Maha Shivratri, which literally translates to “great night of Shiva” is a Hindu festival largely celebrated in all states of India. The festival is celebrated on the new moon day in the month of Maagha according to the Hindu calendar. The day is celebrated to venerate Lord Shiva, an important deity in Hindu culture.
People often fast on the night of Shivratri and sing hymns and praises in the name of Lord Shiva. Shiva temples across the country are decorated with lights and colorful decorations and people can be seen offering night long prayers to Shiva Lingam. Woodapple leaves, cold water and milk are offered to the Shiva Lingam on this day as they are believed to be Lord Shiva’s favorite.
It is believed that the people who fast on this night and offer prayers to Lord Shiva bring good luck into their life. The most popular Maha Shivratri celebrations take place in Ujjain, believed to be the place of residence of Lord Shiva. Large processions are carried out throughout the city, with people thronging the streets to catch a glimpse of the revered idol of Lord Shiva.
There are many mythological legends associated with this day. According to a popular legend, when a hunter could not find anything to kill for his food in a forest, he waited on the branch of a Woodapple tree. In order to attract deer, he started throwing the leaves of the tree on the ground, unaware that there was a Shiva Lingam beneath the tree. Pleased with the Woodapple leaves and the patience of the hunter, it is believed that Lord Shiva appeared in front of the hunter and blessed him with wisdom. From that day onwards, the hunter stopped eating meat.
According to the Puranas, during the great mythical churning of the ocean called Samudra Manthan, a pot of poison emerged from the ocean. The gods and the demons were terrified as it could destroy the entire world. When they ran to Shiva for help, he in order to protect the world, drank the deadly poison but held it in his throat instead of swallowing it. This turned his throat blue, and since then he came to be known as ‘Nilkantha’, the blue-throated one.
It is also believed that Hindu devotees stay awake whole night to give company to God Shiva, who was not supposed to fall asleep after drinking the ocean poison (Kalakootam).
Some folklore also consider this to be Shiva’s day as this was believed to be the answer given by Lord Shiva when asked about his favorite day by Goddess Parvati.
Devotees believe that Lord Shiva married Devi Parvati on Shivratri. Thus, the day is the union of Shiva and Shakti, the two greatest forces of the Universe.
The Story of King Chitrabhanu
Once upon a time King Chitrabhanu of the Ikshvaku dynasty, who ruled over the whole of Jambudvipa , 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.
The day is considered auspicious for women. They fast and pray to the Lord to get blessed with blissful married life, while unmarried woman would pray for an ideal husband like Shiva.
All through the day the devotees keep severe fast, chant the sacred Panchakshara mantra “Om Namah Shivaya”, make offerings of flowers and incense to the Lord amidst ringing of temple bells. They maintain long vigils during the night, keeping awake to listen to stories, hymns and songs. The fast is broken only the next morning, after the nightlong worship. In Kashmir, the festival is held for 15 days. The 13th day is observed as a day of fast followed by a family feast. Maha Shivratri a unique time to burn your bad Karmas with the blessings of Mahadev Shiva.