Question: Can you please tell us about the meaning and the significance of Sivaratri?
Sri Swami Satchidananda: Like any other spiritual practices or observances, the Hindus have one night-long vigil remembering Lord Siva. They divide the night into four parts and four times Lord Siva is worshiped.
The story is once upon a time a hunter got the boon that if anybody worships Siva on this night they will go to Siva’s abode. One Sivaratri night, without knowing, a hunter who was in the jungle was chased by an animal, and he ran, got tired, climbed on a tree and the tiger was waiting for him to come down. He couldn’t come down and he couldn’t sleep there, and he doesn’t want to doze off, so he has to be doing something. He happened to be in a bilva tree and he plucked off the leaves and dropped one by one just to keep himself occupied and not go to sleep. But luckily where he dropped the leaves there was a Sivalingam on the floor. Unconsciously he was dropping bilva leaves on the Sivalingam and it happed to be Sivaratri day.
While in the tree, the hunter was thinking of his family, missing the family, he was cold and hungry, and he was also crying. So a lot of teardrops from his eyes were falling down. Toward the very end of the morning he couldn’t even come down because he became so hungry, so weak, so cold that he just collapsed and passed away.
Immediately a chariot came from the heaven and said to his soul, “Get in, come on, you’re going to go to Kailash, Lord Siva’s abode.” The hunter replied, “Sir, there seems to be something wrong here. You have probably mistaken me for somebody else. I know anything, I didn’t do anything, I was a plain, ordinary, simple hunter. Why should I go to heaven, the abode of Siva?”
“Well, sir, all we know is that we were supposed to come here and take your soul back to Kailash.” So, the hunter went up to Kailash and met Lord Siva and Goddess Parvathi and they blessed him saying, “Come on, my great devotee.” The hunter, still confused, asked, “Lord, I have a little doubt. I’ve never been your devotee. I didn’t do anything. I don’t know anything at all. I don’t even know you much. You seem to be so nice that you just picked me up from the jungle and you are blessing me with all your kindness.”
“No, my son,” replied Lord Siva. You might have done all bad things all your life, but just the last day of your life you spent in Siva puja.”
“What, sir? What, Siva puja? What is that?” I spent the last day of my life in the jungle for an animal to kill.”
“No,” explained Lord Siva. “That night was a Sivaratri night and the tree you climbed up was a bilva tree. The leaves of the tree are very dear to me. So you were on that tree and you pulled the leaves and you were dropping them down and right underneath there was a Sivalingam. That Sivalingam had been in an old shrine that has been since abandoned and no one did any worship there for a long time. You bathed the Sivalingam with your tears and you worshipped the Sivalingam with bilva leaves. And you spent the whole night there and then in the morning you passed away. So you deserve all the benefits of a great devotee who worshipped Lord Siva on a Sivaratri day. That’s why you are here.” Then Lord Siva said, “Now please ask us anything you want, any boon you want, and I’ll give it to you.
The hunter replied, “Sir, I really don’t know what to ask. It looks like I have everything. Having come and seen you, I’m getting your blessing, what else do I need? I don’t need anything anymore. Maybe because you are asking me this, I will ask for one gift. If anyone worships you on a Sivaratri day, in a traditional way or in their own simple way and keeps up the vigil, and the whole night thinking of you, please bestow upon them the some kindness and grace that you are bestowing upon me.”
Lord Siva told the hunter, “I’m glad that you didn’t ask anything for yourself. Even at this moment you are thinking of the entire humanity. So be it, I will grant your wish.
Since that day, whomsoever worshipped Lord Siva on a Sivaratri day, keeping up the vigil, thinking of Siva, and worshipping in whatever they could, would receive Lord Siva’s blessings
Whether this really happened or not we don’t know, but the idea is if you keep a vigil on that night and keep on worshiping, your spiritual practice is well grounded. That’s the essence.
In a way that is the reason why on Sivaratri we stay up the whole night and we keep on doing the puja—the same puja every two hours or three hours. You do a puja and then spend a little time in between and then do the puja again. It takes about an hour or two sometimes. An elaborate puja can take three hours. And as soon as that is finished, then within another ten or fifteen minutes take off everything off the deity and redo the whole puja.
If you do a puja like that four times, that means the whole night is gone. So to keep people occupied in doing something so that they can keep up the vigil we do these pujas. The main point to control the senses that normally would put you to sleep. That is what you call Sivaratri.
So the significance of Sivaratri is just remembering God at least one day of the year, and spending the whole night in that remembering. That way you are winning over your senses by fasting and vigil. The essence of Yoga is to gain mastery over your own mind, and the mastery over your own mind means mastery over your own senses.
On festivities days you fast, which means keeping control over the taste buds, and you keep silence, which is control of the tongue. During Sivaratri, we ensure that we keep a vigil and employ all the senses in a holy pursuit at least one day a year.
But that doesn’t mean at other times you can do anything you want. It’s always better to have good control over your senses and through having control over your senses you are having control over your own mind, because the mind functions through the senses. So when you learn how to control your mind and you become the master of your mind, you can achieve anything you want. Nothing is impossible for a person who has good control over one’s own mind.
May the Lord Siva shower His choicest blessings on you all, so that you can remain in perfect health and in total peace and bliss, to serve always. That is my sincere prayer on this day.
From satsang February 22, 1997 at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville