Shivarathri – The Four Offerings Symbolic of Human Transformation
by Surujrattan Rambachan
During the night of Shivrathri offerings are made to Lord Shiva on four special occasions. Each one of these offerings symbolizes a step in the ladder of human transformation, in the journey from humanity to divinity.
How does transformation take place? Firstly, one has to accept that there are certain qualities and aspects of one’s existence and behaviours that are causing unhappiness, or causing one to become uncomfortable with oneself, or that one’s life is not in a state of emotional and spiritual balance and that one’s relationships are dissatisfying. Awareness is the first step to change. However, awareness must be accompanied or followed by the choice to change. Choice must be followed by action. Change = Awareness + Choice + Action.
Attending the Shivrathri celebrations and engaging in fasting or other austerities represent the birth of that awareness. Lots of people become aware, but do nothing to change. They make no choices. They become aware that there is something amiss about their lives but realizing the extent of the personal effort required to change and the discipline necessary, they retreat and continue to experience their state of dissatisfaction. Change is a function of choice and action. Hence spending a night with Lord Shiva is the choice to give birth to the discipline and attitudes required to achieve personal change.
Being in the presence of Lord Shiva, also reminds us that to change we must keep the goal in mind. If we lose sight of the goal, we shall never change.
At the end of the first three hours of worship of Lord Shiva, the Lingam is bathed with milk. This signifies that we are removing the stains of our lives. To be helped to transform, we must admit our limitations, our faults. Unless admittance takes place and self honesty prevails, no change will be possible. In life we must therefore spend time in reflecting on our true qualities. Like Hanuman said to Sri Rama “although my defects are many, have mercy on me O Lord.” Forgiveness is earned if one is honest. The milk which is used in the first of the four offerings represents the purity we aim to become after shedding the stains of our lives. Only such a “pure self” can come before God. Sri Rama had said to Hanuman, Sugriva and others that if Vibhishan were not of pure mind, he could not come into his presence and went on to further state that those who practice deception, vanity, hypocrisy and arrogance will never come to know him. The first three hours teach us the importance of shedding the stains of our lives through honest reflection and surrender. The first step in achieving change requires coming before God and admitting with honesty one’s moral shortcomings.
At the end of the second three hours, the Lingam is bathed with curd. Real transformation takes place when our thoughts are transformed. Our behaviours are an outcome of our thoughts and our beliefs. Beliefs drive behaviours and not the other way around. Just as when milk is churned, and curd is realized, so to our minds must be churned in order to transform our thoughts. Churning must take place to help us get rid of those thoughts that are now promoting negativism and sinful behaviours. In the presence of Lord Shiva we spend time in deeper reflection. This gives us the opportunity to engage in deep reflection about our inhibiting behaviours. Just as the ocean which was being churned for the jar of nectar that gave immortality first emitted poison, so to the ocean of the human mind (thoughts and emotions) must be churned (through reflection) to rid itself of a variety of poisons.
In the temple and in his presence, we surrender to Lord Shiva, who just like he absorbed the deadly Hala-Hala poison, he also absorbs the negative qualities we surrender to him. If we do this nidhishyasanam, (deeper reflection), we would then have purified the mind and be ready to accept the “knowledge” which will invest us with a new set of beliefs promoting right conduct.
As such, at the end of the third three hours in bathing the Lingam with ghee, we are symbolizing the outpouring of this “pure Knowledge”.
Ghee of course is obtained after “curd” is further refined. Knowledge of self is obtained by focusing upon oneself. The ghee was always in the grass. The cow transformed it into milk and we process it into ghee. Similarly, we can refine our thoughts and behaviours through a process of reflection on our current beliefs which are prompting our behaviours.
Finally at the end of the last three hours we bathe the Lingam with honey. Honey is the sweetness, the joy that comes, the fulfilment that is realized from living the knowledge of self. And how do I know that I am living this knowledge. Everytime I act in the world and I am not bothered by my conscience, when I do not have to worry about the rightness of my action but know my actions to be in line with moral codes for righteous living, I know that I am living the knowledge of self. When my actions make others fulfilled, I have acted correctly. I am also fulfilled!