Mahashivratri (also known as Shivaratri) is a Hindu festival dedicated to Shiva, who destroys the universe, one of the deities of the Hindu Trinity.
Night and day
While most Hindu festivals are celebrated during the day, Mahashivratri is celebrated during the night and day that come just before the new moon.
Each new moon is dedicated to Shiva, but Mahashivratri is especially important because it is the night when he danced the 'Tandav', his cosmic dance.
It also celebrates the wedding of Shiva and Sati, the mother divine. Night represents evil, injustice, ignorance, sin, violence, and misfortune.
Tradition says that Shiva, like his symbol the new moon, appeared in order to save the world from darkness and ignorance, before the world entered complete darkness.
Marriage of Shiva and Shakti
The legend of marriage of Shiva and Shakti is one the most important legends related to the festival of Mahashivaratri. The story tells us how Lord Shiva got married a second time to Shakti, his divine consort. According to legend of Shiva and Shakti, the day Lord Shiva got married to Parvati is celebrated as Shivaratri - the Night of Lord Shiva.
Legend goes that once Lord Shiva and his wife Sati or Shakti were returning from sage Agastya’s ashram after listening to Ram Katha or story of Ram. On their way through a forest, Shiva saw Lord Rama searching for his wife Sita who had been kidnapped by Ravana, the King of Lanka. Lord Shiva bowed his head in reverence to Lord Rama. Sati was surprised by Lord Shiva’s behavior and inquired why he was paying obeisance to a mere mortal. Shiva informed Sati that Rama was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Sati, however, was not satisfied with the reply and Lord asked her to go and verify the truth for herself.
Using her power to change forms, Sati took the form of Sita appeared before Rama. Lord Rama immediately recognized the true identity of the Goddess and asked, "Devi, why are you alone, where's Shiva?" At this, Sati realized the truth about Lord Ram. But, Sita was like a mother to Lord Shiva and since Sati took the form of Sita her status had changed. From that time, Shiva detached himself from her as a wife. Sati was sad with the change of attitude of Lord Shiva but she stayed on at Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva.
Later, Sati’s father Daksha organised a yagna, but did not invite Sati or Shiva as he had an altercation with Shiva in the court of Brahma. But, Sati who wanted to attend the Yagna, went even though Lord Shiva did not appreciate the idea. To hre great anguish, Daksha ignored her presence and did not even offer Prasad for Shiva. Sati felt humiliated and was struck with profound grief. She jumped into the yagna fire and immolated herself.
Lord Shiva became extremely furious when he heard the news of Sati’s immolation. Carrying the body of Sati, Shiva began to perform Rudra Tandava or the dance of destruction and wiped out the kingdom of Daksha. Everybody was terrified as Shiva’s Tandava had the power to destroy the entire universe. In order to calm Lord Shiva, Vishnu severed Sati's body into 12 pieces and threw them on earth. It is said that wherever the pieces of Shakti’s body fell, there emerged a Shakti Peetha, including the Kamaroopa Kamakhya in Assam and the Vindhyavasini in UP.
Lord Siva was now alone undertook rigorous penance and retired to the Himalayas. Sati took a re-birth as Parvati in the family of God Himalaya. She performed penance to break Shiva’s meditation and win his attention. It is said that Parvati, who found it hard to break Shiva’s meditation seeked help of Kamadeva - the God of Love and Passion. Kaamadeva asked Parvati to dance in front of Shiva. When Parvati danced, Kaamadeva shot his arrow of passion at Shiva breaking his penance. Shiva became extremely infuriated and opening his third eye that reduced Kaamadeva to ashes. It was only after Kamadeva’s wife Rati’s pleading that Lord Shiva agreed to revive Kaamadeva.
Later, Parvati undertook severe penance to win over Shiva. Through her devotion and persuasion by sages devas, Parvati, also known as Uma, was finally able to lure Shiva into marriage and away from asceticism. Their marriage was solemnized a day before Amavasya in the month of Phalgun. This day of union of God Shiva and Parvati is celebrated as Mahashivratri every year.
Another Version of the Legend
According to another version of the legend, Goddess Parvati performed tapas and prayers on the auspicious moonless night of Shivaratri to ward off any evil that may befall her husband. Since then, womenfolk began the custom of praying for the well being of their husbands and sons on Shivaratri day. Unmarried women pray for a husband like Shiva, who is considered to be the ideal husband.
Devotees of Lord Shiva observe the Shivaratri Festival by following the prescribed rituals with sincerity and devotion. All through the day, devotees abstain from eating food and break their fast only the next morning, after the nightlong worship. Ritual baths of Shivalinga in the numerous Shiva temples by Shiva worshipper, mainly women, is another significant feature of Shivratri customs and traditions. Devotees strongly believe that ritual worship of Lord Shiva on the auspicious day of Shivaratri absolves them of past sins and they are blessed with Moksha.
Rituals Observed on a Shivaratri Morning
As a tradition devotees wake up early in the morning of the Mahashivratri day and take a ritual sunrise bath, preferably in the holy waters of river Ganga. They also offer prayers to the Sun God, Vishnu and Shiva as a part of a purification rite observed on all-important Hindu festivals. After wearing fresh new clothes devotees visit the nearest Shiva Temple to give the customary bath to the Shivalinga.
On a Shivratri day, Shiva temples are thronged by devotees, mainly women, who come to perform the traditional Shivalinga pooja and seek blessings from the god. At times there is so much rush in the temples that devotees have to wait for their turn to observe pooja. At their turn for worship, devotees circumambulate the Shivalinga, three or seven times, and then pour water over it. Some also pour milk. Sounds of bell and shouts of ‘Shankarji ki Jai’ or (Hail Shiva) reverberate in the temple premises.
Ritual Bath of Shivalinga
Following the rituals prescribed in the Shiva Purana, every three hours, Shivalingam is given a special bath with milk, yoghurt, honey, sandalwood paste and rose water. Puja, meditation and chanting of ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ accompany the ritual bath. Following the bath, vermilion paste is applied on the linga. Traditionally, leaves of a forest tree Aegle marmelos (bilwa, maredu, wood apple) are used for Shiva puja. Thereafter, Bilwa leaves, which have to be a stalk with three leaves, is kept on top of the Shivalinga. Ber or jujube fruit is a special offering to the god on this day. Beetle leaves are also offered by some. Some also offer bilwa leaves in the belief that the Goddess Lakshmi resides in them. Others believe it is offered for its cooling effects on the hot-tempered deity. Many devotees also decorate the linga with flowers and garlands and offer incense sticks and fruit.
Significance of Puja Items
According to the Shiva Purana, there is a special significance of the six essential puja items used in the Shiva worship.
•Bathing of Shivalinga with water, milk and honey and wood apple or bel leaves added to it, represents purification of the soul.
•The vermilion paste applied on the linga after the ritual bath represents virtue.
•Offering of fruits symbolizes longevity and gratification of desires.
•Burning of incense sticks yields wealth.
•The lighting of the lamp symbolizes attainment of knowledge.
•Offering of betel leaves marks satisfaction with worldly pleasures.
All-Night Shiva Worship
Worship of Lord Shiva continues all through the night on Shivaratri Festival. Devotees stay awake all night and spend the night in Shiva temples in worship of Lord Shiva. Singing of hymns and verses in praise and devotion of Lord Shiva besides the intense chanting of Om Namah Shivay, the mantra that is said free people from all their sins, continue through the night on Shivaratri.
Special worship of Shiva by priests continues through the nightlong prayer vigil. During this ritual worship, Lord Shiva is offered special food made from the fruits of the season, root vegetables and coconuts. Those observing the shivaratri fast break their fast the next morning by consuming the prasad offered to Shiva.
Shivaratri Pooja has been given tremendous significance in Hindu mythology. It is said that ritual worship of Lord Shiva on a Shivaratri day pleases Lord Shiva the most. Devotees further believe that by pleasing Lord Shankara on the auspicious Shivaratri day, a person is absolved of past sins and is blessed with Moksha or salvation.
Merits of Shivaratri Puja
According to Shiva Purana, sincere worship of Lord Shiva yields merits including spiritual growth for the devotees. It also provides extensive details on the right way to perform Shivratri Puja.
Shiva Purana further says that performing abhisheka of Shiva Linga with six different dravyas including milk, yoghurt, honey, ghee, sugar and water while chanting Sri Rudram, Chamakam and Dasa Shanthi pleases Lord Shiva the most. According to the mythology, each of these dravya used in the abhisheka blesses a unique quality:
•Milk is for the blessing of purity and piousness.
•Yogurt is for prosperity and progeny.
•Honey is for sweet speech.
•Ghee is for victory.
•Sugar is for happiness.
•Water is for purity.
Besides, worship of Lord Shiva on Shivratri is also considered to be extremely beneficial for women. While, married women pray to Shiva for the well being of their husbands and sons, unmarried women pray for a husband like Shiva, who is considered to be the ideal husband.
Getting Ready for Shivratri Puja
To perform the worship of Lord Shiva on Shivratri, devotees wake up early and take a ritual bath, preferably in the holy waters of river Ganga. This is followed by worship to Sun God, Vishnu and Shiva in accordance with the purification rite observed on all-important Hindu festivals. Devotees then wear fresh new clothes and pay a visit to the nearest Shiva temple. As a tradition, devotees observe a fast on a Shivaratri day. Some do not consume even a drop of water.
Performing Maha Shivaratri Pooja
Following the method prescribed in Shiva Purana, priests perform ritual puja of Shiva Linga every three hours all through the day and night of Shivaratri Festival. During this pooja, chants of Om Namah Shivaya and sounds of bells reverberate in the temple. Following the bath with milk, yoghurt, honey, ghee, sugar and water that helps in the purification of the soul a vermilion paste is applied on the Linga as it represents virtue. These six items form an indispensable part of Shivaratri, be it a simple ceremony at home or grand temple worship
After this, Bilwa leaves, which have to be a stalk with three leaves, is kept on top of the Shivalinga to cool the hot-tempered deity. Ber or jujube fruit is also offered to Lord Shiva, as it is symbolic of longevity and gratification of desires. Some devotees also offer the auspicious betel leaves to Lord Shiva marking satisfaction with worldly pleasures. Garlanding of Linga with flowers and garlands is also a part of the ritual Shivaratri Puja. Devotees also burn incense sticks as is said to yield wealth. Many also light lamps to symbolize attainment of knowledge. It is said that by offering water, hugging the Linga, lighting the diya and incense and ringing the temple bells, devotees call into focus all their senses, making them acutely aware of themselves and the universe to which they belong.
This ritual worship of Lord Shiva continues through the day and night of Shivaratri. Devotees stay awake and spent the night in Shiva temples by chanting ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ and singing hymns and verses in praise of Lord Shankar. Devotees observing vrat on Shivaratri break it only the next morning by partaking prasad offered to Lord Shiva.
Shivaratri Fast is considered to be the most important fast for the devotees of Lord Shiva. Shiva Purana goes on to say that if a devotee observes Shivaratri Vrata with sincerity, pure devotion and love he is blessed with the divine grace of Lord Shiva. Every year devotees observe Maha Shivaratri fast with devotion and sincerity. Though many go on a diet of fruits and milk, some do not consume even a drop of water all through the day and night of Shivaratri Festival.
Merits of Mahashivratri Vrat
According to Hindu mythology, observance of mahashivratri Vrat with discipline helps a devotee to control the two great natural forces that afflict a man, rajas guna (the quality of passionate activity) and tamas guna (the quality of inertia). When a devotee spends an entire day in the Feet of Lord and worships with sincerity, his motion is controlled and evils like lust, anger and jealousy, born of Rajas are ignored and subdued. Besides, when a devotee observes vigil throughout the night (jaagran) he manages to conquer the evils of Tamas Guna too. It has also been mentioned that when a devotee observes a round of worship every three hours, the Shivaratri Vrata becomes perfect.
Devotees of Lord Shiva believe consider Shivratri fast to be extremely auspicious and rate it equal or more than performing an Ashwamedha Yagna. Some believe that a devotee who observes a Shivaratri Fast with sincerity and utters the name of Lord Shiva with perfect devotion is absolved from all sins. Such a devotee reaches the abode of Lord Shiva and lives there happily. He is also liberated from the cycle of birth and death.
Customs and Traditions of Shivaratri Fast
As a tradition, devotees who are on a strict fast on Shivaratri take bath with the water that is boiled with black sesame seeds to wash away bodily impurities. After putting on fresh new clothes, a devotee visit the nearest Lord Shiva temple to perform the ritual Shiva Linga bath with milk, honey etc. While bathing the Lingam a devotee prays, "O Lord ! I will bathe Thee with water, milk, etc. Do Thou kindly bathe me with the milk of wisdom. Do Thou kindly wash me of all my sins, so that the fire of worldliness which is scorching me may be put out once for all, so that I may be one with Thee-the One alone without a second."
Following the sacred bath, devotee applies haldi-kumkum on the lingum and place a garland of white and pink lotus flowers on it. Bel leaves are also placed at the top of the Lingum. Aarthi and bhajans in praise of Lord Shiva are also sung to invoke his blessings. Devotee also light incense stick and ring temple bell to invoke the blessing of the large-hearted Lord Shiva.
It may be noted that unlike most other festivals, where after performing the Puja of the deity a feast follows, a Shivratri fast continues all through the day and night. Devotees observe an all night vigil while chanting the mantra, "Om Namah Shivaya" and singing devotional hymns and songs. Even during the night, Shiva Lings is given the holy bath every three hours. An offering of fruits is also made to the deity. There is also the tradition to listen to the recital of various legends and stories related to Shivaratri and Lord Shiva and to understand its deeper meanings. It is only in the following morning that a devotee breaks the fast by consuming the prasad offered to Lord Shankar.
This Year MahaShivratri falls on 2nd March 2011