Maha Shivaratri – Shiva’s favorite day
One legend that explains the origins of Shivaratri concerns Lord Shiva and Parvati. When creation was completed, Parvati asked Lord Shiva which day he liked the most. The Lord replied that it was the 13th night of the new moon, in Magha month. Parvati told her friends, and the word spread all over. This explains why Maha Shivaratri is observed on the 13th day of Magha.
Shiva Performs the Tandava
Another legend says that Maha Shivaratri commemorates the day on which Lord Shiva performed “Tandava.” Lord Shiva is the God of destruction, while Lord Brahma is the God who created the universe and Lord Vishnu, the one who preserves the universe. Shiva’s “Tandava” is the dance of primordial creation, preservation, and destruction. The Maha Shivaratri day commemorates an incident that happened long back in time when Lord Shiva performed the destructive dance Rudra Tandava that annihilated almost the entire universe. Rudra Tandava expresses the dynamic energy of Lord Shiva and captures the violence inherent in him.
Shiva and the Great Flood
There is a fascinating legend that links Lord Shiva with the “Pralay” or great flood. During the Pralay, ‘shrishti'(creation) and ‘Brahmaand’ (the Cosmos) were destroyed by Nature’s fury. The entire world was facing annihilation at one point, and Goddess Parvati prayed to her husband requesting him to save the Jivas (living souls), remaining in space, during the prolonged pralaya. She also wanted the Lord to bless them to be active again, provided they worshipped him the way she did then. Shiva agreed. Parvati gave the name Maha Shivaratri to her night of wish-fulfillment or, the great night of Shiva, and ordered humans to worship Shiva on this night.
The Maha Shivaratri Fast
It is the practice to observe fast on Maha Shivaratri. The reason for this is explained in the legend of King Chitrabhanu. The story is told in the Shanti Parva (chapter) of the Mahabharata where Bhishma, lying on the bed of arrows and giving a discourse on Dharma (righteousness), talks about King Chitrabhanu observing Maha Shivaratri. Chitrabhanu was a powerful ruler of the Ikshvaku dynasty and king of Jambu-Dwipa (an ancient name for India). Once he was observing a fast with his wife when sage Ashtavakra came to his court along with some pupils. Ashtavakra asked the king why he was fasting. The king explained that he had a rare gift – he could remember the incidents of his past birth. In his previous life, he had been born as Suswara, a hunter in Varanasi who killed and sold birds and animals. One day, while hunting, he shot a deer, but as it was growing dark, he climbed a bael tree for safety.
Worried that his wife and children would go without food and be anxious about his whereabouts, he began to cry. To his shock, his canteen was leaking water too. The water, along with the leaves from the tree, fell on a Shiva linga placed under the tree. The next morning, he returned home with food for his family. As they were about to have their food, a stranger arrived, asking for food. Being a good host, Suswara served the guest first. For many years he lived, not knowing that he had by chance fasted on the day of Shivaratri, but when he was about to die, two messengers from Lord Shiva appeared to take his soul to heaven. Only then did he learn that it was the reward for having fasted on that auspicious day and night. The messengers explained that by dropping the leaves on the Lingam, he had unwittingly performed ritual worship.
Besides, the water that leaked from his canteen had washed the Lingam (like an Abishekam), and he had also fasted the entire day and night. Because of this, he had earned great merit as this had happened on Maha Shivaratri. Therefore, his soul was given a place in various heavens until it reached the highest. Later, he was reborn as a king and, as a special favor, was given the knowledge of his former life. The Maha Shivaratri fast was thus first observed by Chitrabhanu. On this day and night, devotees keep a fast, offer fruits, flowers and bael leaves to the Shiva Lingam and maintain an all-night vigil to honor Lord Shiva.
The story of King Bhagirath
The Ramayana mentions King Bhagirath who left his kingdom and did meditation for the salvation of ancestral souls. He did penance for a thousand years and requested Ganga to descend to earth from heaven and flow over the ashes of his ancestors. This would release them from a curse and allow them to enter heaven. Ganga came to earth by descending on the head of Lord Shiva, and her waters reached the earth through his matted locks. The bathing of the lingam supposedly commemorates this event.