The Ravan Tandav Stotra is one of the most powerful mantras dedicated to Lord Shiva by any of his bhaktas or devotees. All through the majority of north Indian states Ravan is seen as a figure of unmitigated evil. During the festival of Dussehra effigies of Ravan and his siblings are burnt, marking the victory of Lord Rama (human avatar of Lord Vishnu) over evil. Considering that Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma constitute the Hindu Trinity, one wonders how can the devotee of one of them end up being a cursed enemy of another? To answer that question and to better understand the character of Shiva himself, one must take a closer look at the legends surrounding Ravan.
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Ravan was the demon king of Lanka. Prince Ram, who would go on to ascend the throne of Ayodhya, found himself challenged by Ravan. Ravan had abducted Rama’s wife Sita and held her as a diplomatic hostage compelling Rama to meet him in battle. Ravan descended from Sage Vishrava grandson of Brahma (the Creator)
himself and the demon princess Kaikesi. Kaikesi’s father Sumali was exiled from his kingdom in Lanka by Kuber, Sage Vishrava’s other son. It was Sumali’s plan to have Kaikesi married to Vishrava so that the bloodlines of the demons and brahmans would mingle to produce a child with demonic strength and brahmanic intelligence. True to his expectation, Ravan showed signs of exceptional brilliance as he grew up. He had an exceptional grasp over the vedas and excelled in martial skills. Under the tutelage of Vishrava and Sumali, both his demonic and divine powers grew stronger. Ravan managed to strike the critical balance required to make the most of both his inherent tendencies.
As years passed Ravan became stronger and more learned. He performed difficult tapasya (penance) and pleased Brahma, gaining from him boons of weapons and invincibility. Feeling invincible Ravan went up to Lord Shiva’s abode and tried to pluck out Mount Kailash from its roots. Lord Shiva was offended and placed his little toe on the ground and Ravan found himself unable to hold up Kailash. He was trapped under gigantic rocks and found it difficult to breathe. Realising his folly he prayed to Lord Shiva for forgiveness. It is this prayer song that is now known as the Ravan Tandav Stotra. Generous and kind as he is, Lord Shiva was so pleased with Ravan’s ingenious creativity reflected in the Stotra, composed under extreme duress, not only did he forgive Ravan, but having extricated him from under the rocks, also bestowed upon him the Chandrahaas Astra. Ravan in turn remained ever devoted to Lord Shiva throughout his life.
So earnest was Lord Shiva’s influence on Ravan that he learnt the values of not being trapped in the world of materiality. Many who worship Ravan in temples dedicated to him praise the fact that when his ultimate battle with Rama neared, he gave up his control over the 9 planets or Navagraha whom he had imprisoned to derive power from them. Ravan’s devotees also believe that he undoubtedly wanted to be recognised as the most powerful ruler of all creation, but he wanted to do this more to spread the name and honour of the demon races all around creation than for personal aggrandisement. As far as Ravan was concerned the ultimate fight between him and Rama was a fight of two races that of the Aryas and the Daityas. It is debateable if Rama and his cohorts would have managed to win against Ravan had it not been for the betrayal of Vibhishan, Ravan’s brother, who gave away Ravan’s strategic secrets to Rama’s army, enabling them to weaken Ravan at crucial junctures. The foremost betrayals included the stealthy murder of Meghnad, Ravan’s son, while he was in deep meditation and the destruction of Ravan’s “Abhijeet Chandi Yajna” atop Ratnagiri hill. Ostensibly these sabotages were conducted by Lakshman and his friends, despite the express disapproval of Rama.
The ultimate sign of Ravan’s renunciation in keeping with Shaivaite principles is said to be his decision to not counter Rama’s Brahmastra with one of his own. Ravan, it is believed, desisted because the clash of two Brahmastras had the potential to destroy all of creation. Victory at the cost of such destruction was not what he sought. Consequently, he welcomed the fired weapon with respect and upon being hit, thanked Lord Rama for granting him moksha from the the cycles of births and rebirths. Ravan recognised Lord Vishnu in Rama and realised he was simply playing his part in a larger cosmic game, ordered according to Vidhi’s Vidhan or the inscrutable divine will. All these facts are remembered by devotees of Shiva and Ravan when they chant the Ravan Tandav Stotra.
Loosely translated in English, the Ravan Tandav Stotra appears as follows:
That Śiva, Who having held a long-garland of the best-snake (cobra) at the neck which is purified by the flow of trickling water-drops in the forest-like twisted hair-locks, Who danced the fierce Tāṇḍava-dance to the music of a sounding-drum, — May that Śiva extend my bliss.
At every moment, may I find pleasure in Śiva, Whose head is situated in between the creeper-like unsteady waves of Nilimpanirjharī (Gańgā) which is swirling unsteadily in the vessel forged from twisted hair-locks, Who has crackling and blazing fire at the surface of forehead, and Who has a crescent-moon (young moon) at the forehead.
May my mind seeks happiness in Śiva, Whose mind has the shining universe and all the living-beings inside, Who is the charming sportive-friend of the daughter of the mountain-king of the Earth (i.e. Himālaya), Whose uninterrupted series of merciful-glances conceals immense-troubles, and Who has as much direction as His clothes?
May my mind embrace Śiva, by Whom — with the light from the jewels of the shining-hoods of creeper-like yellow-snakes — the face of Dikkanyās’ are smeared with Kadamba-juice like red Kuńkuma, Who looks dense due to the glittering skin-garment of an intoxicated tiger, and Who is the Lord of the ghosts.
For a long time, may Śhiva — Whose toes are grey due to the pollen dust from flowers at the head of Indra (Sahasralocana) and all other demi-gods, Whose matted hairlocks are tied by a garland of the king of snakes, and Who has the crown-jewel of the friend of cakora bird — produce prosperity.
May we acquire the possession of tress-locks of Śiva, Which absorbed the five-arrows (of Kāmadeva) in the sparks of the blazing fire stored in the rectangular-forehead, Which are bowed to by the leader of supernatural-beings, Who has an enticing-forehead with a beautiful streak of crescent-moon.
May I find pleasure in Trilochana, Who offered the five great-arrows (of Kāmadeva) to the blazing and chattering fire of the plate-like forehead, and Who is the sole-artist placing variegated artistic lines on the breasts of the daughter of Himālaya (Pārvatī).
May Śiva — Whose cord-tied neck is dark like a night with shining-moon obstructed by a group of harsh and new clouds, Who holds the River Gańgā, Whose cloth is made of tiger-skin, Who has a curved and crescent moon placed at the forehead, and Who bears the universe — expand [my] wealth.
I adore Śiva, Who supports the dark glow of blooming blue lotus series around the girdle of His neck, Who cuts-off Smara (Kāmadeva), Who cuts-off Pura, Who cuts-off the mundane existence, Who cuts-off the sacrifice (of Dakṣa), Who cuts-off the demon Gaja, Who cuts-off Andhaka, and Who cuts-off Yama (death).
I adore Śiva, Who only eats the sweet-flow of nectar from the beautiful flowers of Kadamba-trees which are the abode of all important auspicious qualities, Who destroys Smara (Kāmadeva), Who destroys Pura, Who destroys the mundane existence, Who destroys the sacrifice (of Dakṣa), Who destroys the demon Gaja, Who destroys Andhaka, and Who contains Yama (death).
May Śiva, Whose dreadful forehead has oblations of plentitude, turbulent and wandering hissing snakes—having first come out of a pillar of flames and then glowing eternally, Whose fierce tāṇḍava-dance is set in motion by the sound-series of the auspicious and best-drum (ḍamaru) — which is sounding with ‘dhimit-dhimit’ sounds, be victorious.
When will I adore Sadāśiva with an equal vision towards varied ways of the world, a snake or a pearl-garland, royal-gems or a lump of dirt, friend or enemy sides, a grass-eyed or a lotus-eyed person, and common men or the king.
Living in the hollow of a tree in the thickets of River Gańgā, always free from ill-thinking, bearing añjali on the forehead, free from lustful eyes, when will I become content while reciting the mantra ‘‘Śiva?’’
Reading, remembering, and reciting this eternal, having spoken thus, and the best among best eulogy indeed incessantly leads to purity. By the perception of Hara (Śiva) an immediate state of complete devotion is achieved; no other option is needed. Just the thought of Śiva (Śańkara) is enough for the people.
At the time of completing the prayer, s/he who reads this song by Daśavaktra (Rāvaṇa) — Śambhu shall grant him/her stable wealth including chariots, elephants and horses, and a beautiful visage.
Due to his implicit connection to destruction and chaos Lord Shiva and death share a vital relationship. Death is one concept each and every one of us shall have to face no matter how much we may dislike it. It is difficult to form relationships with people in life, more so, those that have a substantial meaning in our lives. Those of us who have had loving families would know how important it is to be able to connect and depend on family members. They are there for us, warts and all. Parents, siblings and as we reach adulthood, spouses and partners constitute the strongest relationships we manage to make and often take for granted, until one day they are suddenly gone.
In our times, when so much of our relationships are conducted online, we call, text and video chat with our loved ones very often. Somehow the virtual connect seems enough to some of us. A lot of our issues and conflicts with each other are left unresolved because we choose not to have confrontations. The popular saying about this goes that “we always hurt the ones we love” and how true that is!
The absolute loss of connection that comes to pass upon death, tells us a lot more about ourselves than the deceased. Every time we hear of a death, we become implicitly conscious of our own mortality. Death spares nobody on the basis of race, class, gender, orientation, nationality or any of the other categories of differentiation human beings like to come up with, in order to make ourselves feel different and by extension, better than other people. The one and absolute equalizer, death has the power to tear to shreds all possible veils of vanity one may have. No matter how big one may become in life, one day all of that power, money and influence must be left behind. No wonder therefore that many cultures around the globe see death as a negative force.
Major world religions try to enforce obedience in their followers with the fear of death and the prospect of what is to come after death. The collusion of the state and religion in many countries still evoke the fear of God and punishments after death to perpetuate a hegemonic system of control over the poorest and weakest section of their population.
But what of us- those who live in advanced democracies, in developed and rapidly developing countries? We have seemingly managed to break the shackles of bigoted clergy, but very few of us would think of ourselves as Godless, and faithless. Even those of us who profess to be atheists, protesting the absence of God, pointing to the rampant suffering and heinous crimes in the world, would not deny the power and influence of death. Will Christ grant us redemption? Will our souls be saved, or shall we be doomed to perpetually suffer hell fires? Is there life after death that some religion like Hinduism professes? Or is our deaths the final closure of everything? That we end, not with a bang but with a feeble squeak?
Philosophers around the globe, across all times have pondered over these questions. Still, 10,000 years into human existence on planet earth, we are nowhere close to finding any definitive answer. All we do know for certain, is that one day we shall definitely perish and the most we could do is hope, we go with the least pain and suffering as possible.
So much for those that have left us forever and gone away! What of those of us that live and must live on regardless of how much it hurts us? What do we do with our thoughts about our beloved and our concerns regarding their fate after death? How do we come to terms with the inevitability of our mortality?
Many of us choose to deposit our worries with some form of idea of divine manifestation we like to call God. All discussions and debates about whether God exists or which religion to follow to reach Him with certainty, have only led to horrific fights and bloodshed throughout human history. In the contemporary times of globalization and multiculturalism, we have become more and more aware of other people and their ways of life. For the most part, we have evolved as a species by learning from one another, but in some cases, where politics and sectarianism have held sway, there has been and continues to be strife.
Ever wondered, why do we fight thus? Is it only to have and control more and more material resources? Or Perhaps there is a deeper insecurity that operates in our collective subconscious, that prompts us to violence? To protect against anything that tries to unsettle our traditionally cherished idea of a moral centre in the world? One would not be too far away from the truth if they were to look closely at the third possibility. We are always trying to control and bring meaning to the otherwise fluctuating world around us, that is in large parts governed by chance. Religion allows us to have that fixed centre to deposit the fears and anxieties that we cannot contain or control by ourselves.
As a system of social structure, Hinduism has survived over 3000 years. It shall be pointless to try underscoring its merits or draw comparisons with other faiths. It has its own share of internecine problems and contradictions just like every other faith, and so called empirical atheisms. Let us consider it to be just another system and try looking at one of its important contributions to the philosophy around death.
Lord Shiva and death happen to form one of the most important connection firstly due to Lord Shiva’s association with the role of the destroyer in the Hindu trinity but at a more deeper level, it talks of a certain understanding of the phenomenon of death that is unique. Just like other religions, it asks us to believe in a higher power in whom we shall all meld and find absolute benediction from, but when it comes to Lord Shiva, the philosophy turns more to this world than to the next. According to some Shaivite sects, the body is not something that ought to be chastised or neglected. It is seen as the medium through which we can experience all the wonders of the world. The sense organs come together and give us the ability to connect, even to our loved ones. We forget over time, that everybody we have ever known apart from ourselves belong to the world outside us. They are all products of the world that binds us to materiality.
This is exactly why Lord Shiva and his followers are said to frequent burning Ghats. They smear ash over their bodies and some sects known as the Aghoris are known to consume human cadavers. These are not mindless acts of barbarity. These are instead, the means to familiarize oneself with the grotesque realities of life. In our pursuit of pleasure and beauty, we forget that the ugly and the painful are as much part of existence. In our need to be loved, and in the comfort of the embrace of our loved ones, we become oblivious to the fact that it would be equally painful if we were to lose them.
One must remember always that Lord Shiva does not represent dwelling on the morbid parts and thoughts of life. He is also a householder with a wife and two sons. He is known to give vent to immense anger and pain, almost as much as he is known to be calm and dedicated in meditation and mercy.
Lord Shiva and death therefore represent a kind of philosophy that advocates constant reality checks in our lives. It keeps us aware of the dual existence of pleasure and pain. Meditations on Lord Shiva will not bring back our loved ones from their graves but it will help us to focus more on the good memories we had created with them or hoped to create. It would remind us that there really never is a ‘happily ever after’. It would grant us the fortitude to suffer bravely, not for the hopes of a fruitful return but for the attainment of a resignation that even we shall pass one day.
Immortality is achievable only when we manage to live life to the fullest. Being able to connect to and become one with the absolute realities of existence, allows for the true enlightenment of the mind. For all the remaining conflicts and loose ends, one can always look within to employ the Panchakshara Mantra and meditate on the ultimate truth of life- constant negotiations between the beautiful and the grotesque in all their varying Shades :
Om Namah Shivaya!
There are many other beliefs that are suggested by various experts and religious figures but these are the main things that should be kept in mind while worshipping the shivling.
Om Namah Shaivaya!!!
Secure in himself and with complete faith in humanity, Shiva does not resort to unnecessary cunning ways lesser beings employ. To him the intent and emotion displayed, behind an offering far supersedes the action. His existence as the supreme godhead, is repeatedly demonstrated, as each time a bunch of deceitful demons try to manipulate him, he extricates himself from their ruthless clutches & saves the worthy. Such is the infinite wisdom of the lord divine.
Once, Vishnu got the gods (Devas) & demons (Asuras) to churn out nectar or Amrita, the elixir of immortality from the ocean of milk( presumably an allusion to the milky way galaxy). The ocean gave them many worthy returns, which were quickly consumed by all of them. At the end of all these activities, the ocean ejected a large amount of venomous toxin so powerful that it had the potential to destroy all of creation. Rendered powerless against such a force all the gods & demons then had no option but to beseech the mighty Shiva, to come to their aid. Compassionate & powerful as he is he undertook the dreadful task of drinking the poison. Of course, at this point his protective consort, who felt he was being ill treated, came to rescue him, by squeezing his neck as he drank the poison, so that it couldn’t go beyond his throat. His neck turned blue, which is how he came to be called “Neelkantha.”
In another tale portraying his merciful and compassionate aspect, he demonstrates how the intensity of emotion & honest love of a devotee is what he protects and rewards. A young tribal called Tinnan, went against the grain & offered flowers from the forest, which he wore in his head, to the lingam, water from the mountain stream, which he held in his mouth & meat after carefully removing the bones. This, he continued to do while everyone else, offered the ritualistic best including milk, flowers, incense, ashes & fruits. To test the worthiness of his disciples, Shiva gave eyes to the lingam, one of which began to bleed. Fearful that this would portend evil, the worshippers fled the place. Tinnan stayed on and tried to stop the flow of blood. When he could not succeed, he cut his own eye and offered it to the lingam. Tinnan, was thus a chosen soul who was welcomed to Kailash.
Such is the magnanimity of the Lord of lords. He does not leave anyone’s prayers unfulfilled. Those who come with a genuine heart & forsake all material gains for his grace, find room in his abode, sooner or later. It takes nothing but sincerity & desire.
Of course, an intellectual analysis may be done to assess, the level of grace one receives. The obvious repartee to which is- grace descends in quantum abundance & equal force for all seekers. The crucial factor is how much is the recipient ready & open enough to experience. If the negativities of his mind block him & he clothes himself heavily in the cloak of materiality, he will not see, hear or experience, any divine wisdom because he does not seek it. No, there is anything wrong with that. Grace for such a person limits itself to things like familial ties, kinship, social acknowledgement, intellectual pursuits or purchasing power.
For one who dares to go beyond, one who shuns luxury for austerities to free himself from bondage altogether, grace descends differently. Often for one such individual, misery is grace, because it cuts down accumulation of negative Karma & releases the individual to higher realms, beyond mind & body.
Know that he, the Supreme Shiva, is always there for you. The real question is how much of him do you seek. As a divine sage once said, “When the seeker is sincere, the master appears”.
Obeisance, O divine master, Humble me so, I may always be absorbed in thee!
OM TAT SAT