Bilvashtakam

Recited by the music ensemble in Shree Muktananda Ashram.
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Bilvashtakam
Painting of Bilva leaf by Kathie Kemp

Entering the Abode of Lord Shiva

by Elizabeth Grimbergen

The worship of Lord Shiva dates to the time of the Vedas. In fact, the earliest shiva lingam, excavated by archeologists, dates to the third century BCE. The lingam represents the stambha, a cosmic pillar of fire that has no beginning and no end, from which Shiva is believed to have emerged. Seen as representing the formless, infinite source from which everything emerges and to which everything returns, the oval shape of the lingam unifies the earthly and the Divine. It also is often understood to represent the infinite creative energy of the union of Lord Shiva and Goddess Shakti (or Parvati) that continuously creates the universe as we know it.

While Lord Shiva is often depicted as a supremely powerful force for destruction, he is also known for his benevolence. The Shiva Purana tells of the ways of worship that delight Lord Shiva. Primary among these is abhishek, “ritual bathing,” and the offering of bilva leaves to Lord Shiva in the form of the lingam.

The bilva tree is native to India and is found growing on the slopes of the Himalayas. For centuries, the leaves, stems, and fruit of this tree have been treasured for their medicinal properties. It is also said to be sacred to Lord Shiva. Indeed, in the Shiva Purana, the bilva tree is seen as a manifestation of Lord Shiva himself. In other Puranas, the tree is said to have originated from drops of sweat from Goddess Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort. Still other stories describe the tree as having been born from the body of the goddess Lakshmi, as in the hymn Bilvashtakam, above.

The Bilvashtakam, eight verses describing the offering of one bilva leaf to Lord Shiva, was written by the revered Adi Shankaracharya and is often sung as this simple offering is made to the Lord. Not only is the bilva tree considered a home of the Divine, but even the trifoliate shape of its leaves resonates with divine symbolism. The first verse of this hymn tells us that the shape of this leaf represents the three gunas, the basic qualities of existence (sattva, rajas, and tamas); the three eyes of Lord Shiva; and the three prongs of his weapon, the trident. The final descriptive verse reinforces this triad, stating that the bilva leaf itself contains the three aspects of divinity representing creation, preservation, and destruction (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva).

Gurumayi Chidvilasananda composed the melody for this version of the hymn, and it is sung by the music ensemble in Shree Muktananda Ashram. Composed in the Darbari Kanada raga, the melody inspires deep stillness and feelings of devotion for Lord Shiva.

It is amazing to think of all the treasures on earth, that what pleases Lord Shiva the most is but a simple leaf—a leaf so auspicious, so sacred, as to call forth the Lord’s infinite magnanimity. The depth of the Lord’s benevolence is shown so clearly in the story of the hunter and the deer told every year during Mahashivaratri celebrations throughout India as well as on the Siddha Yoga path. In this story from the Shiva Purana, a hunter unknowingly shelters in a bilva tree, waiting for prey during the “great night of Shiva.” At the base of the tree is a shiva lingam, and nestled in a branch above it is the hunter’s own water pot. Throughout the night, every time the hunter shifts his weight, bilva leaves and drops of water fall onto the shiva lingam. Though unaware of his own actions, the hunter is worshipping Lord Shiva. As the night continues, so does the hunter’s unwitting worship. By morning, his heart has become filled with compassion; he no longer thirsts for prey.

I love this story, and I love contemplating its meaning. It always strikes me that even though the hunter is unaware of his actions, Lord Shiva, in his infinite benevolence, still purifies the heart of the hunter. To me, it means that God is always present, always aware of the state of our hearts, even if we are not. I find this an enormously comforting thought.

Adi Shankaracharya closes his hymn by saying that one who sings it will be brought to the abode of Shiva. And what is the abode of Shiva? The shiva lingam provides us with an indication. The abode of Shiva is the formless, infinite source of all, the state from which everything emerges and to which everything returns.

Once, I had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time in Gurudev Siddha Peeth, the Siddha Yoga Ashram in Ganeshpuri, India. Each evening, after seva, I found myself drawn to the Shiva Temple in the Ashram’s upper gardens. This white marble temple holds a black marble stone lingam. After performing a pranam and offering flowers, I would sit in a corner, gazing at the shiva lingam. This time was utterly magical. My mind would become completely still, enveloped in a timeless and intoxicating peacefulness. In this way, I felt myself entering the abode of Shiva.

On the Siddha Yoga path, we worship Lord Shiva as the supreme Consciousness residing within each of us and pervading the entire universe. As we perform this worship of Shiva, as in reciting the Bilvashtakam, we can experience our identity with supreme Consciousness—and that our own Heart is the abode of Shiva.

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