Millions of devotees keep a pious fast on the occasion of Maha-Shivaratri, which coincides with the 13th/14th day of Krishna Paksha in the month of Phalguna. It is one of the holiest days in the Hindu calendar and the most important among the twelve Shivaratris celebrated throughout the year. Some say this was the day when Siva appeared in his Linga form and the Puranas mention that Shiva wed Parvati on this day. But why do Hindus celebrate this birthday or even the marriage, which was as tempestuous and interesting as most human marriages?
It is said that the planetary positions in the northern hemisphere are in such a conjunction that day that it is a potent catalyst which can help a person improve his spiritual and other energies. Shiva himself is said to have declared to his wife Uma that if this tithi is observed, it could destroy the consequences of all sins and confer final liberation. Some actually believe that Sanskrit mantras like Maha-Mrityunjaya really enhance their powers, on this very night. The Rituals of Shivaratri have also been documented in several Kalpadrumas and Tithi Tattwas some appear quite Tantric in character.
In this small piece, however, we will not focus on rites, rituals, mantras of Shiva-ratri but try to understand when this festival assumed importance among the masses of Bengal. The wedding of Shiva and Parvati is mentioned in the Puranas and in Sanskrit literature as in the writings of Kalidasa, but our concern is to trace when Shiva’s night began to be observed in Bengal at the level of the common man, not just the thin layer that represented the Brahmanical elite. Shiva remains a fascinating Hindu deity as he combines several contradictions — love and war; affection and vengeance: monogamy and sexual deviation; generous and vindictive. Even the English educated urban youth, who usually keep a safe distance from ‘native’ culture and religion, have now become his ardent fans: thanks to writers like Amish Tripathi, famous for his Shiva Trilogy.
Let us also remember that Brahma lost his position in the original Hindu triumvirate, i.e., Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar, and manages with just one temple at Pushkar dedicated to him, among the millions of temples that dot the country. Vishnu has formed a grand alliance by absorbing nine deities through his Dashavatara legend. But Shiva had no such problems as his seat in the great triad is quite secure. He outlived even Indra, who exists now only as a suffix in names like Narendra and Dharmendra and he actually expanded his kingdom rather extensively. It stretches all the way from Mansarovar in Tibet/China to the last tip of southern India, in Kanyakumari. His one dozen Jyotirlingas stretch from Kedarnath to Somnath, and from Baidhyanath to Kashi Vishwanath and then go down to Rameshwaram and again up Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and other states.
Shiva was not originally a great Vedic deity like Varuna or Indra, though he did appropriate some of the qualities of Rudra. Yet his night is said to have been worshipped for ages. The story of Raja Chitrabhanu of the Ikshvahu dynasty and the Ishana Samhita are quoted to prove antiquity. Puranas, like the Shiva, Padma, Skanda, Matsya, and Vayu are also cited. But they refer to Shiva’s mahatmya in general, not necessarily to this Ratri.
Then Bengal has its special problems and Shiva had to go through major humiliation in the medieval period. Bengal’s Mangal Kavyas celebrated the defeat of the great Puranic or Pauranik deities of North India like the Shiva of Kailash and even Durga at the hands of the deities of the poor like Chandi, Dharma, and Mansa. These Mangal Kavyas celebrated the gods and goddesses of the lowest strata, like Manasa, Chandi, Dharma and in Manasa Kavyas, the king of Kailash was defeated repeatedly by the local snake goddess Manasa.
We also need to recall a story of Kalketu, the hunter, who came out of the forests in the Middle Ages to set up a kingdom, where agriculture would be the mainstay, not the hunting. In simple terms, Bengal crafted its own narrative between the 15th and 17th centuries, when more and more persons moved from their earlier professions of hunting, gathering, fishing and herding cattle to agriculture and settled life. The Shiva model that finally succeeded in Bengal was actually the humble peasant of Shivayana literature. He is a potbellied peasant, who smokes ganja and goes around dancing with his ganas and is chased around the village by an angry Parvati, with a broom in her hand. The peasant Shiva became an instant hit among the newly emerging farmers of medieval Bengal. It is this ‘democratisation’ of worship that distinguishes Bengal from other provinces.
But the pre-agricultural past of Bengal was not forgotten. The primary tale of Shivaratri still focuses on a hunter, who has climbed the branch of a bael tree on Shivaratri. He happened to throw leaves throughout the night, quite inadvertently, upon a Shiv Linga that was at the foot of the tree. When he died, Shiva’s hordes fought with Yama’s messengers for the body that was taken directly to heaven, as Shiva wanted to reward him for his act of piety on the night of Shivaratri.
It was later in the 18th century that Shaiva cults from north India managed to establish the pan Indian Shiva in Bengal once again. Among them were the Naths (Goroksha Nath, Mina Nath, etc) and Dashnamis, who set up Tarakeshwar and other temples. Rajas and zamindars like the Punjabi family of Burdwan Raj patronized Shiva and established many temples in Bengal.
Then how old is the celebration of Shivaratri? The fact is that while many of our deities are quite ancient, many of their present festivals like Shivaratri could be fairly recent. We found that the worship of both Saraswati and Vishwakarma can be traced to just a century and a half, once all classes of Bengalis realized that education ensured a decent livelihood and that the factory system brought jobs and economic prosperity. The problem is that Indians use the word ancient or pracheen quite vaguely. A hundred-year-old temple is pracheen and so is Harappa of 5000 years ago.
But we can still safely presume that in Bengal this Ratri must be more than two hundred years old as a mass level festival. This is fairly old when we compare it to many others like the community worship of Durga or Ganesh Chaturthi that were begun to be celebrated only a little more than a century ago. John Murdoch, who compiled the earliest serious and detailed studies of Indian festivals wrote in 1904 that “notwithstanding its reputed sanctity, it is evidently quite modern”. In Bengal, Shiva Ratri seems to have been adopted only in the late 18th or early 19th centuries when bhadralok society started reinforcing male patriarchy as soon as this class became prosperous under British rule. This is the age when Sati increased and widows were treated cruelly or banished to Kashi Vrindavan. Jamai Sasthi was the rage and all socio-religious energies were directed at the husbands’ — praying for a good one was just part of this trend.