Sonia Sumitra Thakar
While Gokarna is a beautiful little town on the west coast of India known for its idyllic beaches and gorgeous blue waters, it is also a place of pilgrimage being home to the famous Mahabaleshwar Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. In fact, Gokarna is also known as ‘Bhu Kailash’ – meaning Kailash (abode of Lord Shiva) on earth. The story behind this temple, how it got the lingam installed here and how the town got its name is an interesting one and features one of Hindu mythology’s favourite villains—Ravana.
Ravana and the Atmalingam
Legend has it that in the Treta Yuga, Ravana, son of the Brahmin sage Vishwavas and the demon princess Kaikasi, was the ruler of Lanka. His mother was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and worshipped a Shiva lingam every day. One day Indra, jealous of her worship, stole the lingam and threw it away in the sea. Ravana’s mother was very upset and her son appeased her by promising to bring her the Atma Lingam from Lord Shiva himself.
Ravana set out for Mount Kailash and spent years in penance to please the Lord. It is said that he even cut open his abdomen and made a string instrument out of his intestines to accompany his songs of worship. Eventually, Lord Shiva was pleased and agreed to grant Ravana a boon. Ravana asked Lord Shiva for the Atmalingam (the life-force of Shiva). Bound by his promise, Lord Shiva granted him this wish but on one condition: if Ravana put the Atmalingam down anywhere on his way back home, the lingam would get rooted to that spot.
With the Atmalingam in one hand, Ravana set off towards Lanka, hoping to reach home by dusk. The Devas got worried on the implications of the demon king possessing the Atmalingam—he would become indestructible and wreak havoc on earth! Sage Narada approached Ganesha to help them out.
As Ravana approached Gokarna, Lord Vishnu blotted out the sun to make it look like the sun was setting. Ravana needed to stop to perform his evening prayers but he could not put the lingam down. Just then, he spotted a small cowherd boy, who was actually Lord Ganesha in disguise, and convinced him to hold the lingam for him. The boy reluctantly agreed to do so on the condition that when he needed to leave, he would call out to Ravana three times and then put the lingam down on the ground. Ravana had no choice but to agree and started his worship. Lord Ganesha timed his three rapid calls to Ravana carefully at a crucial time in the prayers when he knew Ravana would not be able to come immediately. After calling out thrice, he put the lingam down and ran away with his cows. An enraged Ravana chased after the boy and managed to strike him on the head with a stick. But he was unable to catch him and ended up only getting a hold of the ear of one of the cows.
Unable to catch the boy, Ravana returned to the lingam and tried to lift it up but despite his immense strength, it just would not budge. He named the lingam as Mahabaleshwar (all-powerful) and the beautiful temple that houses this lingam is a popular place of pilgrimage.
The petrified form of the cow’s ear can still be seen today. Gokarna literally means cow’s ear and gives this place its name. The idol of Ganesha enshrined in the Maha Ganapati temple in Gokarna has a dent on the head, as it is believed he was hit there by Ravana.
Thousands of devout people visit Gokarna for its beautifully constructed temples and Shivaratri is celebrated here on a large scale, complete with a rath yatra. As someone on the religious path, this holy town definitely warrants a visit.
Lingams which are considered as symbols of divine energy and the potential of God are worshipped by devotees of Lord Shiva throughout the world. They are symbolic representations of the subtle form of Shiva and Shakti. Chanting hymns dedicated to Lord Shiva on a daily basis can enrich our lives. Holy books such as the Shree Shiva Nitya Aardhana—a compliation of powerful Shiva prayers—may be kept at home for the purpose.