Today the worship of Shiva is confined to India only, but in the past this tradition was found all over the world. Much before the advent of the Christian era, there were many countries in the east and west where they had the ritual worship of Shiva - the worship of an oval shaped stone. Archaeological discoveries in Mexico and different parts of Latin America have thrown light on this ancient form of worship. Even in the Kaaba, in Mecca, there is an oval shaped stone, venerated by Muslims the world over.
Shiva literally means higher consciousness. It can also be understood in many other ways. You can say Shiva means purusha, the ultimate matter or the basis of creation. The reality and the basis behind the nature of the whole creation is based on two factors. One is Shiva, pure, unchanging consciousness, and the other is Shakti, eternal evolution through action. And when Shiva and Shakti interact with each other, then there is the universe and there is creation.
When you practice yoga and transcend the body and intellect, then you have certain inner experiences. These experiences, which many successful yogis have, often take the form of columns of light. If you read the life of Mohammed, the life of Zoroaster or the lives of the Christian saints, you will find that they all refer to columns of light.
Now, these columns of light are not necessarily the same in everybody's experience. Sometimes you see a column of smoke and sometimes you see a column of light mixed with smoke. Sometimes you see it as oval shaped, sometimes as round shaped, and sometimes as pillar shaped. This experience of enlightenment, which has been described by so many different yogis, is what we mean by Shiva.
The Sanskrit word lingam has two distinct meanings. In general usage it refers to the male reproductive organ, but in the philosophical context it represents the causal body. That is how most people have misunderstood the real meaning of the shiva lingam. In many books written by western scholars, it is defined as 'the phallus of Shiva'. In fact, it does not mean this at all. The shiva lingam is the symbol of higher consciousness. The word lingam literally means 'occult symbol'.
What is the real form of the human mind and the human emotions? Artists all over the world have tried to express the form of emotion through their art. How do you represent fear, love, hatred or ecstasy so that someone else can actually experience it? Do these things have form or are they formless? They do have a form, but they are not conceivable as such. You have to draw symbols for them, and it is only through those symbols that you come to understand what fear, love, hatred, etc., are all about.
Now, what is the real form of your higher self? When you are a little beyond the mind, what is the form of your consciousness? When you have become perfect in mind, siddha, what is the form of your consciousness then? And when you are in deep meditation and you have forgotten everything that is happening outside, what is the form of your consciousness at that time? It is so difficult to describe. You have to use the language of symbols in order to understand it.
According to the symbology of kundalini yoga, the shiva lingam can have three different colours. These three colours represent the three stages of purification or evolution of consciousness- dim, consolidated and illumined. In mooladhara chakra there is a smoky lingam known as dhumra lingam. Ajna chakra has a black lingam, the itarakhya lingam, and in sahasrara chakra is found the luminous jyotir lingam.
When a person of un-evolved mind concentrates, he experiences the shiva lingam in the form of a smoky column. It comes and then disperses, comes again and disperses, and so on. With deeper concentration, as the restlessness of the mind is annihilated, the lingam becomes black in colour. Then, continued concentration on that black shiva lingam produces the jyotir lingam within, the illumined astral consciousness. Therefore, the black lingam of ajna chakra is the key to the greater spiritual dimension of life.
Like the shiva lingam, Shiva also represents the higher self in man which is responsible for universal reality. He is symbolized as a human figure- a man like a sannyasin, wearing a deer skin, living in the wilderness, always seated in the lotus posture and always in samadhi and meditation. His body is besmeared with ashes. These are not ordinary ashes, they are the remains of the burning bodies. This symbolizes the purification of mundane desires through the fire of tapas, or austerity. His arms, neck, shoulders and waist are girdled with hissing snakes, representing the awakened force of kundalini. In his matted hair, on the left side, he holds a crescent moon, the fourth day moon, representing ida nadi. On the right side of his hair is the Ganga, falling with great force, representing pingala nadi. Facing Shiva is a tortoise which has withdrawn into its shell. Its introversion represents the introverted mind of the yogi, remaining fully concentrated on spiritual life, the inner being or the inner point.
These are all symbolic aspects of higher consciousness achieved during deep meditation. When you have withdrawn yourself from body consciousness, mind consciousness, matter consciousness and name and form consciousness, at that time, this is what you understand as Shiva.
There are two other symbols associated with Shiva which are especially important - the trident and the drum. In Sanskrit the trident is known as trishula and the drum as damaru. These two symbols relate to the spiritual practices of every yogi.
Man has three bodies - the gross, the astral and the causal. These three bodies are like three fortresses, and are symbolically represented as a steel fortress, a silver fortress and a gold fortress. Now, beyond these three fortresses is a being which you have to tackle.
If you want to unite with that being, then you will have to somehow penetrate through these three impenetrable fortresses. The body, as you know, is so very difficult to transcend, and the mind and emotions are just as difficult. The difficulty is that we are not able to transcend the idea of the body, the mind or the individual consciousness, but still we want to realize that which is infinite. The yogi has to transcend these three; only then can he reach the innermost being.
Now these three fortresses, symbolic of the body, mind and ego consciousness, are of different depths, and belong to the three gunas, or different qualities of nature- sattva, rajas and tamas. The gunas can be related to each of the three fortresses. At the grossest level, sleep represents tamas, meditation represents sattva and the active life represents rajas. When the mind is active, full of desires, ambitions, passions, fulfilments and frustrations, that is the rajasic state. When there is laziness, dullness, lethargy and inactivity, that is tamas. And when you have realized the futility of life, and when the mind is calm and completely unperturbed under any conditions of life, that is sattva or harmony. The trishula, or trident, represents these three states of nature in relation to the three bodies.
Now, when you practice meditation, at a certain moment you come in contact with certain inner sounds. These sounds are very many and they have been fully explained in nada yoga. Nada yoga is a sphere of experience and everybody who practices has to pass through that stage of experience. You begin to experience various sounds. They are known as nada, the sound, or as the inner melody, inner voice or inner music.
Many yogis and mystics have spoken about this experience. These mystical inner sounds have been heard by many people in deep meditation. Some have heard the flute, others the sound of a bird, a thunder clap, or other movements. And they have described their experiences in their songs and hymns and in the various scriptures.
The drum which you see with Shiva represents this aspect of experience. At a certain stage of meditation, one can hear the beating of the little drum called damaru. This is an indication of transportation of consciousness from this finite realm to that infinite one. So, the shiva lingam, the trident and the drum are not external objects; they are symbolic expressions of the deeper nature of reality.
In India, Shiva is very, very popular. There is a particular sect, philosophy and tradition called Shaivism, in which all of these symbols play an important part. This tradition is very strong in Kashmir and South India. There are many hundreds of important books written on this philosophy and this symbology.
All the Shaivites in India believe that the easiest way to approach the reality is to worship Shiva. There are twelve important centres of Shaivism throughout India. One of them is in Kathmandu, and is known as Pashupatinath. Pashu means 'animal' and pari means 'master'; this is symbolic of the yogi who has gained mastery over his animal nature.
Another centre of Shaivism is situated in the southern corner of India, in Rameshwaram. But one of the most important centres is right here in Bihar, only ninety miles from Monghyr, in Baidyanath. It is such a very important place that the people in India call it the criminal court of Lord Shiva. Do you know what a criminal court is? It is a place where all kinds of problems are cleared up very quickly.
In the months of July/August, if you happen to come to Bihar, you can see millions of people in orange dress - farmers, rich men, poor men, sick men, everybody, including the Maharajah of Nepal. They take a pilgrimage on foot to the Ganga and carry some Ganga water back to the temple at Baidyanath. Then they pour it over the shiva lingam and touch it. Just imagine- the shiva lingam there is almost fiat now because so many people have been worshipping it for thousands of years. Such is the popularity of Shiva in India.
Although there are thousands of Shiva temples, there are only twelve such leading centres in India. Now, the lingams installed in these centres are not called shiva lingams; they are called jyotir lingams. Jyotir means light; it is the opposite of darkness. What is darkness? When you can see nothing; when you can't identify anything; when all the colours and distinctions are completely merged and you are not able to distinguish what is what. But when there is light, you can identify everything.
So, man is in darkness. He does not know what is beyond this plane of existence, this mundane experience. Perhaps he knows a little bit about dreams, but he is not aware that there could be other, greater states of awareness, or that he could attain them. Therefore, the inner field of man is completely in darkness. If you close your eyes, what do you see? Nothing. Sometimes, if you do a little japa or mantra, you can see something like a movie screen or a television; otherwise you don't see anything.
When you are angry, you know that you are angry, but you can't see it. When you are afraid, you know that you are afraid, but you don't know exactly what it is you are afraid of, because there is darkness. If there were light you could see the fear, love and hatred; you could see everything. Many times people don't exactly know what is in their minds, because they only think, they don't see.
So there should be light; there should be enlightenment. In that enlightenment, you begin to see things. You begin to see your animal nature and your spiritual nature; you begin to see your mental problems and your suppressions, repressions and oppressions. You begin to see all the subjective things that you have not seen before. When does it happen and how does it happen? It can only happen if there is enlightenment. The light grows more and more and you begin to see more and more. You begin to see, not just think.
In the same way, the higher experience also can be seen, and the twelve jyotir lingams symbolize that enlightened state of man. They are situated all over India and throughout the year people visit them on pilgrimages. There is never an inauspicious time to see them.
The courtyard of a Shiva temple may cover miles, but the temples themselves are always very congested. The moment you enter a temple, the first thing you come across is a bull. This bull is called Nandi and is representative of the total ego of man's personality.
You may have seen pictures of Lord Shiva riding this bull; it is his vehicle. The bull does not ride on Shiva, Shiva rides on the bull. But in our case, it is the bull which is riding on us.
This bull also represents our first introduction to our self. When you want to go in, first you must confront the animal, or instinctive aspect, within yourself. The animal is not merely an owl, goat, deer or horse; it represents the lower instincts of the consciousness.
Then, inside the temple, you find a shiva lingam, an oval shaped stone. Most of these oval shaped stones come from the bed of the River Narmada, which flows through the centre of India and emerges into the Arabian Sea. I don't know how it produces these stones. The lingams found in all the different Shiva temples of India come only from this particular source- the zone of the Narmada River.
However, the twelve jyotir lingams which I have talked about do not come from the Narmada River. There is a clear distinction in India between these two types of lingams. One type is called Narmadeshwara lingam because it comes from the Narmada zone. The second type is called swayambhu (self-born) lingam, because it originated at the same place where it now stands. The twelve jyotir lingams are swayambhu lingams. They were not removed from their original place; rather, a temple was erected around them. On the other hand, Narmadeshwara lingams are ceremoniously brought to a particular temple and installed there.
The shiva lingam is erected on a platform, over which hangs a copper pot filled with water. From a small hole in the pot a little bit of water drips over the shiva lingam all the time, day and night. The little bit of water that drips from that copper pot represents the constant process of nectar in the human mechanism. As you may know, in the higher realms of human consciousness, there is a constant flow of nectar and this is what makes you immortal.
Once a year, all the devotees of Shiva observe a special day called Shiva ratri. Shiva, of course you know, means 'the higher consciousness', and ratri means 'night'. Shiva ratri is known as 'the dark night of the soul'. The story of Shiva ratri is most interesting, and has much meaning behind it.
Lord Shiva was engaged to Parvati, the daughter of the Himalayas, who came from a kingdom high in the peaks of those majestic mountains, which are always covered with snow. Now, a day was fixed for the marriage ceremony. It is the tradition in Indian weddings for the boy to go with the marriage party to the girl's home and escort her to the ceremony. So Shiva went with his kith and kin to Parvati's snow capped kingdom, where all the arrangements for the reception had been made. It was a beautiful city with beautiful men and women, and everyone was happily anticipating the arrival of the groom's party. The little children were especially happy because in India the wedding celebration is a time of great excitement for children.
Eventually Shiva and his party arrived, and the children went with great anxiety and excitement to meet them. The moment they saw the party, however, they became terribly frightened. Some children fainted on the spot, some developed epileptic fits and the rest all ran. The ladies who were waiting and watching from the balconies also fainted, because Shiva was riding on a huge bull, he had one cobra here and another cobra there, and ashes were smeared all over his body. Behind him followed a procession of ghosts and demons. Some had their mouth in their stomach, some had only one foot and some had three. They were all freaks of nature. What a peculiar party it was!
Then everybody brought this news to Parvati's mother. They said, 'Your son-in-law is horrible! And his companions are absolutely obnoxious!' Parvati's mother could not believe it. She came out and looked for herself and was also horrified. She decided, 'I am not going to give my daughter to this wretched fellow.' And there was pandemonium in the whole city. Everybody was disturbed. But Shiva kept moving with his companions steadfastly towards the house where the marriage ceremony was to take place.
According to the Hindu marriage customs, there is a particular area which is designated as the marriage area. Now, as soon as Shiva and his party passed through the portals of that area, they were all transformed. Shiva became a beautiful young man, and all his companions became divine beings, with shining robes, glittering adornments, sweet scents and garlands of flowers. And so the marriage was duly performed amidst great joy and celebration.
Now, at the time of marriage in India, the boy has to announce his whole genealogical lineage - his father, his father's father, etc. So when they asked Shiva who his father was, he said, 'No father, no mother.' 'Then how were you born?' they inquired. He said, 'I was never born.' 'But', they said, 'you look so young!' 'I am forever young,' Shiva replied. Then they asked, 'Where is your home?' Anywhere in the forest,' he said. 'Well,' they said, 'you must have some relatives at least.' He said, 'All the ghosts, dead souls, apparitions and spirits are my relatives; fear and anger are my relatives; they are all my relatives.'
Then they asked him, 'Well, where is our daughter going to live?' 'Oh,' Shiva said, 'no special arrangements are necessary; she can just become part of me. One half of my body can be male and the other half female.'
You see, Shiva and Shakti are neither male nor female. They symbolize our highest aspect of life. The divine union which takes place when Shiva comes to meet Shakti is Shiva ratri. It represents enlightenment in absolute darkness, the evolution of creation in empty space, the manifestation of knowledge in nirvikalpa. When the whole of maya sleeps, this is what sannyasins call Shiva ratri. It signifies the passing of the entire universe and all worldly attachments into the unconscious state where there is no abode nor any sensual possibilities. This is the end of all directions into which the mind, the sun, moon and stars have all disappeared. Here the fire of passion is extinguished and there prevails only shoonyata. This state of consciousness is called Shiva or Shankara, the state of siddha.
But this is not the final state, the ultimate aim. Beyond shoonyata where everything is submerged, the universal consciousness which is Shiva and the universal power which is Shakti meet in advaita mudra in great bliss and happiness, fear and surprise, on the highest summit of Mt. Kailash. Then afterwards, Shiva escorts Parvati back down to the earthly level. Thus they become one, but for the sake of the universe, they live and function as two, in order to make the higher knowledge manifest in the material world. This is why householders as well as sannyasins celebrate Shiva ratri.