Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi

Mahashivaratri Diary, 2014

by Joanne Sullivan (Divya)

For decades, Shivaratri has been the night when Swami Veda has chanted the thousand names of Shiva and then stayed up all night in meditation and prayer with us. It is my favorite holiday here. Mahashivaratri at SRSG also carries the banner of magnificent chanting by local priests. These priests are family. Their chanting sets the night ablaze.

They chant before Swami Veda’s deeply personal utterance of the thousand names of Shiva ---a mysterious procession of the many forms and faces shimmering in one cosmic being. They chant again at the Virabhadra Temple up the road after Swami Veda’s guided meditation at the SRSG Meditation Hall that follows the thousand names of Shiva.

This year, most of our priests, except Pandit Gairola, are in Tarkeshwara doing a special puja and akhanda japa of Mahamrtunjaya mantra for Swami Veda. There are other priests conducting the Mahashivaratri prayers. The night is full.

In years past, just when you think the night is complete, the priests go to the ancient Virabhadra Temple to chant and lift the night still higher at Swami Veda’s side. Five or 20 or 35 of Swami Veda’s students converge there, hoping for a chance to get inside the tiny temple even for a heartbeat. It becomes more than a place at this point. It is now spanda, pulsation, throb. It’s alive.

On that night, even if you only get a glimpse of the light inside the Virabhadra Mandir, or even if you are standing outside the whole time, something in you turns and changes. You are never alone there. The night may chill you to the bone, but the whole big outdoors can feel like you are in a room alone with God. Nandi, the bull, is there too. Nandi is Shiva’s bull and always sits outside a Shiva temple. He hears every secret conversation between Shiva and Shakti. In 10 years of Shivaratris, only once did I not get inside the temple that night. I was outside. But like I said, even outside was inside and it didn’t matter.

This year’s Mahashivaratri was powerful. It began with the evening meditation with Swami Veda before dinner. He did not physically attend the subsequent activities because he was not well but I am sure I was not the only one who felt him fully present throughout the night.

Shivaratri 2014 was quite dramatic due to the weather. It was a much smaller crowd than usual, perhaps because of heavy rain and high winds. Early in the ceremony, the tent came down in the howling wind. The rented chairs and carpets were utterly soaked in the downpour. The rain stopped but the strong winds continued. During the 5-hour ceremony, the lights kept going off and on. People shined their flashlights toward the place where the offerings were made and prayers conducted. People were inwardly absorbed in prayer and meditation. There were loud crashing sounds as the tent, the Shiva Temple grillwork and a screen fell due to high winds. Later, one of our priests knocked another loose screen down so that it was not another hazard in the high winds.

Despite the high drama of howling winds, lights off and on, the tent and screens falling, there was still an abiding peace throughout the night. At one point, one man had been sitting on the side by a tree. Concerned that the tree might come down in the strong wind, he encouraged others to join him and stand instead at the front entrance to the temple. No sooner did he move to precisely that spot when the upper screen or grillwork blew down and fell on him. Another lady was also hit hard by these falling objects but thankfully neither was seriously hurt.

Much of the following day was bright and sunny but finally gave way to more rain.

Shiva, the Auspicious One

Mahashivaratri is perhaps the most important day of the year for those who practice Shiva meditation. Fasting is a common practice on this day. In the Hindu pantheon, Shiva is limitless, formless and transcendent.  He is the one who draws everything back to its origins. His name literally means “the auspicious one.”

He is often called Shiva, the destroyer, but this is something of a misnomer. While indeed he is sometimes shown in a fearsome form he is no less formidable as the benevolent one, the great bestower of peace.

The lingam is prevalent as his symbol because the lingam is viewed as the closest to formlessness of any known form. At Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama, the crystal Shiva lingam is Shiva’s symbol.

I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

In the summer of 1970 after his initiation into samadhi by his master H.H. Swami Rama, Dr. Usharbudh Arya (now Swami Veda) chanted four verses of Shankaracharya’s Hymn to Shiva with us every evening. He says he cannot sing but those of us who were there can tell you that the manner in which he sang was not music but something much more. Each verse ends with the affirmation “I am Shiva, I am Shiva. Shivoham, shivoham.”

You might enjoy seeing Swami Veda’s translation of The Hymn to Shiva by Shankaracharya: http://www.swamivedablog.org/i-am-shiva

The Dance of Shiva

Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama is Virabhadra territory. Virabhadra Road and the small village bearing the same name remind us of a time outside of time where Shiva’s Dance began. Shivaratri 2014’s high winds, dark clouds and strong rains felt a bit like Shiva-Nataraja, the lord of dance, and the birth of Virabhadra, though far less frightful.  

Who was Virabhadra? You have to read the story of Parvati offering herself into the flames of the sacrificial fire at the grand puja given by her father, Prajapati, the progenitor of the universe. He had called a gathering of all the gods but did not invite his own daughter Parvati and her husband Shiva. Shiva had tried to dissuade his consort from going to her parents’ celebration but Parvati insisted on going nonetheless. Once there, hearing insults to her husband and herself, she leapt into the sacred fire. The Meditation Center in Minneapolis has an audio file of Dr. Arya telling the Story of Shiva at a summer retreat in the early 1970’s. It is a classic.

When Shiva saw through his third eye what had happened, he yanked a hair from his head and threw it to the ground. Up sprang a genie of sorts—Virabhadra-- whom Shiva ordered to go and destroy Prajapati’s puja and bring back the charred remains of Parvati. In a flash Virabhadra was back. Shiva lifted Parvati into his expansive arms and began his cosmic dance. At that impasse all the gods feared that Shiva would invoke the end of the world in a dance of destruction. They went to Vishnu and begged him to intercede. He did.

Out came the golden, spinning discus of Vishnu, that same wheel of light that Krishna, a form of Vishnu, used to conquer demons. The discus was thrown and upon impact, slowed the whirring force of Shiva’s dance as it struck the corpse of Parvati (now Sati). Her limbs flew in every direction, landing all over India. Each place where one of her limbs fell is called a Shakti Peetha  and marks one of the 51 (by some accounts, 52) sacred sites where one of her limbs had fallen. Surkanda Devi, for example, which is a few hours from SRSG, is said to be the place where Parvati’s (Sati’s) neck fell. People with neck or Visuddha chakra issues often make a pilgrimage to that mountain. Swami Ram Tirtha is said to have roamed those forests and performed a great tapas there. Madhusudana Sarasvati himself may have ventured there. He had been chased out of Benares by the learned pandits. He eventually died in Haridwar, a pilgrim’s trek away from Surkanda Devi.

In 2004, I wrote:

I heard this on the wind again and again coming down the mountain of Surkhanda Devi, no one else around. I had found it in a book at SRSG one day when I needed it badly.

He excels who is equally disposed towards a selfless benefactor, a well-wisher, a foe, one who is indifferent, an arbiter, the vindictive, a relative, good people, even sinners, as well as all others.

I had first come across that passage in a translation of Madhusudana Sarasvati’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. (Madhusudana Saraswati Bhagavad Gita, Swami Gambhirananda, translator, Kolkata, India: Advaita Ashrama, 1998. ISBN 81-7505-194-9). I had been working in Swami Veda’s Cottage 8. Someone said something that upset me and I found myself swiftly heading out the door to my cottage. No sooner did I get inside my cottage when I picked up a book sitting on the ledge just inside. It was Madhusudhana Sarasvati’s Gita Commentary and I opened it randomly to the page with those very words above. (Is there really such a thing as random?!) It definitely stopped me in my tracks as if to say this is something you need to ponder and take to heart!

It was one of those pivotal events that seemed to feel like the invisible friend tapping you on the shoulder saying “Pay attention!” The truth of those words is often before me and insists on absolute change. Admittedly I have a long way to go but it is something I keep coming back to.

Stormy Baba

One of the familiar names attributed to Swami Rama was Stormy Baba because of the frequency of storms in his wake. Moreover, there was something about Swami Rama that was less man and more a force of nature. Those who had the good fortune to stand in his presence can tell many stories about this elusive yet palpable quality surrounding him. Last night was no different and I am sure that more than one of us felt his presence and that of his disciple Swami Veda on this Mahashivaratri.

Last week’s hailstorm

Though the stormiest Shivaratri of the last 10 years, it was not the hailstorm of last week which wiped out so many buds bursting with spring, yet now visible as the pathways to new life. May we all see the storms of our lives as gifts that invite renewed commitment and change!

The bougainvilleas in the front row of sadhaka cottages now show many baby buds. The skeletal stems of what had been nasturtiums heading for full bloom are already twinkling like occasional small stars of gold, sienna and vermillion.

Yet after that hailstorm which announced deep change, not everything was given back. The bowers of flowers I had never seen before that hung like rooftops linking adjacent cottages and the many rooftop vines studded with morning glories, jasmine and others have been swept away---for now. Our gardeners have been up on the rooftops cleaning the detritus left in the wake of the previous week’s ice storm which our children romped in the following morning, making wee snowmen and having a go at snowball fights.

Swami Veda returns

Swami Veda returned Monday to SRSG after medical tests and 2 months of seclusion in Delhi.  The days leading up to Mahashivaratri here are always filled with the frolicking sounds of carnival rides in the neighborhood of the ancient Virabhadra Temple to which the Himalayan Tradition is bound. The land SRSG is built on is in some sense Virabhadra land and the road outside the gate is Virabhadra Road. Some say Virabhadra Temple is the oldest temple in Rishikesh and there is an official government-of-India archaeological site across the road from the present Virabhadra Temple, a tiny gem that lights up as large as the cosmos every Shivaratri.

The Procession of events

As I mentioned earlier, every year the stunning chanting in our own crystal Shiva lingam temple culminates in Swamiji’s chanting the thousand names of Shiva. Then we celebrate at deep zero with a subtle manasa pujameditation which Swami Veda leads in our meditation hall. Following that, Swami Veda goes with a few priests to the Virabhadra Temple up the road and some of us also walk there or ride in a car. There they invite the magnificent divine with the ancient intonations of a night that welcomes the dawn. The world feels fresh and new.

The Holy Presence

Last night however was the first time in more than 10 years that Swami Veda did not come to the SRSG Shiva temple nor to the Virabhadra temple in the wee hours of the morning.  He went to Sadhana Mandir earlier in the evening but was not well enough to physically be with us throughout the entire night. Yet, in truth, the night felt no different from previous Shivaratris and Swamiji’s full presence was felt. His brightness was stirring and whirring in that beautiful night but without his physical form among us at SRSG. Swami Ritavan and Swami Ma Radha conducted the puja on Swami Veda’s behalf in a manner that was inspiring in mindfulness and humility. The wind, rain, falling objects and flashing lights did not disturb the mystery and stillness of Shivaratri.

When many voices seem like a perfect chord

In the Shiva lingam temple on our grounds, at a certain point the chanting turned from distinctly different strains of melodies to one dissonant and dynamic stream. It felt like a confluence of sacred streams, almost as if one could reify the unnamable. One could still hear the words but the individual voices shifted to a different current. It was like a switch being turned on or a merging into a different frequency.

Why do the Murtis seem different?

Now what I am about to tell you will most certainly cause you to think I am mad. The murtis here are alive. Their faces change. I am not the only one who has observed this and I have no idea how it works though rarely will you find anyone here who talks about this. Yes, I have witnessed that they have been imbued with mantras at the moment when they turn from stone monuments to living murtis. This is all I know. I have no idea how these stone figures seem to know me and I, them.


Last night, I looked at the murtis. I have never seen the image of our Shiva Temple’s Durga, like that before. I could not place my gaze on her. She seemed to be in some sort of light-cloud of perpetual stirring. Though clearly visible she was in some sense behind a curtain. It was as if she said –“not now---not for the eyes.” In the morning, I could once again look at this image of Durga and feel a change and a not-exactly-what-one-might-call an interchange between us.


Kartikeya is Ganesha’s 6-headed brother. As such, he is the one who grants the six siddhis to the yogi.  He is called by many names and sometimes known as the god of war but he is always known as the god of victory. Some of the weapons associated with Kartikeya are a spear with which he purifies all human ills; a javelin which represents his protection far and near; a discus, symbolic of his deep knowledge of the truth; a mace symbolizing his indefatigable strength; and a bow which suggests his ability to conquer all ills. He rides a peacock. This represents his absolute destruction of ahamkara, the I-maker. Most accounts place Kartikeya coming quite some time after Ganesha, the first-born offspring of Shiva and Parvati. The image, i.e. the murti, of Kartikeya also came late to SRSG’s Shiva lingam temple.

Last night, for the first time, I saw his heads in perpetual motion as in a moving picture looking this way and that, not as a fixed stone image. There was something of light in that movement--- hard to describe.

Ganesha (Ganapati)

Ganesha looked straight at me which I cannot say I have felt before with that image of Ganesha. There was something of “the moment is now” and “wait no more” in his expression. I understand this. As someone who has been getting on and off the horse of sustained sadhana for many years, perhaps lifetimes, this was a call to rise up, to wake up.

Keep a fixed meditation time

No matter how many times I renew my commitment, I seem to waffle between random calls and the choice to keep a fixed meditation time. Both Swami Rama and Swami Veda emphasized the importance of keeping a fixed daily meditation time. This is the first gate, the guidepost to practice and the gateway between lives, if I understand correctly. It is the letter you yourself write to your next address.

Dwell in your own quiet, ineffable strength

Swami Rama often spoke of three kinds of grace: grace of God, grace of guru and grace of self. Of these, he said, the greatest is the grace of self. “You have to light your own lamp,” he would say and something like: When you take 2 steps, I take 10 steps for you.

There are so many dear, old friends here who are inspiring. One example is Zia from London, who is as physically tiny as she is strong. She stood for several hours outside the temple in the strong, cold winds on this Night of Shiva. I motioned for her to come into the temple which was almost completely full. In India, there is always room for one more. She indicated in a gesture that she was fine outside, peering in through the walls of the temple glass. Some people seem to abide in a fiercely quiet fortitude and make no noise about it.

I love what she recently said to me:

I always told my children that whatever comes your way in life is your own self-addressed package. Don’t shoot the messenger.

For more on the various symbols and observances of Shivaratri see http://www.ahymsin.org/docs2/News/1304Apr/08.html

Photos courtesy of Dr. Dharmesh Tewari



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