• Culture & Tradition
  • 04 February, 2024

The Sages of Shiva Ratri

The Sages of Shiva Ratri
A group of sages in front of Pashupatinath temple.

For one magical night in Kathmandu, hundreds of sages gather for the occasion of Shiva Ratri in the ancient sacred site of Pashupatinath, one of the world’s most prominent devotional sites dedicated to Mahadev, the great god Shiva. Also known as the Adi Yogi, the first yogi to impart the sacred science of self-realization, Shiva is the main deity venerated by sadhus and yogis, people who have let go of all their worldly ties and pursue a solitary life dedicated to meditation, yogic practice and connection to the divine. Having led this life himself, Shiva shelters such seekers. On the occasion of the late winter night of Mahashivratri, sadhus and yogis from all over the Himalayas gather, and worldly people like you and I see glimpses of a life so drastically different from our own, and wonder where they all come from and what they do the rest of the year. 

The First Night of the World

“Shivaratri is the first night of our universe. It is when day and night first got separated from each other,” explains  Swami Vishwanath as he turns the pages of a collection of strota (odes to God). The Swami has detached from the world, submerging himself into a yogic life. He spends most of his time meditating in the Shiva Temple of Hadigaun. Currently in his 60s, Swami Vishwanath let go of his bhog life in his 20s. When religion and God are debated, he stands by the idea of a spontaneous force that leads nature through time.

“I am made up of my deeds (karma), some call me Maharaj, some look at me as a madman, but all I am is a student of that which is immortal,” he says. “Shiva is the universe. Life was created only when all the elements of the universe became aligned.  Only then days and nights came into being. Science has its way of defining it, saying that days and nights are the consequence of rotation. Agreeing with it, yogis add a touch of Shiva’s glory to this understanding,” as he speaks, his finger runs through the lines of an ancient text written by Adi Ahankaracharya, one of the very first hindu scholars and great follower of Shiva. He is credited for giving Hinduism its current form by embedding the idea of God as a formless, shapeless, omnipresent being. 

The Sages of Shiva Ratri
The view of Pashupatinath temple in the evening. Photo Credit: Royal Mountain Travel.

The Myth of Shivaratri 

“Our scriptures say that Mahashivratri is the night in which Lord Shiva performs a dance that represents the cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction. It marks the divine union of Shiva and Shakti, symbolizing the harmony of Purusha (humanity) and Prakriti (nature) for the well-being of the world,” says Swami Vishwanath.

That being said, the story of Shivaratri begins with Sati, the daughter of King Daksha and his wife, an incarnation of Shakti. Despite her father’s opposition, Sati marries Shiva, who is considered an unworthy ascetic by Daksha. As a sign of spite, Daksha organizes a grand sacrificial ceremony and deliberately excludes the newly wed couple. When Sati attends against her father’s wishes, she faces humiliation, and in her distress, she sacrifices herself by stepping into the fire.

Devastated by Sati’s death, Shiva performs his aggressive dance, Tandava, and creates two deities, Vairabhadra and Bhadrakali. Wrenched by anger, the two deities destroy the place. Viarabhadra decapitates Daksha, and his decapitated head is replaced with a goat’s head. 

Following the incident, Shiva withdraws from society and secludes himself in the Himalayas. Taking great pity on him, Shakti reincarnates as Uma, the daughter of the king of the Himalayas. With the blessing of Lord Bhrama, she encounters Shiva, who poses multiple challenges in front of her to test her devotion. She remains steadfast, so Shiva reveals his true form, blessing her for her unwavering commitment.

Their divine marriage symbolizing balance between masculine and feminine is celebrated during Mahashivratri. Shiva arrives in a terrifying form with an unconventional marriage procession, causing shock among onlookers. To ease the fear, Uma transforms into Chandraghanta, a golden form with ten arms. 

Swami Vishwanath shared another story of Shivaratri. “In the Skanda Purana,” he says, “the tale recounts that during the wedding of  Shiva and PShakti in the Himalayas, all the living went up to the north to attend, throwing off the balance of the Earth. To rectify this, Shiva asks Sage Agastya to go south, promising to appear whenever Agastya thinks of them. Pleased with the boon, Agastya embarks on his journey southwards. 

Swami Vishwanath concludes that Shivaratri is not only a celebration of divine union but also a reflection of devotion, sacrifice, and cosmic balance.

The Sage’s Life-Guide

Swami Vishwanath recites a strota from Adi Shankaracharya’s Nirvana Shatkam: 

न मृत्युर्न शङ्का न मे जातिभेदः

पिता नैव मे नैव माता न जन्मः ।

न बन्धुर्न मित्रं गुरुर्नैव शिष्यं

चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहम् शिवोऽहम् ॥५॥

(I an neither bound by death and its fear,

nor by the rules of Caste and its Distinctions,

I have neither Father nor Mother, nor do I have birth,

I have neither relations nor friends, nor a spiritual teacher nor disciple,

I am the Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness;

I am Shiva, I am Shiva, The Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness.)

As he concludes his narration, the Swami explains that yogis and sages abide by these lines either knowingly or unknowingly. They frame their life in a way to detach from the physical realm of nature and humanity. “A yogi or a sage is the one who tries to understand the meaning of life. Regardless of the outcome, I think it is more about stillness, compassion and being close to the divine force that stands above us,” explains Swami Vishwanath “Yoga is the union of the individual with the divine or the Atma with the Paramatma, and one who can practice is a yogi (or sadhu),” he continues. 

“There is no home for a sage. A sage is always on the path to get closer to Shiva. And, as the Great Adi Shankaracharya sang –

अहं निर्विकल्पो निराकाररूपो

विभुत्वाच्च सर्वत्र सर्वेन्द्रियाणाम् ।

न चासङ्गतं नैव मुक्तिर्न मेयः

चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहम् शिवोऽहम् ॥६॥

(I am without variation, without form,

I am present everywhere as the substratum of everything and behind all sense organs,

Neither do I get attached, nor do I get freed,

I am the Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness

I am Shiva, I am Shiva, The Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness.)

 – a sage comes from nothing to merge into the greater nothing,” Swami Vishwanath concludes his explanation of the verses.  

He continues to talk about sages and yoga, giving two distinct reasons why Shiva is worshipped. The first reason was Shiva being the father of Yoga. As the first yogi or Adiyogi, Shiva enlightened humanity with physical stretches (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayam) as the first step towards getting closer to the force of nature. The other reason is the notion that Shiva represents detachment. An ascetic himself, Shiva is not attached to anything and can let go of desires in totality, thus living out the life described in the verses.

Types of Sages

While every sage is fundamentally after the same thing, yoga and the attempt to get closer to divinity, there are mainly two types of sages that visit Kathmandu during Mahashivaratri. Locally sages and ascetics are referred to as sadhu or baba, but the attire worn by each individual sage can tell you what sect he belongs to. There are numerous such sects, but in Pashupatinath the two types of sage you are more likely to run into are the Aghori Babas and the Naga Sadhus.


Aghoris can be identified easily with their distinct appearances. Their half naked bodies are smeared with ash. These sages usually come from Varanasi, India where they reside near the cremation sites. The form of Shiva which they worship is the Mahakal or Mrytumjaya (the God of death). They indulge in deep meditation for years and are seen in Nepal only during Shivaratri near the Pashupatinath Tempel area. 

The Aghori Baba belong to a tantric sect which traces its origins to at least 800 years ago. The sight of an Aghori is not for everyone, as even though you may not know the details of the baba’s life style, his presence is undeniably magnetic, leaving some feeling unsettled. As tantric practitioners that live in cremation grounds, their bodies are smeared with ashes that come from funerary pyres. They make tantric ritual objects using human bones, and are known for practicing post-mortem cannibalism. Part of their spiritual practice involves foraging for human corpses and consuming parts of them, often they choose the corpse from the cremation site. They also meditate sitting on the dead. It is believed that the Aghori are some of the most powerful ascetics, and hold immense healing power granted to them thanks to their austere spiritual practice.

Aghori babas do not pose a danger to you, should you run into them during your Mahashivaratri visit in Pashupatinath. Contrary to the impression given by their description, there is nothing terrifying or morbid about them. Their friendly demeanor would never give away their unconventional spiritual practices.

The Sages of Shiva Ratri
An Aghori meditating at the Pashupatinath Temple. Photo Credit: Ashes Sitoula, Unsplash

Naga Sadhu

Naga Sadhus are also known for being attire-less. Some of them smear their bodies with ashes, while others don’t. Unlike Aghoris, they believe in becoming Shiva by worshipping Shiva. They don’t strictly follow a single form of Shiva but look at him as the driving force of nature. They are seen as the defendors of Sanatan Dharma (the ultimate form of Hinduism that worships God regardless of the names and shapes humans frame Him to be). Similarly to the Aghoris, they can be seen in Nepal during Shivaratri near the area of Pashupatinath Temple. At other times, they reside in the deep Himalayas, mostly near the Kailash Parvat area. 

The Sages of Shiva Ratri
People waiting to worship Pashupatinath. Photo credit: Ajeet Manandhar, Unsplash

To witness these sages, and the great night of the Lord Shiva, you should visit Kathmandu during the February/March months or the time when winter is ending. For 2024, the auspicious day of Mahashivaratri falls on March 8.

“Whoever one follows, whatever name one chant, one must understand that truth is eternal. We are mortals, we are not the truth, and however, you shape it to be, always bow your head to what is true for you. For yogis, the truth is Shiva.” Swami Vishwanath says while focusing on the consequences of Karma (deed), “One must choose righteousness, not to do well in future, but to get the opportunity to merge with the truth.”.

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