Maha Shivaratri is one of the many ancient festivals of the Hindu tradition of India and Nepal. It is celebrated in honor of Lord Shiva (a Hindu Deity) and the literal translation of the word is ‘The Great night of Shiva’. The exact date of origin of this festival is unknown. However, it has been practiced and respected since time immemorial.
SIGNIFICANCE OF MAHA SHIVARATRI
Maha Shivaratri is celebrated on the New Moon day in the Maagha month of the Hindu calendar, during the late winter months (February/March). It marks the arrival of the summer season. It is said that following the vrat procedures of Maha Shivaratri help a person get rid of ignorance and darkness in his life. Man achieves a command over the rajas guna (the quality of passionate activity) and tamas guna (quality of ignorance).
Following the vrat sincerely on Maha Shivaratri is said to bring good luck to the Devotee. The Almighty will always have his blessings on the people performing the vrat and bring happiness and harmony to their lives.
There are many mythological legends associated with why Maha Shivaratri is celebrated in the first place. It is believed that when Parvati (the better half of Lord Shiva) asked him his favorite day, he had answered it to be the day which is celebrated as Maha Shivaratri.
It is also believed that Lord Shiva performs the Tandav, the dance of creation and destruction, on this night.
When the mother Earth was being tortured and violated by the demons, Goddess Parvati had offered prayers to Lord Shiva to help save the people. Shiva, being highly impressed with her prayers, agreed to destroy the evil if the people worship and offer prayers to him with utmost devotion. This night is celebrated as Maha Shivaratri. It is believed that he consumed the poisonous negativity during this time.
The most commonly told story is of a hunter who couldn’t find suitable prey to fulfill his hunger. He climbed on to a wood-apple tree and absentmindedly began plucking its leaves and dropping them down. He was unaware of a Shiva Linga that was present below. The leaves he was dropping landed on the Linga and Lord Shiva was highly pleased by the offering. He appeared in front of the hunter and blessed him with wisdom. The night is celebrated as Maha Shivaratri.
Some legends also state that it was the Maha Shivaratri night when Lord Shiva got married to Goddess Parvati.
People wake up early in the morning and bath with warm water on Maha Shivaratri day. The black sesame seeds are added to the warm water while taking bath to wash away bodily impurities. After wearing clean clothes, the devotees head to a nearby Shiva temple to perform Abhishekam/Abhishek, that is, bathing the Shiva Linga (idol) with milk, honey, ghee, water, curd etc. This is believed to be the deity’s favorite.
After the idol is completely washed, Devotees apply Haldi and KumKum to the God and put a garland of white and pink lotus around him. Bilva or Bel leaves are also placed on the top.
All through the day, praises and hymns of the God are chanted while the people refrain from consuming any food (fasting). They depend on a meal of fruits and milk alone.
During the night, the devotees stay awake the entire time and chant the ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ Mantra. The idol is given the holy bath after every three hours. Stories of the God’s greatness and his bravery are discussed and appreciated. With complete devotion, the entire body and mind are dedicated to the Almighty.
The following morning, Puja is performed. The fast is broken by consuming food, preferably the Prasad offered to the God. Ujjain, the place believed to be the residence of Lord Shiva is where Maha Shivaratri is celebrated with more vigor.
Lord Shiva is considered to be the closest of all Hindu Gods, to the devotees. It just takes little devotion and sincerity to earn his blessings. When this fast is performed on Maha Shivaratri with concentration and determination, man is relieved of the life and death cycles (attains Moksha).