Maha Shivratri is celebrated on the 14th day of the dark fortnight of the Māgha month, as per the Hindu lunar calendar as a day of devotion to Lord Shiva. Shiva is the one-third of the holy trinity – the Destroyer amongst the creator, Brahma, and Vishnu. He is called the destroyer as he destroys negative presences such as evil, ignorance, and death.
Why is Maha Shivratri Celebrated?
It is believed that Maha Shivratri falls on such auspicious day in the northern hemisphere that it raises a person’s spiritual power. Maha Shivratri is also celebrated marking the convergence of Shiva and Shakti. Maha Shivratri also celebrates the night when Lord Shiva performed the “Tandav”, the cosmic dance. Here are the various books and theories on how and why Shivratri exists.
The Legend of Neelakantha
By now we have established the greatness of Shiva, the humble yogi who requires very less of worldly pleasures and embellishments, the savior who goes where none has ever gone. “Samudra Manthan” – the churning of the sea has been mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, in the Mahabharata, and in the Vishnu Purana as it explains how “Amrita” was formed.
After a brief power struggle between the Auras (demons) and Devas (Gods) churning of the sea was advised by Vishnu to obtain the nectar of life- amrita. The churning of the Ocean of Milk was an elaborate process: Mount Mandara was used as the churning rod, and Vasuki, a nāgarāja (snake king) who abides on Shiva’s neck, became the churning rope. The Asuras demanded to hold the head of the snake, while the Devas, taking advice from Vishnu, agreed to hold its tail. As a result, the Asuras were poisoned by fumes emitted by Vasuki. Despite this, the Devas and the Asuras pulled back and forth on the snake’s body alternately, causing the mountain to rotate, which in turn churned the ocean. When the mountain was placed on the ocean, it began to sink. Vishnu, in the form of the Kurma turtle, came to their rescue and supported the mountain on his shell.
The Samudra Manthana process released a number of things from the Ocean of Milk. One was the lethal poison known as Halahala, which in some versions of the story, escaped from the mouth of the serpent king as the demons and gods churned. This terrified the gods and demons because the poison was so powerful that it could destroy all of creation. Then the gods approached Shiva for protection. Shiva consumed the poison to protect the three worlds but it burned the throat of Shiva. The Gods danced in order to protect Shiva from the harmful effect of the poison and keep him awake for a night. The poison eventually didn’t harm Shiva but turned his neck blue. This was when he got the name Neelkantha. Since then, the night is celebrated as Maha Shivratri. Such was his greatness and selflessness
According to another popular legend, Maha Shivratri is the night when Shiva performs the heavenly dance of creation, preservation, and destruction. The chanting of hymns, the reading of Shiva scriptures by devotees joins this cosmic dance. It is believed that on the 13th day of each bright lunar fortnight (see Hindu calendar), after 6 o’clock in the evening, falls a sacred hour called Pradosha. Worshipping Shiva at this time is akin to worshipping all the powers of Shiva, for this is the time when all the gods are believed to have assembled on Kailash to lose them in the ecstasy of Nataraja’s dance.
He dances the dance of creation, the dance of destruction, the dance of solace and liberation. Beneath his left foot ignorance is crushed; from his head springs the life-giving waters. His are the flames, the moon, the drum, and the lotus. His mount is the white bull, and the tiger has given its skin to gird his loins. Serpents coil about his limbs, and from his right-hand flows the promise of release. This dance is not just a symbol. It takes place within each of us at the atomic level at every moment. The birth of the world, its maintenance, its destruction, the covering of the soul and its revelation…these are the five acts of this dance. All that has been made will be unmade, and all that has been destroyed will be resurrected. Shiva tandava stotram talks about Lord Shiva’s Dance.
Maha Shivratri – The union of Shiva and Parvati
After the death of Sati, his first wife, Shiva missed her sorely and went into deep mourning and isolation. But he did not know that she had come back as Parvati. King of Gods, Indra, sends the god Kama Deva – the Hindu god of Love and Lust, to awake Shiva from meditation. The Kama reaches Shiva and shoots an arrow of desire. Shiva opens his third eye in his forehead and burns the cupid Kama to ashes. Parvati does not lose her hope or her resolve to win over Shiva. She begins to live in mountains like Shiva, engages in the same activities as Shiva, one of asceticism, yogini, and tapasi. This draws the attention of Shiva and awakens his interest. He meets her in disguised form (Brahmachari Avatar of Shiva), tries to discourage her, telling her Shiva’s weaknesses and personality problems. Parvati refuses to listen and insists on her resolve. Shiva finally accepts her and they get married. Lord Shiva took Suntantarka Avatar to ask the hand of Parvati in marriage from her father Himalaya. Apparently, Shiva dedicates the following hymn in Parvati’s honor,
I am the sea and you the wave,
You are Prakṛti, and I Purusha.
The marriage was sanctified a day before Amavasya in the month of Phalgun. This day of the union of Shiva and Parvati is celebrated as Maha Shivratri every year.
How is Maha Shivratri celebrated?
According to the Shiva Purana, the Mahashivratri puja involves six steps which are:
- Taking bath in the Ganges for purification of soul, mind, and body. Bathing of the Shiv Linga with the holy water of Ganges, then bathing with milk and honey. Lord Shiva loves bel Patra (three leaves stalked in one) so every ritual added it to the puja.
- After bathing of the Shiv Linga, the vermilion paste applied to it which represents the virtue.
- Offer fruits, flowers which are given to get long life and satisfaction of desires.
- Burning enrages yields wealth.
- The lighting with Diya represents achieving more knowledge.
- Offering betel leaves provide satisfaction full of great pleasures.
Worshipers also apply three horizontal lines of holy ash on their forehead just like Lord Shiva which represents spiritual knowledge, cleanliness, and penance. They wear a garland made up of the Rudraksha (seed of Rudraksha tree) while worshiping Lord Shiva. It is believed that the Rudraksha tree was originated from the tears of Lord Shiva.
Importance of Symbols
The bel tree, also known as the bilwa or bilva tree-is sacred to Lord Shiva. According to legend, a disreputable hunter was going out to hunt one day (which happened to be the day of the festival) when he passed one of Shiva’s temples and saw a number of people worshipping the LINGAM and calling out Shiva’s name. Mockingly, he imitated their cries; without realizing it, uttering the god’s name on that holy day removed some of his sins. As night approached, he climbed up into a bel tree to escape the wild animals and wait for the morning. Unable to sleep, he kept an involuntary vigil; and shivering from the cold, he accidentally shook down some of the bel leaves, which fell onto a stone LINGAM beneath the tree. Although none of these acts was deliberate, the hunter ended up performing exactly those rites that the worshippers of Shiva perform on Shivratri, and he was instantly released from his past sins and made a saint.
The lingam-whose name is Sanskrit for “sign” or “distinguishing symbol”-represents Shiva’s generative powers. It is usually a short, cylindrical pillar with a rounded top, made out of stone or wood and decorated with carvings of the god along its sides. The lingam is worshipped with offerings of fresh flowers, pure water, young sprouts of grass, fruit, leaves from the Bel tree, and sun-dried rice.
Devotees throng the Shiva temples, Pashupatinath temple in Nepal, Annamalai temple in Tamil Nadu, Mahakaleshwar Temple in Ujjain as well as major Jyotirlinga Shiva temples of India, such as in Varanasi and Somanatha, on Maha Shivratri.
Maha Shivratri is considered more than a ritual as it dispels ignorance, and makes one aware of the universe. It also indicates the onset of the spring after cold and harsh winter. So make this Shivratri about the awakenings of your inner well being and connect to the universe spiritually.