Millions of Hindu devotees all over the world observe the Shivaratri fast. It is observed once a year, and is considered to be the most important fast for devotees of Lord Shiva. The Shiva Purana even states that if a person fasts on the auspicious occasion of Shivaratri with sincerity and dedication, he/she is sure to be blessed with the divine grace of Lord Shiva. Many devotees observe the fast by abstaining from consuming even a drop of water throughout the day and night of the Shivaratri festival. However, many also subsist on a diet of fruits and milk.
It should be remembered that fasting is only for those who can withstand the rigors of going without food, and not for those who are weak or have a medical condition that requires the basic intake of medication and food items to get by.
Why Maha Shivratri Vrat is observed
Hindu mythology states that observing the Maha Shivaratri fast inculcates a sense of discipline and helps the individual to control the emotions and desires which can lead to destruction and chaos. Those who are unable to control their bodily instincts and are susceptible to bad habits (tamasguna and rajas guna), can benefit greatly by observing the fast. Worshiping the Lord with sincerity and devotion will help the person to control and subdue lust, anger, jealousy and other emotions that can sway the mentality of a person if not channeled in a proper manner. Observing ‘Jagran’ (overnight vigil), on the night of Maha Shivaratri helps one to remain alert and overcome lethargy and inertia. When a devotee offers worship to the Lord every three hours, the Shivaratri Vrat (fasting) is deemed fulfilled and assumes full significance.
Many devotees of Lord Shiva are totally committed towards observing the fast and consider it to be even more important than performing the ‘Ashwamedha Yagna’, which is in itself an extremely auspicious event. Observing the fast with sincerity also absolves one of all accumulated sins and past karma. Those who adhere to all the stipulations of the fasting process with devotion are liberated from the cycle of birth and death and are sure to reach the heavenly abode of Lord Shiva.
Customs associated with Shivaratri Fast
Those who observe the Maha Shivaratri fast start the day by waking up early and having a bath with water that is boiled with black sesame seeds. This is traditionally believed to cleanse one of bodily impurities. Devotees then wear new clothes and set out to visit the Shiva Mandir to perform ablutions to his symbol, the Shiva Lingam, with milk, honey and other sacred items. Devotees also chant mantras beseeching the Lord to bless them, while bathing the sacred Lingam. They then anoint the Lingam with haldi and kumkum and place ‘Bel’ leaves on it. Finally, after performing the bathing ritual, a garland of pink and white lotus flowers is reverentially placed on the Lingam. Incense sticks are lit and temple bells are rung to reach out to the Lord and invoke his divine blessings.
The Maha Shivaratri fast is observed throughout the day and night, and devotees maintain an all-night vigil by chanting mantras and singing devotional hymns in honor of Lord Shiva. The Shiva Lingam is bathed every three hours even during the night. Fruits and other such items are also kept as offerings to the Lord. All these rituals help the individual to delve into his/her inner consciousness and realize the true meaning of the ‘Self’. Devotees break the fast only on the following morning, by first consuming the Prasad offered to the magnanimous and ever forgiving master of the universe, Lord Shiva.