The day of Maha Shivaratri is a night of celebration in praise of Lord Shiva, the Hindu deity that is largely understood to be the aspect of the Divine that oversees the inevitable annihilation or destruction of all things.
One of the features of Hinduism I find most remarkable is its frank acknowledgment of the “flip side” of things — there can be no creation without destruction, when we speak of light there must be a darkness as well, birth and death are two sides of the same coin (or, as the poet Rabindranath Tagore described them, the right and left breast of the same Mother).
As a deity, Shiva embodies this Hindu idea of not only holding, but actually embracing seemingly opposing themes.
He is the fierce destroyer (Rudra — the fearsome one); but also the giver of blessings and bestower of happiness (Shambu — one who gives happiness).
He is an ascetic yogi, a performer of penance and taker of terrible vows; but also an enjoyer of pleasures that seem quite earthly — married to a beautiful consort, he partakes of strong drink and intoxicating substances as sacrament.
When we see the external, Shiva boggles the mind and challenges our notion of what it means to be religious (or a God!): a cave-dwelling social misfit, he smears his near-bare body with ashes, wears his hair in matted locks, and wanders crematoriums and uncivilized forests.
One of my favorite stories from the Sri Bhagavata Purana glorifies Lord Shiva while illustrating the dangers of envy and judging others.
Lord Shiva was married to Sati, whose father was Daksha, a powerful demigod. Once, Daksha entered a celestial assembly of gods and sages. When he entered, all present stood out of respect– all, that is, except for his son-in-law Shiva (who was, perhaps, in a meditative trance). Outraged, Daksha perceived this to be a violation of etiquette and a personal affront. Just who does this Shiva think he is, anyway? As Daksha began to think about how Shiva was the recipient of so much honor and praise, his bruised ego stung and envy began to stir within his heart. Why should I have to be insulted and this social misfit receive adoration? He imagined that all the others in the assembly had seen Shiva’s defiance; how embarrassing! Daksha simply couldn’t tolerate it. I’ll show everyone just who this Shiva really is. He spoke out and began to condemn Shiva. In cutting, sarcastic words, he pointed out Shiva’s seemingly paradoxical or socially unacceptable characteristics, and loudly lamented that his daughter had married such a personality. His heart burning with envy and enmity, he cursed Lord Shiva. Some present who were sympathetic to Shiva jumped up and retorted, counter-cursing Daksha. Daksha’s supporters, not to be outdone, replied with more curses. The assembly degraded into a shouting match.
Silent and disturbed, Shiva left that place and returned to his own abode. Though not feeling personally insulted, Lord Shiva felt pained to see how envy and fault-finding can make people — even gods and sages! — act petty, hurtful, and blinded to reality.
Some time later, Daksha hosted a grand religious ceremony. Though conspicuously uninvited, Sati expressed her desire to go. “I advise you not to attend,” Shiva told his wife, “for your father will merely insult me and this will pain your heart.” But Sati was insistent, and Siva reluctantly agreed. Sati went and — as Lord Shiva had predicted — quickly experienced her father’s envious attitude towards her beloved husband. And, just as Shiva had predicted, she could not tolerate it.
Enraged, she spoke out against her father and his cruelty. The Bhagavata Purana records her words:
“Lord Shiva is the most beloved of all living entities. He has no rival. No one is very dear to him, and no one is his enemy. No one but you could be envious of such a universal being, who is free from all enmity. Father, a man like you can simply find fault in the qualities of others. Lord Shiva, however, not only finds no faults with others’ qualities, but if someone has a little good quality, he magnifies it greatly. Unfortunately, you have found fault with such a great soul.
My dear father, you are committing the greatest offense by envying Lord Shiva, whose very name, consisting of two syllables, shi and va, purifies one of all sinful activities. His order is never neglected. Lord Shiva is always pure, and no one but you envies him.
I can no longer bear this unworthy body, which has been received from you, who have blasphemed Lord Shiva. You are an offender at the lotus feet of Lord Shiva, and unfortunately I have a body produced from yours. I am very much ashamed of our bodily relationship, and I condemn myself because my body is contaminated by a relationship with a person who is an offender at the lotus feet of the greatest personality. I shall therefore give it up.”