Maha Shivaratri is a Hindu festival celebrated annually in reverence of the god Shiva. It is the day Shiva was married to the goddess Parvati. The Maha Shivaratri festival, also popularly known as ‘Shivaratri’ (spelt as Sivaratri, Shivaratri, Sivarathri, and Shivarathri) or ‘Great Night of Shiva’, marks the convergence of Shiva and Shakti. Maha Shivaratri is celebrated on the Krishna Paksha Chaturdashi of Hindu calendar month Maagha as per Amavasya-ant month calculation.
As per Poornima-ant month calculation, the day is Krishna Paksha Chaturdashi of Hindu calendar month Phalguna which falls in February or March as per the Gregorian calendar. Of the twelve Shivaratris in the year, the Maha Shivarathri is the most holy.
The festival is principally celebrated by offerings of Bael leaves to Shiva, all-day fasting and an all-night-vigil (jagaran). All through the day, devotees chant “Om Namah Shivaya”, the sacred mantra of Shiva. Penances are performed in order to gain boons in the practice of Yoga and meditation, in order to reach life’s highest good steadily and swiftly. On this day, the planetary positions in the Northern hemisphere act as potent catalysts to help a person raise his or her spiritual energy more easily. The benefits of powerful ancient Sanskrit mantras such as Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra increase greatly on this night.
In Nepal, millions of Hindus attend Shivaratri together from different part of the world at the famous Pashupatinath Temple. Thousands of devotees also attend Mahasivaratri at the famous Shiva Shakti Peetham of Nepal.
In Trinidad and Tobago, thousands of Hindus spend the auspicious night in over 400 temples across the country, offering special jhalls to Lord Shiva.
On Maha Shivaratri, Nishita Kala is the ideal time to observe Shiva Pooja. Nishita Kala celebrates when Lord Shiva appeared on the Earth in the form of Linga. On this day, in all Shiva temples, the most auspicious Lingodbhava Puja is performed.
Maha Shivaratri is associated with the marriage of Shiva and Shakti.
The legends signify that this day is the favorite of Lord Shiva and also throws light on his greatness and the supremacy of Lord Shiva over all other Hindu Gods and Goddesses.
Maha Shivaratri also celebrates the night when Lord Shiva performed the ‘Tandava’, the cosmic dance.
According to another legend of Samudra manthan, Shiva saved the world from the disastrous effects of a poison that emerged as a by product of the churning of the sea (Samudra manthan), by consuming the whole of the poison. Shiva could arrest the poison in his throat by his Yogic powers and it didn’t go down his throat. His neck turned blue due to the effect of the poison on his throat and henceforth he is also known as Neela Kantha or The Blue Throated.
Pralaya (the Deluge)
Another version of the tale relates that the world was facing destruction and Goddess Parvati prayed to her husband Shiva to rescue it. She prayed for the Jivas (living souls) that remained in seed-like particles of gold dust in lumps of wax, since Pralaya is brought about by Lord Shiva. Shivaratri is also when Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva married.
Lord Shiva’s favourite day
After earth’s creation was complete, Parvati asked Lord Shiva which devotees and rituals pleased him the most. The Lord replied that the 14th night of the new moon, in the dark fortnight during the month of Phalgun, is his favorite day. Parvati repeated these words to Her friends, from whom the word spread to all creation.
The Story of King Chitrabhanu
Once upon a time King Chitrabhanu of the Ikshvaku dynasty, who ruled over the whole of Jambudvipa (India), was observing a fast with his wife, it being the day of Maha Shivaratri. The sage Ashtavakra came on a visit to the court of the king.
The sage asked the king the purpose of his observing the fast. King Chitrabhanu explained that he had a gift of remembering the incidents of his past birth, and in his previous life he had been a hunter in Varanasi and his name was Suswara. His only livelihood was to kill and sell birds and animals. The day before the new moon, while roaming through forests in search of animals, he saw a deer, but before his arrow flew he noticed the deer’s family and their sadness at its impending death. So he let it live. He had still not caught anything when night fell, so he climbed a tree for shelter. It happened to be a Bael tree. His canteen leaked water, so he was both hungry and thirsty. These two torments kept him awake throughout the night, thinking of his poor wife and children who were starving and anxiously awaiting his return. To pass the time, he engaged himself in plucking the Bael leaves and dropping them down onto the ground.
The next day he returned home and bought some food for himself and his family. The moment he was about to break his fast a stranger came to him, begging for food. He served the food first to stranger and only ate afterward.
At the time of his death, he saw two messengers of Lord Shiva, sent to conduct his soul to the abode of Shiva. He learnt then for the first time of the great merit he had earned by unconscious worship of Shiva during the night of Maha Shivaratri. The messengers told him that there had been a Lingam (a symbol for the worship of Shiva) at the bottom of the tree. The leaves he dropped from the Bael tree had fallen into the shape of a Lingam, in imitation of Shiva’s ritual worship. The water from his leaky canteen had washed the Lingam (also a ritual action), and he had fasted all day and all night. Thus, he unconsciously had worshiped Lord Shiva. At the conclusion of the tale the King said that he had lived in the abode of the Shiva and enjoyed divine bliss for a long time before being reborn as Chitrabhanu. This story is narrated in the Garuda Purana.
‘Shivaratri’ means ‘night of Shiva’. The important components of this religious festival are rigid fasting for twenty four hours and sleepless vigil during the night. Every true devotee of Lord Shiva spends the night of Shivaratri in deep meditation, keeping vigil and observing the fast.
The worship of Lord Shiva consists in offering flowers, Bilva leaves and other gifts on the Lingam, which is a symbol of Lord Shiva, and bathing it with milk, curd, ghee, honey, sugar, coconut water, butter, and rose-water.
When creation had been completed, Shiva and Parvati had been living on the top of Kailas. Parvati asked: “O venerable God, which of the many rituals observed in They honour doth please Thee most?” Lord Shiva replied: “The thirteenth night of the new moon, Krishna Paksha, in the month of Magha(February–March) is known as Maha Shivaratri, My most favourable Tithi. My devotees give Me greater happiness by mere fasting than by ceremonial baths, and offerings of flowers, sweets, and incense.
“Just hear, My Beloved, of an episode which will give you an idea of the glory and power of this ritual,” said Lord Shiva to Parvati.
“Once upon a time, there lived in the town of Varanasi a hunter. He was returning from the forest one evening with the game birds he had killed. He felt tired and sat at the foot of a tree to take some rest. He was soon overpowered by sleep. When he awoke, it was the thick darkness of night. It was the night of Maha Shivaratri but he didn’t know it. He climbed up the tree, tied his bundle of dead birds to a branch and sat up waiting for the dawn. The tree happened to be My favorite, the Bilva tree.
“There was a Lingam under that tree. He had plucked a few leaves and then dropped them down, accidentally forming the shape of a Lingam. The night-dew trickled down from his body. I was highly pleased with involuntary little gifts of the hunter. The day dawned and the hunter returned home.
“In time, the hunter fell ill and gave up his last breath. The messengers of Yama(Lord of Death) arrived at his bedside to carry his soul to Yamlok(abode of Yama). My messengers also went to the spot to take him to My abode. There was a vicious fight between Yama’s messengers and My messengers. The former were easily defeated. They reported the matter to Yama, Lord of Death. He arrived in person at the portals of My abode. Nandi gave him an idea of the sanctity of Maha Shivaratri and the love which I had for that hunter. Yama surrendered the hunter to Me and returned to his abode. Thereafter, Yama has pledged not to touch my devotees without my consent.
“The hunter was able to enter My abode and ward off death by simple fasting and the offering of a few Bilva leaves, even accidentally, because it was the night of Maha Shivaratri. Such is the solemnity and sacredness associated with that night.”
Parvati was deeply impressed by the speech of Lord Shiva on the sanctity and glory of Maha Shivaratri. She repeated it to Her friends, who in their turn passed it on to the ruling princes on earth. Thus, the sanctity of Maha Shivaratri was broadcast all over the world.
Rituals of Maha Shivaratri
Very early morning, Shiva temples are flocked by devotees, young and old, who come to perform the traditional Shivalinga worship (puja) and hence hope for favours from the God. Devotees bathe at sunrise, preferably in the Ganga, or any other holy water source (like the Shiv Sagartank at Khajurao). This is a rite of purification, which is an important part of all Hindu festivals. Wearing clean clothing after the holy bath, worshippers carry pots of water to the temple to bathe the Shivalinga. Women and men both offer prayers to the sun, Vishnu and Shiva. The temple reverberates with the sound of bells and shouts of “Shankerji ki Jai” meaning ‘Hail Shiva’. Devotees circulate the lingam three or seven times, and then pour water over it. Some also pour milk over it.
According to the Shiva Purana, the Mahashivaratri worship must incorporate six items:
Bathing the Shiva Linga with water, milk and honey. Woodapple or bel leaves are added to, which represents purification of the soul;
Vermilion paste is applied to the Shiva Linga after bathing it. This represents virtue;
Offering of fruits, which is conducive to longevity and gratification of desires;
Burning incense, yielding wealth;
The lighting of the lamp which is conducive to the attainment of knowledge;
And betel leaves marking satisfaction with worldly pleasures.
Tripundra refers to the three horizontal stripes of holy ash applied to the forehead by worshipers of Lord Shiva. These stripes symbolise spiritual knowledge, purity and penance (spiritual practice of Yoga). They also represent the three eyes of Lord Shiva.
Wearing a mala (rosary) made from the rudraksha seeds of the rudraksha tree (said to have sprung from the tears of Lord Shiva) when worshiping Lord Shiva is ideal. A rudraksha seed is mahogany-like color, or could sometimes be black. They might also have traces of sacred sandalwood powder, turmeric, kumkum, or holy ash if the rosary is used in worship ceremonies or annointations.
Other traditional worship of Lord Shiva
Main article: Jyotirlinga
The twelve Jyotirlingas (lingams of light) are sacred shrines to Lord Shiva, and centres for his worship. They are known as Swayambhus, meaning the lingams sprung up by themselves at these locations, and temples were built there afterwards.
Temples are listed in the India tourist guides.