Unfortunately, most people today have been introduced to Shiva only through Indian calendar art, where he is a chubby cheeked, blue colored man because that is the only face the calendar artist can do. The same chubby cheeked, blue hued man can either carry a trident, a flute or a bow, and is transformed into Rama, Krishna or whoever you want.
When we say “Shiva,” there are two fundamental aspects that we are referring to. The word “Shiva” literally means “that which is not.” Today, modern science is proving to us that everything comes from nothing and goes back to nothing. The basis of existence and the fundamental quality of the cosmos is vast nothingness. The galaxies are just a small happening, they are a sprinkling. The rest is all vast empty space, which is referred to as Shiva. So Shiva is described as a non-being, not as a being.
On another level, when we say “Shiva,” we are referring to the Adiyogi or the first yogi, who is the basis of the yogic science. Yoga does not mean standing on your head or holding your breath. Yoga is the science and technology to know the essential nature of how this life is created and how it can be taken to its ultimate possibility.
This being who is a yogi, and that non-being which is the basis of the existence, are the same, because a yogi is someone who has experienced the Union – experienced the existence as himself. If you have to contain the existence within you even for a moment as an experience, you have to be that nothingness. Only nothingness can hold everything. Something can never hold everything. This planet can hold an ocean, but not the solar system. The solar system can hold the planets and the sun, but not the rest of the galaxy. If you go like this, you will see only nothingness that can hold everything. When we talk about Shiva as “that which is not,” and Shiva as a yogi, in a way they are synonymous, yet they are two different aspects. India is a dialectical culture, so we shift from one to another effortlessly.
This transmission of yogic sciences happened on the banks of Kantisarovar, a glacial lake a few miles beyond Kedarnath in the Himalayas. This predates all religion. Shiva started a systematic exposition of yoga in a scientific manner to seven disciples, the Saptarishis. He began propounding the whole mechanics of life, not intellectually as a philosophy, but experientially. He explored every nut and bolt of creation and brought forth yoga as a technology with which every human being can evolve consciously. This is a way of stepping beyond the limitations that physical laws impose upon us.
Physical nature has set laws within which all life needs to happen. But the fundamental nature of the human being is always longing to go beyond those limitations. Spiritual process is about breaking the laws of the physical, in that sense, we are all outlaws. Shiva is the ultimate outlaw. You can’t worship him, but you are welcome to join the Gang.
If you want to join the Gang, there is no better night than Mahashivarathri (27th February). The planetary positions on this night are such that there is a natural upsurge of energy in the human system. This process of raising one’s energies to their ultimate pitch, to dissolve oneself and become a part of the cosmic oneness, has happened in abundance on this night. A nightlong festival has been established to make use of this possibility by remaining awake and keeping one’s spine erect. May this Mahashivarathri be not just a night of wakefulness, but a night of awakening.