragrance in the form of noble character spreads all around. The Vedas itself alludes to this - when a tree has blossomed, its fragrance will spread all around.
Lord Siva is the embodiment of dharma. So when we worship Siva, we get the benefit of dharma. We are inspired to perform selfless actions and to serve society.
Thryambaka: Thryambaka means one who has three eyes. We all know that Lord Siva is supposed to have three eyes. Various significances or interpretations are given for this. When Lord Siva is considered in the vishwaroopa (universal) form, the three eyes are the sun, moon and fire. These three are chosen because they are the illuminators of the world. During daytime the sun is the illuminator, during nighttime the moon is the illuminator and in the olden days, during new moon days, fire was used for illumination in the night.
In the second interpretation, two eyes are material eyes through which we experience the material world. The third eye represents atma gnana (knowledge of the atma or self) through which we can 'see' the higher reality. In a well-known story in the Puranas, Lord Siva burns Manmatha with His third eye. Manmatha or Kamadeva is the
god of desire. The significance of the story is we have to burn all our desires through gnana. Knowledge alone can destroy our desires. Manmatha churns the mind and makes it restless. If we worship Siva, he will bless us with the third eye meaning we will progress spiritually.
A third interpretation may be found in a story, a traditional story of the battle of wits between the devas and the asuras. The asuras built three cities. These cities were designed by Maya, the architect of the asuras and were built out of gold, silver and
iron respectively. The asuras became very powerful and started harassing the devas. The devas prayed to Lord Siva for help. Thinking that Siva could not single-handedly destroy the asuras, the devas offered to contribute their mite and built a chariot.
The earth itself became the body of the chariot. The sun and moon became the wheels of the chariot. The Himalayas became the bow, Vasuki the snake was used as the bow string and Lord Vishnu offered himself as the arrow. Lord Brahma took on the role of the charioteer. The entire ocean was used as the quiver to hold the arrows and the four Vedas became the horses to draw
the chariot. The call for battle was given. Siva simply opened His third eye and even before the show could begin, it was over.
The three cities represent sharirathryam (the three bodies - gross body, subtle body and casual body), prapanchathryam (the three worlds - gross world, subtle world and casual world), gunathryam (the three gunas - satva, rajas and tamas), avasthathryam (the three states of experience - waking, dream and deep sleep), etc. So to become trigunaatita (to go beyond the three gunas) we must worship Siva.
Siva gives moksha purushaartha. Many people are afraid of moksha because moksha means freedom. We want to hold on to our near and dear ones because of strong attachment. So we must pray to Lord Siva to make us a ripe fruit so that we can get detached from Worldly attachments. We must grow like the 'vellaripazham' fruit (cucumber). This fruit
grows on a creeper and being heavy, grows on the ground itself. When it becomes ripe, it detaches itself from the creeper; rather the creeper comes off. The difference between a vellaripazham fruit and an ordinary fruit is the latter, upon becoming ripe, seperates itself from the
tree by falling to the ground whereas in the case of the former, the creeper falls off the fruit. The creeper represents family and other worldly attachments and we are akin to the fruit. As we progress spiritually, worldly attachments will drop off on their own. There is no need for us to ask 'When will they drop off'? Thus we see that the Mrithyunjaya mantra gives all the four purushaartas of the dharma, artha, kama and moksha.
'I worship the three-eyed,
fragrant nourisher (Siva). May I be freed from mortality like the cucumber from the
creeper. May I not go away from immortality.