We celebrate Maha Shivratri on the 14th or the 15th night of February (depending on the Hindu lunar calendar). The origins of the celebration seem a little murky to an outsider: are we celebrating Lord Shiva’s favorite day, the anniversary of his marriage to Parvati, the release of amrit, the Divine nectar, from the ocean of milk, or some combination of all of these events? All over India, Hindus celebrate this festival, whether they spell it shivratri, sivratri, or shivaratari. Some pour milk over their shivalingams, others ghee, and some use plain water. As far as traditions go, Maha Shivratri is one of the most all-encompassing ones.
Shiva is similarly an all-encompassing form of Divine God. He is the destroyer of the universe, but only so that a new universe can be born, creating the cycle of birth and death we all take part in. He is the embodiment of what some call the “cosmic dance,” and indeed, is often represented dancing, but he wields a trident and is covered with snakes instead of jewelry. Where the loving forms of Krishna and Radha are attended on by Gopis and Gwalbals, Shiva’s attendants are fierce, animal-like beings with weapons and tattered garments. The scriptures speak of Him as a taciturn deity, one who spends nearly all of His time in solitary meditation atop Mount Kailash, but He is followed by devotees across the world. Only God could contain that many contradictions.
The tales of Shiva are similarly broad in scope. He is often present at significant events, like the devtas and demons churning the ocean of milk, where Shiva drank the poison that emerged and colored His throat blue. Many pilgrims have storied visits to Shiva, sitting on His tiger-skin mat atop the mountain, His terrible third eye closed. The story of His marriage to Parvati and Her origins are one of the most celebrated scriptural tales in Indian history. And of course, His two sons have tales of their own, Lord Ganesh on his mouse, Lord Karthikey and his golden peacock.
My favorite story about Shiva, though, is a rather small but extremely significant one for the devotees of Radha and Krishna. It’s so small, I hesitate to call it an independent tale – rather, the story fits neatly inside of a much larger story. When Krishna performed Maharas, only the Gopis of Braj were allowed to enter. Every form of God wanted to get in, to experience that supreme bliss of Krishn, to partake in the ultimate ras. Maharas is still written about, still called one of the greatest spiritual events in all of history. But only Shiva’s longing was so strong, so impassioned, that He turned into a beautiful Gopi and danced right on into those merry woods where Krishna was showering His love.
If a terrifying destroyer of worlds like Shiva can experience such a profound transformation, then maybe there’s some hope for the rest of us.