Shiv Ratri

by Ashok Raina
Beltsville, MD

A number of festivals are celebrated by Hindus in India and all over the world. One of the most prominent of these festivals is Shiv-ratri. For Kashmiri Pandits, Shiv-ratri is the most important religious festival. Celebration of this festival has remained proverbial from ancient times. In Kashmiri, Shiv-ratri is also known as Har-ratri and Herath. It is said that Lord Shiva called Devi Jagatamba by the name Hairte on this day which eventually got transformed into Herath. Shiv-ratri is celebrated on the thirteenth day of the dark fortnight in the month of Phalgun. In Kashmir we have maintained the ritual of Vatuk-puja, along with the worship of Shiva and Shakti on this day. A historical episode reflects the faith of Kashmiri Pandits in Shiv-ratri. It is said that Jabar Khan, the Pathan governor of Kashmir, forbade people to perform Vatak-puja in Phalgun and instead ordered them to celebrate it in July. Helplessly, people obeyed the order but to everyone's surprise (harath) it snowed on that day in July. Since then the people of Kashmir reacite, ''Jabar Janda-Haras awu Wandha" (Jabar the rag-man, winter came in July). 

Lord Shiva is omnipotent and omnipresent, being beyond all emptiness, the primal source of all. He has five functions: evolution sustenance, involution, preservation and assimilation. Just as a seed evolves into a tree, and in due course of time involutes back to seed, likewise the universal divine Shakti, the energy aspect, has to return to the absolute transcendental rest (Parma Shiva state). An interpretation for the significance of Shiva-ratri may thus be the celebration of the union of Shiva and Shakti, also referred to as Shiva's marriage to Parvati. The 9th century Kashmiri saint-poet Utpaldeva describing Shiva-ratri wrote, "When the sun, the moon and all the other stars set at the same time, there arises the radiant night of Shiva spreading a splendor of its own." 

The worship of Vatuka is dealt within several Tantric works. Vatuka, like Ganesha, has been described as a mind bom son of the Mother Goddess. He is the deity who saves his devotees from all sorts of misfortunes and calamities. When Kashmiri Pandits were driven out if the valley in the first half of the fifteenth century, a few families in the remote villages stayed back. It is speculated that these people may have started worship of Vatuka for their protection, the custom having been continued by others when they retumed to the valley in the later part of that century. 

Kashmiri Pandits used to clebrate Shiv-ratri festival over a period of 23 days. First six days (hurye okdoh to hurye shayam) were devoted to cleaning of the house and buying puja articles. Next 2-3 days were the days for devotional prayers. Dyara daham was designated for giving presents to married daughters and newly weds. Gadkah and Vager bah were special days for the worship of Bhairavas. Herath truvah is the day for Shiva worship. Herath Kharch (gift of money) is given by the eldest person to all members of the family on the following day. Herath truvah is the day for lord Shiva's worship. On Doon mavas, the prasad of walnuts and rice cakes (tomala-chuut) are distributed, in past, this often continued until Tila ashtami. The latter day also marks the end of winter, and is celebrated by burning kangris and singing the chorus of 'ja-tun-tn'. On the social side, there used to be great joy all around. People wore new and their nicest clothes, and families would sit together and enjoy the game with sea shells. 

Since a number of us have migrated to far off places, all over the world, it is rather diffucult to perform the Vatak-puja in the traditional way. However, we need to maintain the spirit of this, the most important festival of ours. Jotshi Prem Nath Shastriji has recently produced an audio tape for a relatively simple Vatak-puja together with a Mahimna Stotram. Offering and eating meat and fish on Shiv-ratri is stictly a Kashmiri Pandit ritual, probably to please 'Bhairavas'. However, there were people like Gurtus and Razdans, who observed strict vegetarinism during the Shiv-ratri festival. Most of us have given up the tradition of offering and eating meat on Shiv-ratri day. 

One other practice was the celebration of salam on the day following Shiv-ratri. Muslim neighbors and friends used to visit us and wish happy Shivratri. People would also invite their relatives and friends for a sumptous dinner. Since for us the significance of this day is gone, we can either do away with it or at least call it by a different name. 

AUM NAMAH SHIIVAYA

In writing this article, I have used information from articles written on this subject by Janki Nath Kaul Kamal, Balji Pandit, Sarwanand Kaul Premi, B.L. Khar and Swami Moti Lal.