Saturday, February 13, 2010


Maha Shivaratri was an amazing spiritual experience, even for the lightweight celebrant.

I'd planned to fast all day, but was already becoming lightheaded and woozy by 1pm. Perhaps teaching the Mysore class at 6:30am and doing primary series right after - for the first time this week (and with some modifications for the ankle) - had something to do with it.

I found myself on Devon Avenue, downing a couple of coconuts before doing some major food shopping for a workshop and the puja that night, and for a potluck on Saturday. The coconuts made everything better.

Afterwords I went Kamdar Plaza to get khaman dhokla for Saturday night. I told the clerk Happy Maha Shivaratri, which surprised her, and that I was fasting, which suprised her even more. She pointed to two trays of food that they usually don't have.

"For Shivaratri," she said. "You try it." I protested that I was fasting (somehow fruit doesn't count) and she said these two foods were OK, and handed me samples of each. One was too spicy. But the other was excellent; deep-fried, with potatoes and buckwheat flour. She asked if I wanted to take some to go. I said no, and then said yes. She put four into a parcel while I quizzed her about what can and cannot be eaten. Apparent fruit is OK, tea and coffee OK, lassis are OK, and the two food items are OK. Apparently she consumes six or seven of the latter of Shivaratri.

Then I asked her what they're called, expecting something long and complicated.

"Pahtiz," she said.

"What?" I asked. It seemed a little too easy.

"Pahtiz," she repeated, as I stared intently at her mouth. "Pahtiz."

"Pahtiz?" I said.

"Oh! Patties!" I said, repeating it. "Hey! That's English!"

* * *

After completing my errands I took a nap, and ate the Pahtiz when I woke up (and immediately felt a little off. As Dharma says, "When you eat fried food, you feel fried."). Then I had chai, to get me through the rest of day.

After doing a cartoon and leading a workshop on the South Side, I headed to the Sivananda Vedanta Center for the Maha Shivaratri celebration. It was just after 10pm - when I'm usually in bed.

When I arrived, they were in the middle of chanting "Om Nama Shivaya," which they do in the same cadence as Dharma, and which I love. They had a harmonium and tablas and it was quite packed with people sitting on the floor. They had to make room for me. In the center of the room there were prayer shawls spread out, with the deities sitting on them.

I sat down and joined the chanting. Immediately I felt something shift in the heart.

After more mantra, the night's first and longest puja began. It involved invocations (chanted by Swami Narayana while Swami Sivananda joined in via recording) and then bathing the deities. Swami Narayana explained that it is how you would treat guests when they come over; you'd purify the space, offer food and a bath, and give them fresh clothes.

The Sivananda Center is very inclusive, and anyone who wanted could help with the bathing. Swami chanted while one person used a small conch to drip milk onto a deity; then the person next to them did the same with water. When it came time for the Devis (female deities) I was invited to drip the milk. It was wonderful to perform such a simple, repetitive (and holy) task, using such simple methods. It focused the mind and made the junk clear out - even though I noticed at one point that I was pouring like the bartenders do in Madrid (holding the bottle/conch very high at first, then dipping lower, and then going back up with a flourish at the end - which is how I've poured since 1985. Sanskaras die hard).

A short time later, Jiva arrived and sat down next to me (she'd just led a workshop, too). We saw a student from my Thursday morning class in the corner. It was a nice feeling.

Next, the deities were carefully dried and dressed and put back on the altar - except for the Shiva Lingams, which remained in the center (Images of Shiva are not usually worshiped, but, rather, the linga [phallus] is. It's a long, complicated story).

Then incense was offered, and more mantra - including the 108 names of Lord Shiva. Then we stood up for Aarti (the taking of the light), after which we all offered flowers to the deities and bowed. The only thing missing from Aarti was the eating of prasad (blessed food), because we were fasting.

This was followed by more chanting to Lord Shiva. Swami began leading the chants, and then handed it off to different members, each of whom was special and amazing in a different way. It was absolutely wonderful and absorbing and transcendent, to go on and on saying the sacred names. It wasn't just knowing that the spiritual bank account was filling up (because each utterance of the name counts for 1,000 on this special night), but because one's Self was filling up. And to be with likeminded people was such a treat.

After a couple of hours, it was time for the second puja, which was less elaborate and involved only Ganesh (elephant-headed son of Shiva and the remover of obstacles) and the Shiva Lingas. The same ritual followed, including bathing and dressing and Aarti. The difference was that we did 108 repetitions of the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra - which is so powerful I started to have that about-to-explode feeling I get when doing pranayama that's too advanced for me.

Then it was time to chant again. Someone was asked to make tea. By now it was about 1:30, and time for lightheaded lightweights to leave. I did not want to go home. I had to - and regretted it the minute the cold night air hit my face.

On the way home, and all night thereafter, "Om Nama Shivaya" was glued in my head.

And it was amazing.

And next year, I will plan ahead - taking the correct naps and consuming the correct amount of chai - and stay til it ends at 5am.

(Interestingly, I woke up this morning at exactly 4:59.

As we like to say in Chicago:

Wait til Next Year....)


When I got home I was buzzed, and went online to learn more about Lord Shiva. I also came across a clue as to how some are able to stay up all night in India:

On Maha Shivratri, the night of Shiva worship, devotees, especially the menfolk, prepare an intoxicating drink called 'Thandai' (made from cannabis, almonds, and milk) sing songs in praise of the Lord and dance to the rhythm of the drums.

If only they'd brought out the drums last night!

* * *

*Yes, that is Nina Hagen up top, chanting the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra. How do you think I learned it?

1 comment:

  1. That is hard core!

    Chanting is ok for me for about 30-40 minutes and then I'm mentally "done".