Today is Maha Shivaratri, the Hindu festival devoted to the worship and reverence of Lord Shiva. People believe that worshiping Shiva on Maha Shivaratri pleases Him the most. Consequently, millions of devout Hindus perform fasts and elaborate rituals to please Lord Shiva today. I fasted today as well. I chanted the Maha Mrutyunjaya Mantra in the morning, and will do so again before going to bed. In fact, I have been regularly chanting the Maha Mrutyunjaya Mantra for quite a while now. Sometimes I do it using the Hrudrayksha Mala; most of the time, without the use of mala, especially while I am running or engaged in some other activity such as walking to school, cleaning the house, etc.
To some people it may seem strange that I worship Lord Shiva. Some orthodox Hindus may expect me to be chanting mantras of Rama and Krishna more than that of Shiva, primarily because I was born into a family where our Ishtha Devata is Lord Jagannath. Although my parents focused their devotion on Lord Jagannath, they also worshiped other Gods and Goddesses with strong fervor. So, my worship of Lord Shiva may not that surprising that way. However, what may be surprising is the fact that I am worshiping Shiva while being a scientist. Well, I grew up a staunch atheist, vehemently questioning the existence of God. May be that was just part of growing up, part of the common tendency in adolescents where they rebel against anything and everything traditional. My rebelling against religion was sometimes so strong that I brought tears into the eyes of my mother, although I had good followers among my two young sisters.
As the years passed by, I gradually started realizing the wisdom and scientific basis behind a lot of our practices and rituals. I stopped seeing religion as anti-science. Instead, I started seeing grounds where both complement and supplement each other. Over the last couple of years, I have become much more spiritual, primarily following a couple of personally profound spiritual experiences. Now I don't see spirituality and science as opposite ends of a continuum. Instead, I realize that the dichotomous thinking of science being all rational and religion being all superstitious is a highly prejudiced and parochial form of thinking. There are several practices in Hindu and Buddhist religions (the two religions about which I am most familiar) that have strong scientific foundation. Not just that, the ancient insights from these religions are being a major source of knowledge for the advancement of modern science.
Coming back to worshiping Lord Shiva, I do so because I admire his personality. According to me, He is probably the most humble of Hindu Gods. He places his consort, Parvati, higher than Himself. Although having the status of God, he meditates and practices yoga regularly. In fact, the science of yoga is considered to have originated from Him. He epitomizes the harmony of the masculine and feminine energies. He is compassionate, courageous, creative, decisive, disciplined, and strong--attributes that I would like to be manifested in myself. There is quite a substantial body of research in Psychology that shows that admiration of a person helps in the inculcation of the qualities embodied in the person. In my experience, admiration and identification with Gods and Goddesses can be an extremely powerful process. According to Carl Jung, Gods and Goddesses represent archetypes with high concentration of psychological and spiritual energy. Through practice, if we succeed in tapping into these high sources of energy, our lives can get completely transformed, not necessarily in a materialistic sense, but in terms of the embodiment of God-like qualities that are so difficult to inculcate from a living person.