Understanding Shiva and Maha Shivaratri

Maha Shivaratri is celebrated in honor of Shiva, one of the trinities of Hindus. Shiva occupies the highest level in importance in most of the Hindu texts, and is also acknowledged in many cultures beyond India and Hindus. Although there are more than one legend associated with Maha Shivaratri, such as the marriage of Shiva to Parvati on this occasion, worshipping of Shiva on this night to get rid of sins, or get enlightenment, the most common legend connects this night to the cosmic dance or tandav of Shiva that initiates creation, preservation, and destruction of the cosmos.

Attributes of Shiva in his representation (damaru, trishul, moon on his head, serpent around neck, etc.), sitting bare body in yogic posture, tandav dance, opening of third eye, and focus of worship by all, including devas and other members of trinities, particularly prominent incarnations of Vishnu, all indicate to the symbolism in gross, thoughts, and action (GTA).

GTA are all the features of the physical world, which gets created, remains sustained for a fixed period, and then ends. This phenomenon is entirely attributed to Shiva to initiate through the sound of damaru and movements of the dance. Shiva is fully part of the physical world, thus has a place of abode (Himalaya), marries to the daughter (Parbati) of Himalaya or Parbatraj (meaning mountain), and has children, just like any other mortal being on the Earth.


Among the trinities, Shiva is thus the lord or swami of the physical world. Brahma is the lord of the subtle world where his thoughts are all that are needed to create the cosmos. Brahma does not have any physical possessions, although he has manasputra (created through thoughts of mind) like Indra, Narada, etc. Vishnu on the other hand does not have even mental creation, as He is the lord of the causal world, where cause of everything exists.  As per the common practice each of these trinities respect and differ to the lord of the world they enter. For example, Vishnu incarnation Ram and Krishna both worship Shiva when on Earth to signify the supremacy of the Shiva element in the physical world.

With the above understanding, one should approach the Shiva and Maha Shivaratri to rationally and practically understand their importance and practice. Many times Shiva is considered the destroyer, even though the literal meaning of Shiva is auspicious. Shiva is a yogi par excellence sitting bare body in the coldest place on Earth to indicate that He has mastered the physical world, thus proving his lordship beyond any doubt.

On a related note, Om symbol is used with many chants and rituals of worship, but is most commonly associated with Shiva, like in Om Namah Shivay! Linguistically, Om or more appropriately Aum is expressive meaning of Shiva. It starts with the ‘a’ sound as the open vowel with only aspiration of air, passes through the closed vowel ‘u’, still using the air but changing the shape of mouth in the middle, and finally the last letter ‘m’ of the last of the five classes (guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental, and labial) of the consonants of the Devanagari-aksharmala (alphabets) arranged in two dimensions. The Aum thus represents the sutra or formula with capacity to express the entire visible world (i.e., the expressed physical world). Therefore, this linguistic expression is also consistent with Shiva being the lord of the physically expressed world.


Why is then Shiva considered as the destroyer of the world? He is not the destroyer of the world, he presides over the physical world that is by nature destroyed. Anything that is created is destroyed by nature. However, people mistakenly attribute Shiva to be the destroyer. Similarly, people attribute Shiva with intoxication, such as cannabis and bhang, even though Shiva is yogi, totally away from all these vices. People considered him to be the epitome of purity who can live without even food, and thus started giving up their vices by surrendering those items at his alter, which others thought was an offering to Shiva. And, this was taken to justify their vices citing Shiva associated with those habits.

On the occasion of the Maha Shivaratri, traditions have provision for fasting, chanting, night vigil to give up even sleep, to indicate sacrifice rather than indulgence. Maha Shivaratri is to remind us of the nature of our existence and its ultimate disappearance. It is a celebration of this understanding which makes us free from the fear of even death.


-Prof. Bal Ram Singh, School of Indic Studies, Institute of Advanced Sciences, Dartmouth, MA, USA

The Idea of God (Part-II)

– Dr. Koenraad Elst

Continued from Part-I

Mono- versus polytheism

The Sumerian ideogram Dingir was read as ElIn neighbouring Akkadian, a Mesopotamian dialect of Semitic. We know this word very well through Hebrew, a northwestern (Levantine) dialect of Semitic. Thus the names Uriel, “my light is God”; Gabriel, “my strength is God”; Michael, “who is like God?” But as we shall presently see, these names now carry a meaning of “God” that has resulted from a revolution, viz. from poly- to monotheism.

A derivative of El is Eloha, “a deity”, “a god”. We know it mainly through the plural form Elohim, “gods”, “pantheon”. Strangely, this form has survived the theological revolution described in the Bible book Exodus under the leadership of Moses, ca. 1250 BCE. Here, the many gods were replaced with a single jealous god, yet the plural form Elohim remained but with a singular meaning: God. Thus, the Bible, which received its definitive form only under the Persian empire ca. 500 BCE, when this usage was well-established, starts with the sentence: “Berešit bara Elohim et ha-šamaim ve-etha-aretz”, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The connection with the stars was severed, at least for the Israelites, not all the other nations: “Pay attention lest ye lift your eyes up to the sky for seeing sun, moon and stars, that ye be led astray and adore and serve them, those whom the Lord your God hath assigned to all the nations under heaven.” (Deut. 4:19)

A synonym of Elohim, referring to the same jealous God, is Yahweh. Moses himself introduced this god-name into Biblical tradition. Though new to the Israelites after centuries in Egypt, it must have existed earlier among the Arab (South-Semitic) Beduins as well as among the Northwest-Semitic people of Mari. Moses, when a fugitive from Egyptian law after he was found out to have committed murder, stayed with a Beduin tribe. They had a storm-god Yahweh, best translated as a causative participle of a verb meaning “to move in the sky”, whether “to blow” or “to stoop like a bird of prey”, from an Arab root HWY later attested in the Quran (22:32), but not in the Bible. This meaning is confirmed by the fixed expression Yahweh Sabaoth, “he who causes the motion of the heavenly hosts”, i.e. of the majestic procession of the stars across heaven. Here again we find a stellar meaning associated with a god-name.

Moses saw an apparition of this god in the burning bush. When Moses asks the god who he is, the god expresses his total sovereignty: “I am who I am”, ehyeh ašer ehyeh. Theologians and translators have contemplated this sentence profusely, until in ca. 1900, the German Orientalist Julius Wellhausen hit upon its probable original meaning: it elaborates a pun on the name Yahweh, which the Hebrews misinterpreted folk-etymologically as a causative participle of the verb HYY, “to be”, hence “the being one”, “he who is”, or more philosophically, “he whose essence is existence” “he who necessarily exists”, “he who causes existence to exist”. This edifice of profundities is entirely built on a folk-etymological pun, nothing more. Or to put it more positively: a new conception of the divine was grafted onto an old god.

The Arab form of the originally polytheistic term ha-eloha, “the deity”, is al-Ilāha, also “the deity”. A contracted form is Allāh, “thé deity”, “the god par excellence”, hence “God”. Originally it could refer to any earlier-mentioned god. Thus, Mohammed’s Pagan father was called Abdallāh, “servant of the deity”. Mohammed, in a bid to establish monotheism among the Arabs, reinterpreted Allāhas a synonym of Yahweh. He saw himself as the latest (and even last) one of the line of the prophets of Yahweh, renamed Allāh in Arabia. This way, the star-god El, the Semitic form of Sumerian Dingir, ended up shedding his connection with the stars and becoming the disembodied extra-cosmic Creator-god Yahweh/Allāh. The Quran (6:78, 22:18, 41:37) simply and strictly prohibits star worship.

In the footsteps of the reform movements Brahmo Samaj and Aryan Samaj, many anglicized Hindus claim that “Hinduism too is monotheistic”. This is a very defensive stand, and it is simply not correct. If the Hindu wealth of gods and of ways of worship were not polytheistic, what other religion would be? It seems to us that they are using a word they don’t understand. Monos does not mean “one”, it means “alone”, “one and no other”. Monotheism accepts only Yahweh or Allah, and considers all others as false gods, only good to be destroyed and discarded: Marduk, Ba’al, Osiris, Ahura Mazda, Śiva, Buddha. By contrast, Hinduism is inclusive. The Vedic verse: “The wise call the one essence by many names”, means that the different gods are not false but are essentially the same as your chosen god. There are no “false gods” in Hinduism. Reality is both one and manifold, and Hinduism is not bothered with the question whether the divine is single or many.

This also counts for other Pagan civilizations. When Protestant missionaries set up shop in China, they discovered that a native term roughly meaning “God” was Shangdi, so they appropriated this term as name of the Christian God. (Catholics preferred Tianzhu, the “Heavenly Boss”.) What they did not know, is that the Chinese language mostly does without the separate category of a plural, so the same word can be both plural and singular. Shangdi does not so much mean “the Sovereign on High”, as rather “the Powers on High”. In Chinese, even the grammar militates against the contrast between one and many. To monotheists this numerical matter is all-important, worthy of the iconoclastic destruction of all the “false gods”; but to regular people such as Hindus or Confucians and Daoists, it is just not an issue.


Heaven-worship is truly the universal religion, rivalled only by ancestor-worship. And even then, these two are intertwined. Deceased ancestors are deemed to be in heaven, often actually associated with a specific star. When your father has died, you take your child on an evening walk, and when the stars appear, you point out one of them and say: “There is grandpa, watching over us.” In a Vedic ritual, a zone in the sky, in the Scorpio-Sagittarius area, is designated as the destination of the dead.

For famous people, who had become part of the collective consciousness, the procedure could be to “elevate them to godhood” (Greek: Apotheōsis) by associating them with a specific star or constellation.A case in point from antiquity is Antinoös, the lover-boy of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who drowned himself and was given a star in Aquarius, still named after him. When in the 17th century the southern sky was mapped, one constellation was named after the protection given to Vienna by Jan Sobieski against the Ottoman siege: Scutum Sobieskii, “Sobieski’s shield”, now simply Scutum.

This practice was first attested in writing in Ugarit, Syria, where in ca. 2000 BC famous people upon their deaths were identified or “associated” with a star. In the native Semitic, this practice was named Širk, “association”. The term ought to be well-known today, but with an evolved meaning. When Islam imposed monotheism, it denounced polytheism and idolatry as Širk, i.e. the “association” of a mortal, a creature, with the Supreme Being, the Creator.

India too has known this practice. The stars of the Great Bear are named after the Seven Sages who composed most of the Ŗg-Veda. There are different variations of this list of seven, but one of the Sages who returns in all of them is Vasiṣṭha. He and his wife Arundhātī are associated with the twin stars Mizar and Alcor. In a moderate way, they did graduate to godhood, with a few temples in Himachal and Uttarakhand dedicated to them. Another sage who made it to heaven is Agastya, the Sage who went to the South, and therefore has the southern star Canopus named after him.


At the dawn of history, and practically since the birth of mankind, star worship, partly overlapping with ancestor worship, was the main religion worldwide. With the development of civilization, conceptions of the divine grew away from their referents in nature. India generated a spirituality implying renunciation, and the gods followed suit. The Upanishads signalled a break with the Vedic focus on the gods and reoriented mankind’s attention to the spiritual path. A kind of relation with a kind of gods was restored, but adopting the new focus on Liberation.

Star worship remained alive, as “nothing ever dies in India” (in the words of the late Girilal jain), but that old layer was overlaid with new levels of abstraction. The highest of these was the abstract concept of the Absolute (Brahmaṇ) that appeared in the Upaniṣads and remained, in various guises, in the mai sects of Hinduism. But the lower levels, including the naturalistic, star-related levels did not disappear; it was an organic evolution.

A roughly similar evolution took place in the Greek world and then in the Roman empire. The elites outgrew the colourful pantheon and, mainly through Stoicism, accepted a more abstract and more unitary concept of the divine. In Neoplatonism, which may have been influenced by Indian developments, everything was thought to emanate from “the One”. In China too, “the One” was the name of a unifying abstract concept transcending the many natural gods of everyday religion.

Unfortunately, in the Roman empire, this natural evolution was interrupted and forcibly driven in a particular direction by the imposition of Christianity. However, at the same time, to better insinuate itself in the Greco-Roman culture, Christianity also took over much from Stoicism and Neoplatonism, which appear mainly in Christian morals c.q. theology.The breakthrough of monotheism followed the same pattern as the conceptual development in Hinduism to a some extent, but was unnecessarily brutal and destructive regarding the earlier religion. The same scenario repeated itself even more abruptly with the advent of Islam.

The resulting concept of divine unity (in Islam: tawḥīd) was also much cruder than a what gradual development would have made possible. While superseding the colourful old gods, Yahweh or Allah were much like them in their negative aspects: all too human, too personal, not nirguṇa, “beyond qualities”. As India has shown, it was perfectly possible to move from a naturalistic to a more abstract conception of the divine without destroying the earlier conception.


The Idea of God (Part-I)

– Dr. Koenraad Elst

koenraadMarxDr. Elst, born in 1959 in Leuven, Belgium, studied Sinology, Indology and Philosophy and did his Ph.D. on the ideological development of Hindu Revivalism. He worked as a political journalist and as a foreign-policy assistent in the Belgian Senate, but mainly as a independent writer. He became fairly well-known in India with his argumentation in favour of the Ayodhya temple, now vindicated, and with his work on the Aryan homeland question, still controversial.

All known civilizations have a thing called “god”, plural or singular. They are a category of beings deemed endowed with far more power and a vastly larger longevity than us human beings. For the rest, their characters and functions may vary.

In writing, the idea of “a god” is first attested in the Sumerian ideogram Dingir, which has the physical form of a radiant star. It certainly has the meaning “god”, for it is used as the common determinative for a whole class of names signifying gods. That, indeed, was anciently how a divine being was conceived: as a radiant heaven-dweller. In Babylon and in Harran, each planet was worshipped in a temple of its own.

The pre-Islamic religion was also largely star worship (next to ancestor worship and the worship of special stones like the Black Stone in Mecca’s Ka’ba). Thus, the three Meccan goddesses of Satanic Verses fame, al-Lāt, al-Uzza and al-Manāt, are roughly the Sun, Venus and the Moon. The Ka’ba was dedicated to the moon-god Hubal, and housed a stone fallen from heaven.

Stars were explicitly recognized as gods by prominent philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Some dissident freethinkers however, like the philosopher Anaxagoras and the playwright Aristophanes, thought stars were only burning rocks. After Christianization, when all divinity was invested in an extra-cosmic Supreme Being, the planets were desacralized and reduced to cogwheels in a cosmic machinery set in motion by the Creator and operated by his angels. Though numerically, a large part of humanity now espouses this desacralizing view, it is rather exceptional in the history of religions. The association of gods with stars was pretty universal.

Other properties of a god

Because a star is radiant and stands in heaven, near-permanently visible to all, it is a part of our collective consciousness, our shared frame of reference. This, then, is the operative meaning of “a god” in human life: the personification of an important collective factor difficult to negotiate, and which you have to take into account in the things you plan to do. Thus, Dyaus = heaven, Agni = fire, Indra (“the rainer”) = storm; Vayu = wind, Pṛthivī (“the broad one”) = earth. This principle is then generalized, and gods can be personifications of any category of beings. Thus, Śiva is the personification of the renunciants, unkempt and living in the mountains.

A god is powerful in that he can impact your life. But he is not all-powerful, because he has to share his power with other gods. Rarely if ever is he seen as “the Creator” who stood outside the universe and fashioned it from nothing. Rather, he himself is a part of the universe. Creation is normally seen as only a transformation from formless matter to the present world of form, and in that process, gods may play their part. In that limited sense, the Vedas and Puranas have plenty of “creation” stories. Yet they also assume that the universe as a whole has always been there, though it cyclically becomes unmanifest, only to reappear again. It is an exclusively Biblical-Quranic belief, further propagated by thinkers who elaborate the Biblical or Quranic assumptions, that a single Supreme Being, in a single moment never to be repeated, created the whole universe from nothing.

Gods are imagined to be endowed with personalities befitting the element of which they are the personification. As such, they are also sensitive to gifts and flattery, and may thus be influenced into exercising their power in a partisan, friendly way. That is why people who would never think of appeasing the stormy sea, do devise rituals to appease the sea god, hoping that he will guarantee smooth sailing.

Finally, a star or god is also, as far as a mortal can tell, eternal: it existed before we were born and goes on existing after we have died. As suggested by the extreme longevity of the physical stars, gods are proverbially deemed immortal. Hence the binary: us mortal earthlings versus the immortal heaven-dwellers.



The same meaning of “star”, “radiant heaven-dweller”, is present in Vedic Sanskrit Deva, “the shining one”, hence “a god”. It is also etymologically present in cognate words like Latin Deus, “a god”. One of the Sanskrit terms for “astrologer”, at least since its mention in a 4th-century dictionary, is Daiva-jña, “knower of the gods”, or in practice, “knower of destiny”. Another is Daiva-lekhaka, “gods-writer”, “destiny-writer”, i.e. horoscope-maker. Obviously, the stars here were seen as gods regulating man’s destiny.

A parallel development, but omitting (or only implying) the original link with the stars, is found in Slavic Bog, “the share-giver”, “the apportioner”, “the destiny-decider”, related to Sanskrit Bhaga, and hence to the derivative Bhagavān. Other god-names are more derived from the practice of worshipping, such as the Germanic counterpart God, “the worshipped one”, Sanskrit Huta; or the Greek counterpart Theos, “god”, related to Latin festus, “festive”; feriae, “holiday”, i.e, “religious feast”; and to Sanskrit dhiṣā, “daring, enthusiastic”, dhiṣaṇā, “goddess”, dhiṣṇya, “devout”. But even here, a stellar connection reappears, for the latter word is also a name of Śukra / ”Venus”.

More examples of the personification of heavenly phenomena as gods are found throughout the Vedas. The deities Mitra and Varuṇa represent the day sky (hence the sun, here remarkably called “the friend”) c.q. the night sky, with its stable sphere of the fixed stars, with its regular cycles representative of the world order. The Nāsatyas or Aśvins (“horse-riders”) are thought to represent the two morning- and evening stars, Mercury and Venus, who “ride” the sun, often likened to a horse. Uśa (related elsewhere to Eōs, Aurora, Ostara, and hence to “east” and “Easter”) represents the sunrise.

The Vedic gods were personifications of natural forces, with whom you could do business: do ut des, “I give to you” through sacrifice, “so that you give to me” the desire-fulfilment I want. That type of relation between man and god is pretty universal. That was the ancient worldwide conception of gods. But in auspicious circumstances, religion was to graduate from this stage, and the gods would go beyond the stars.

Transcending the stars

Hindus often react to the above-mentioned view as insufficiently respectful to Hinduism. They insist that it is a Western “Orientalist” fabrication to see the gods as mere personifications of natural forces. In foreign countries, perhaps, but not in India. They think it treats religion as essentially childish, for in children’s talk, or in that by mothers towards children, there is a lot of personification. Yet, we insist that in the Vedic stage of civilization, this conception of gods still prevailed; perhaps already as a rhetorical device built on top of an earlier more primitive stage, but still sufficiently present to leave numerous traces. It shows a deficient sense of history to project the newest insights of Hinduism back onto its past, and to deny the amount of change that has taken place in the conceptual history of Hinduism.

But then two things happened. The first is that from the Upanishads onwards, in a distinctively Indian development, the notion of Self-Realization or Liberation arose. The way to this goal, the Sādhana or what is nowadays called “the spiritual path”, is not about the fulfilment of desires; instead, the point is to decrease your desires, to renounce, to abandon. This was initially conceived as a process in which no god or other being played any role (whether they were deemed to exist or not), making way for a focus on the Self (ātman), equal to the Absolute of pure consciousness (brahman). This Absolute was conceived as being above the pairs of opposites, as devoid of characteristics (nirguṇa). Gods were relegated to the background, to the world of desire-fulfilment through rituals. Self-Realization implied renunciation from desire-fulfilment, and hence a distance from the gods and their favours.

The second development is that the gods persisted or were revived, but in a transformed role. Stellar references are explicit in the case of Sūrya, the sun, and of Soma Candra, the moon; but less so in the case of Viṣṇu, “the all-pervader” (like the sun’s rays), though he has a solar quality; and Śiva (“the auspicious one”, an apotropaeic flattery of the terrible Vedic god Rudra, “the screamer”), the Candradhāra or “moon-bearer”, the Somanātha or “lord of the moon”, has a lunar, nightly quality. The classical Hindu gods Viṣṇu and Śiva represent a revolution vis-à-vis the Vedic worldview. You don’t bring sacrifices “for Liberation” to the Vedic gods, a notion presupposing renunciation from those desires. By contrast, the later “Puranic” gods of classical Hinduism take some distance from the naturalist meaning in which they originate, and do integrate Liberation. Very soon, devotional-theistic movements adapted this new notion to their cult of Viṣṇu, Śiva or Śakti (or elsewhere, Amitābha Buddha or Avalokiteśvara), gods with a distinct personality (saguṇa) but more spiritual. In Kashmiri Shaivism, Śiva gets abstracted as pure consciousness, Śakti as pure energy. With these gods, you could “unite” so as to terminate your susceptibility to worldly suffering, to delusion, to the karmic cycle. They would grant you Liberation, just like the Vedic gods would grant you wish-fulfilment.

But that doesn’t mean Hindus have given up on wish-fulfilment. They still perform rituals to help them get what they want, and often this involves explicitly stellar gods, but conceived as lower gods or “demi-gods”. Astrologers instruct their clients to say prayers before the planet that disturbs their horoscope. The client will get advice on what ritual to practise, when and how and for which god, to ward off the negative influences of the stellar configurations indicated in his horoscope. This will remove the obstacles to his well-being and the fulfilment of his desires. The navagraha or “nine planets” (sun, moon, their two eclipse nodes, and the five visible planets) as a whole are a normal object of worship.

To be continued….


-Dr. Shyam Deo Mishra, Assistant Professor, Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, New Delhi
शङ्कराचार्य ने हिमालय से लेकर कन्याकुमारी तक, तथा अटक से लेकर कटक तक सम्पूर्ण भारत में धर्म-प्रचार की मन्दाकिनी को प्रवाहित किया, जिसमें तत्कालीन पतित, पथभ्रष्ट, एवं बौद्धादि दर्शनों के कुप्रभाववश नास्तिक, एवं आध्यात्मिक रूप से निष्प्राण, जन-मानस पुनः सनातन धर्म से अनुप्राणित एवं पवित्र होकर एक सूत्र में बँध गया। जिस समय आदि-शङ्कराचार्य का जन्म हुआ, भारत में नास्तिकों के प्रभाव से अनार्य-भावों एवं तज्जन्य दुष्कर्मों के प्रगाढ अन्धकार से आच्छादित होकर सनातन धर्म का प्रकाश लुप्तप्राय हो चला था। धर्म के नाम पर नाना प्रकार के अत्याचार किए जा रहे थे। उस समय किसी व्याकुल भारतभूमि पर, वैदिक-धर्म के रक्षार्थ एवं जनता के उद्धारार्थ आदि-शङ्कराचार्य ने अवतार लिया। उन्होंने लुप्त हुए वैदिक-धर्म की रक्षा की। शङ्कराचार्य अवश्य ही भगवान् की विशेष-विभूति थे जिन्होंने अत्यन्त अल्पायु में ही भारत वर्ष से नास्तिकता की दावाग्नि को आस्तिकता रूपी वृष्टि से निर्मूल कर दिया। 
आचार्य शङ्कर के प्रमुख शिष्य विद्यारण्य द्वारा विरचित ‘शाङ्करदिग्विजयम्’ के अनुसार, भारत में धर्म-विप्लव से व्यथित, एवं व्याकुल देवर्षि नारद व ब्रह्मा जी जब उपाय हेतु शिवजी के पास पहुँचे तो शिवजी ने इस संकट की समाप्ति हेतु स्वयं नरदेह धारण करने की बात कहते हुए उन्हें सान्त्वना दी। तत्पश्चात् भगवान् शङ्कर ने शङ्कराचार्य के रूप में, कार्तिकेय ने कुमारिलभट्ट के रूप में, सरस्वती ने भारती के रूप में तथा इन्द्र ने राजा सुधन्वा के रूप में भारतवर्ष में जन्म लेकर अधर्म की समाप्ति की।
आदि-शङ्कराचार्य (शङ्करस्वामी) का जन्म 845 वि.सं. (788 ई.) में केरल प्रान्त के मालाबार पर्वतीय प्रदेश में स्थित वेदपाठी व शास्त्रपारङ्गत ब्राह्मणों से परिपूर्ण कालटी (कालडी) नामक ग्राम में नम्बूरी (नम्बूदरी) ब्राह्मण-वंश में वैशाख शुक्ल-पञ्चमी को हुआ। इनके पितामह विद्याधर (विद्याधिराज) के पाण्डित्य से प्रसन्न होकर केरल के महाराज ने इन्हें आकाशलिङ्ग के महादेव-मन्दिर के प्रधानाध्यक्ष पद से विभूषित किया। विद्याधर के पुत्र शिवगुरु भी उद्भट विद्वान् हुए। सन्तान प्राप्ति हेतु शिवगुरु ने अपनी पत्नी कामाक्षीदेवी (सुभद्रा) के साथ घोर तपस्या करके कुलदेवता पिनाकपाणि शिव से वरदान स्वरूप शङ्करस्वामी को पुत्र रूप में प्राप्त किया।
शैशवावस्था में ही वर्ण परिचय के समय उन्होंने दिव्य भावों का परिचय दिया था। स्वरों, व्यञ्जनों, एवं मंत्र का एक बार उच्चारण सुनकर उन्होंने उच्चारण करना एवं लिखना सीख लिया था। बचपन में ही पिता के स्वर्गवास ने संसार की असारता एवं अनिश्चितता के प्रति शङ्कर को विमुख कर दिया था। पाप-परितप्त संसार के उद्धारार्थ अवतरित शिव-अवतार शङ्कर बाल्यावस्था में ही संसार के प्रति उदासीन, विरक्त होकर स्वयं को पिञ्जर-बद्ध पक्षी के समान मानने लगे। वे कहीं भी कभी भी किसी समाधिस्थ योगी की तरह बैठकर घण्टों तल्लीन हो जाते थे। आठ वर्ष की आयु में ही शङ्कर ने ध्यानावस्थित अवस्था में ‘आत्मबोध’ नामक ग्रन्थ की रचना कर डाली। संन्यास ग्रहण करने की उनकी उत्कट अभिलाषा की पूर्ति के सामने स्नेहमयी जननी का वात्सल्य भाव आड़े आ जाता था ,जो उन्हें प्रतिक्षण व्याकुल किये जा रहा था। अन्ततोगत्वा दैवयोग से एक नाटकीय घटना-क्रम का पटाक्षेप माता द्वारा उनको संन्यास ग्रहण करने की अनुमति से हुआ।
आठ वर्ष की अवस्था में शङ्कर ने गौड़पाद के शिष्य आचार्य गोविन्दपाद से गुरु-दीक्षा ले कर विधिवत् संन्यासी के रूप में अपना जीवन प्रारम्भ किया। उनकी अलौकिक तेजस्विता एवं प्रतिभा से उनके गुरु भी हतप्रभ रहते थे। उनको यह भान हो गया था कि शङ्कर कोई विशेष विभूति है, जो निश्चय ही सोद्देश्य अवतरित हुआ है। उनके गुरु गोविन्दपाद ने 17-18 वर्ष की उम्र में ही शङ्कर को स्नातक की उपाधि से विभूषित करके ‘शङ्कराचार्य’ इस नाम से सम्बोधित किया। वहाँ से अपने गुरुओं की इच्छानुसार, वैदिक धर्म के प्रचारार्थ शङ्कराचार्य ने देशाटन आरम्भ किया तथा जगह-जगह बौद्धों एवं कदाचार युक्त पाखण्डी वाममार्गियों का खण्डन करने लगे। गोविन्दपाद के आश्रम में रहते हुए एक दिन शङ्कर ने गुरु की निर्विघ्न समाधि हेतु आश्रम के समीप प्रवाहित नदी के उद्दाम वेग को अपने योग-बल से स्थिर एवं नीरव कर दिया। प्रतिदिन स्नानार्थ गमनागमन में अपनी वृद्धा माता को होने वाले असह्य शारीरिक कष्ट एवं दुर्बलता को देखकर शङ्कर ने अपने योग-बल से नदी की एक धारा घर के समीप से प्रवाहित कर दी। एक गरीब ब्राह्मण प्रभाकर के मूर्ख, रोगी एवं बर्बर पुत्र को जल के सिंचन मात्र से स्वस्थ एवं विद्वान् ‘हस्तामलक’ बना दिया।
शङ्कराचार्य के शिष्य सनन्दन पद्मपाद, चौलदेशीय ब्राह्मण थे। शङ्कराचार्य से दीक्षा ग्रहणार्थ वह काशी आए। उस समय गङ्गा प्रबल उत्ताल तरङ्गों से प्रवाहित होती थी। जिस दिन वह दीक्षा हेतु गङ्गा के एक छोर पर पहुंचे, प्रबल उत्ताल तरङ्गों से प्रवाहित प्रचण्ड वेगवती गङ्गा को पार करना उन्हें असम्भव प्रतीत हो रहा था। दूसरे छोर पर खड़े शंकराचार्य ने उन्हें हाथ से आने का इशारा किया। उनके संकेत पर दृढनिश्चयी सनन्दन ने जैसे ही नदी में पैर रखा उन्हें कमल-पत्र की अनुभूति हुई। इस प्रकार कमल पत्र पर पद-निक्षेप करते-करते उन्होंने अनायास ही उद्दामगतिक गङ्गा को पार कर लिया।
गुरुओं की आज्ञानुसार शंकर सम्पूर्ण भारत वर्ष में सनातन धर्म की प्रतिष्ठा हेतु उद्यत हुए। उन्होंने महार्जुन में स्थित वाममार्गियों के प्रधान मठ में अपनी योग-माया से सबको नतमस्तक करा दिया। तथा अपने प्रधान शिष्य सुरेश्वराचार्य को वैदिक धर्म के पुनः प्रतिष्ठापनार्थ स्थापित कर दिया। उसके बाद द्रविड़ पाण्ड्य, चोल, रामेश्वरम् में जगह-जगह शास्त्रार्थ करके सनातन धर्म के सही स्वरूप को समझाते हुए अद्वैतमत की स्थापना की। उत्तर की ओर बढ़ते हुए उन्होंने काशी, कुरुक्षेत्र एवं बदरिकाश्रम तक की यात्रा की। उन्होंने सम्पूर्ण भारतवर्ष में सनातन धर्म की स्थायी प्रतिष्ठा व प्रचार हेतु चार स्थलों पर मठ स्थापित किए। अथर्ववेद के प्रचारार्थ बदरिकाश्रम में ‘जोशीमठ’ स्थापित कर अपने शिष्य सनन्दन को यहाँ अभिषिक्त किया। यजुर्वेद के प्रचारार्थ उन्होंने मध्यार्जुन प्रान्त में तुङ्गभद्रा नदी के तट पर ‘विद्या-मठ’ (वर्तमान में शृङ्गेरी मठ) की स्थापना करके अपने सुयोग्य शिष्य सुरेश्वराचार्य को वहाँ नियुक्त किया। तत्पश्चात् भगवान् के उक्त वचन ‘वेदानां सामवेदोऽस्मि’ को चरितार्थ करने हुए शङ्कराचार्य ने श्रीकृष्ण-धाम द्वारकानगरी में ‘शारदा-मठ’ की स्थापना करके वहाँ अपने शिष्य ‘विश्वरूप’ को अध्यक्ष व संचालक नियुक्त किया। ऋग्वेद के प्रचारार्थ जगन्नाथ धाम में ‘ज्योतिर्मठ’ की स्थापना की। वहाँ से चलकर मार्ग में हिरण्यगर्भ, आदित्य, गाणपत्य प्रभृति सम्प्रदायों के आचायों को परास्त करते हुए शङ्कराचार्य बौद्ध धर्म के अनुयायी राजा हिमशीतल की नगरी काञ्ची पहुँचे तथा वहाँ बौद्धाचार्यों को शास्त्रार्थ में परास्त करके सनातन धर्म की पुनः प्रतिष्ठा की। यहाँ भी उन्होंने दो वैदिक-धर्म-प्रचार केन्द्रों ‘विष्णुकाञ्ची’ व ‘शिवकाञ्ची’ की स्थापना की।
आत्मदर्शन द्वारा क्षुद्र आत्मा महान् आत्मा में परिणत होता है। क्षुद्र मानव ब्रह्मज्ञ होकर स्वयं ब्रह्म हो जाता है ‘ब्रह्मविद् ब्रह्म भवति’। शङ्कराचार्य ने ब्रह्मत्व लाभ का यही पथ प्रकट रूप में जगत् के सामने उपस्थित किया। सुनीति एवं सद्धर्म ही उन्नति का सर्वोत्तम मार्ग है अतः, जो अधर्म एवं कुरीतियों को हटाकर इनकी प्रतिष्ठा करते हैं, वो महापुरुष कहलाते हैं। शङ्कराचार्य ने तत्कालीन वाममार्गियों एवं बौद्ध धर्म के विकृत रूप को विस्थापित करके सनातन धर्म पुनः प्रतिष्ठित किया। इनके इतिवृत्त एवं जीवन-चरित्र का अनुशीलन हमें अपने देश के गौरवशाली इतिहास का दिग्दर्शन कराता है एवं अपनी संस्कृति व सभ्यता के रक्षार्थ सतत प्रेरणा भी देता है।

Rediscovering Indian Culture : The Imperatives of Progress

-Mr. M.S. Srinivasan, Senior Research Associate, Sri Aurobindo Institute of Research in Social Sciences, Sri Aurobindo Society, Puducherry, India.

Another key factor which has to be kept in mind is that culture, like any other human organism, is also capable of evolution and progress. The cultural vision of a nation can undergo expansion and enlargement, constantly enriched by new insights from the succeeding generations of seers, prophets and thinkers from within itself or from a cross-cultural fertilization. This fact applies not only to art, science, philosophy and literature but also to religion and spirituality.


Spiritual experience and spiritual thought are also capable of progressive evolution in the form of new discoveries and revelations in the realm of the Spirit and new forms of creative self-expression and synthesis in spiritual thought. So the spiritual intuitions, revelations and discoveries of our modern seers like Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and Swami Vivekananda are also as much a part of our priceless cultural heritage as the revelations of our past seers. This is something which the orthodox exponent of Indian culture still refuses to acknowledge. He is ready to accept a new spiritual teaching if it does not cross the boundaries of the ancient teaching. He is also ready to accept innovations within these boundaries. But when the new revelations go beyond the ancient revelations and enter into unexplored vistas of the Spirit, he becomes suspicious and protests and complains. But is it wise to set such limits to the possibilities of the spiritual quest which is a quest for the Infinite? As Sri Aurobindo points out in one of his letters:

“Truly, this shocked reverence for the past is a wonderful and fearful thing! After all the Divine is infinite and the unrolling of the Truth may be an infinite process . . . not a thing in a nutshell cracked and its contents exhausted once for all by the first seer or sage, while the others must religiously crack the nutshell all over again, each tremblingly fearful not to give the lie to the ‘past’ seers and sages (Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library (SABCL), Vol. 26, On Himself, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, p.135).

Swami Vivekananda also said something similar in one of his lectures:

“Is God’s book closed? Or is it still a continuous revelation going on? The Bible, the Vedas, the Quran and all other sacred books are but so many pages, and an infinite number of pages remain yet to be unfolded.  I would leave it open for all of them. We stand in the present but open ourselves to the infinite future. We take in all that has been in the past; enjoy the light of the present and open every window of the heart for all that will come in the future. Salutations to all the prophets of the past, great ones of the present and to all that are to come in the future (Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 2, Adwaita, Ashrama, Mayavathi, p. 374).

The above inspiring words of Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda reveal the right attitude in dealing with the past and future of Indian Culture. Spirituality is the essence of our national genius: it is the “distinctive compe­tence” of our nation and the source of our national vitality. If the vitality of Western culture lies in its creative and progressive endeavour in secular sciences and the application of science to social progress, the vitality of Indian culture and civilization lies in its creative and progressive endeavour in spiritual science, thought and practice. The future of Indian civilization and culture depends on maintaining this creative and progressive attitude to our unique national genius and harnessing its potential for the progress and development of our own nation and humanity as a whole.

Imparting Indian Culture : A Global Perspective – II

Continued from Part-I

The Inwardness of Indian Mind

How to convey this idea of Indian spirituality to the student of Indian Culture or to an audience? Perhaps through the second characteristics “inward looking” or inwardness. Inwardness means to live from within outwards both individually and collectively. Individually it means not to live in the surface physical, vital or intellectual being but in inner subliminal or spiritual mind or soul, which can intuitively see or feel or perceive the inner invisible realities behind the outer visible forms. Collectively it means to create a society based on psychologic and spiritual principles, which felicitates the inner psychological and spiritual development of the individual towards his spiritual destiny.

Every outer activity, even something mundane like economics, is the outer expression of some inner psychological needs or forces, and these psychological forces are in turn the expression of some cosmic and spiritual truth or forces. The Vedic social ideal is to make the whole collective life of man a conscious expression of these deeper and higher psychological, cosmic and spiritual forces. We may convey the idea of the spirit as the source and goal of this inwardness and spirituality as the quest for this deepest and innermost truth of the spirit in every activity of human life.


In ancient India, philosophy for the sage and seer is the intellectual expression of his spiritual experience.  For others or for the collectivity, philosophy is a means for the intellectual being of the individual and the collectivity to receive, hold or assimilate the truth of the spirit as much as they can, with whatever limitations or imperfections. Religion in ancient India is the attempt to communicate the truth of the Spirit to the instinctive and emotional being of the masses through concrete symbols, images and legends.  Through philosophy and religion, the spiritual truths discovered by sages through spiritual experience were made accessible to the intellectual and emotional being of the community or in other words, we may say light of the spirit descends into the intellect and emotions. This may lead to much dilution of the spiritual truth, but at the same there is a greater diffusion of the truth of the spirit into the masses.

Towards a Balanced Approach

However the student of Indian Culture should not be given the impression that ancient Indian Culture is a total success or something perfect or complete. It was a great attempt to create a civilization based on a spiritual vision.  But the attempt was only a partial success with some glaring failures. It was a great success in religion, philosophy and culture. But in society and politics, the attempt broke-down and went astray somewhere in the middle. In society, Indian attempt achieved only what Sri Aurobindo describes as “half-aristocratic, half-theocratic feudalism” (Sri Aurobindo, Collected Works, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, SABCL, Vol.14, Foundations of Indian Culture Pg.335) with the caste system as its last result. In politics and government the attempt to govern politics by dharma couldn’t be sustained after the epical age. As Sri Aurobindo describes this attempt to govern outer life by Dharma –

“But the difficulty of making the social life an expression of man’s true self and some highest realization of the spirit within him is immensely greater than that which attends a spiritual self-expression through the things of the mind, religion, thought, art, literature, and while in these India reached extraordinary heights and largenesses, she could not in the outward life go beyond certain very partial realisations and very imperfect tentatives,—a general spiritualising symbolism, an infiltration of the greater aspiration, a certain cast given to the communal life, the creation of institutions favourable to the spiritual idea. Politics, society, economics are the natural field of the two first and grosser parts of human aim and conduct recognised in the Indian system, interest and hedonistic desire: Dharma, the higher law, has nowhere been brought more than partially into this outer side of life, and in politics to a very minimum extent; for the effort at governing political action by ethics is usually little more than a pretence” (Sri Aurobindo, Collected Works, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, SABCL, Vol.2 Karmayogin, Pg.210).

 The main aim of the political thought of Ramayana and Mahabharatha is to uplift politics to a higher level by harnessing it to the yoke of Dharma or in other words, dharmic elevation of the political life of the community. But in later ages Dharmic aims were subordinated to the practical and economic interests, Artha. This Indian term Dharma is a pregnant concept with a multidimensional significance. But in general we may define Dharma as the values, ideals or ways of living derived from the higher laws of life or Nature, which leads to the higher evolution of humanity in the mental, moral, aesthetic and spiritual domains of consciousness.

So while it is necessary to highlight our past achievements, the student should also be given a very unbiased and objective assessment of our past failures. In fact our emphasis should be neither on our past achievements nor our failures but on the future work to be done by India. The factors or causes behind our achievements and failures have to be brought out in such a way that it gives a clear direction to the future work to be done.

So our aim in the education of Indian culture should be not to create a narrow-minded and sentimental patriot, but someone who is imbued with the essential spirit and genius of India but at the same time with a broad global outlook which can understand and appreciate the greatness in other cultures.

-Mr. M.S. Srinivasan, Senior Research Associate, Sri Aurobindo Institute of Research in Social Sciences, Sri Aurobindo Society, Puducherry, India.