Maha Shivaratri is one of the most important festivals celebrated across India. Millions revere Shiva, the God of Destruction. He is one among the Holy Trinity along with Brahma and Vishnu. He is one of the most powerful Gods and is called Mahadev (The Great God). Maha Shivaratri means the ‘Great Night of Shiva.
Hindu festivals are mostly celebrated during the day, but Maha Shivaratri is celebrated at night. It is about dispelling darkness and ignorance. There are different legends about the occurrence of the festival. Maha Shivaratri occurs once a year, whereas Shivaratri is celebrated on the 14th night of the dark fortnight (Krishna Paksha), the day before the New Moon.
It is believed Shiva performs the cosmic dance called the Tandav. It is a rigorous dance of creation, preservation, and destruction. Here are two forms of this dance. When Shiva is furious, he does the Rudra Tandav in the aggressive mode. When he is joyous, he performs the Ananda Tandav.
After the demise of his wife Sati, Shiva went into deep meditation and undertook severe penance. Sati was reborn as Parvati, daughter of the mountains. She performed severe penance and won over Shiva. This union of Shiva-Shakti as Ardhanareeshwarar is the culmination of the celebration of Maha Shivaratri.
Maha Shivaratri celebrates the sublime union of Shiva, the God of Destruction, and Goddess Parvati- the gentle and nurturing Goddess of love, beauty, fertility, who is the Mother Goddess and signifies Shakti (power). Shiva and Shakti are perceived as the perfect cosmic couple. They represent the embodiment of love, power, and their union is immortal. Maha Shivaratri is a celebration of their sacred union.
According to another legend, Shiva consumed the poison that emerged from the Ocean of Milk. This happened during the Samudra Manthan (churning of the ocean). Devas and Asuras churned the Kshir Sagara (Ocean of Milk), using Mount Mandara as the churning rod and Serpent King Vasuki as the churning rope. Poison emitted from the Serpent God’s mouth, Vasuki. Shiva immediately took it upon himself to consume the poison, to protect the three worlds. His consort Goddess Parvati was worried that the poison would enter his body. She held his throat to prevent the venom from spreading through his body for one day and one night. The Goddess had fasted the entire day and night at that time. Hence the poison created a blue hue around his neck, and he was called Neelakantha (blue-throated one).
Maha Shivaratri is celebrated to honor Shiva, the savior of the world. It is an ancient tradition to keep fasting and prayers, keeping awake through the night, practiced even today. On this night, the northern hemisphere of the planet is positioned in such a manner that it creates a sudden surge of energy in human beings. The devotees experience a spiritual peak. Thus, Maha Shivaratri experiences a festival tradition that lasts all night long. Devotees keep awake throughout the night to allow the energies to surge through one’s consciousness. People maintain a ‘Jaagaran,’ an all-night vigil with prayers. Shivratri is a festival celebrated throughout the night.
A popular legend has it that a hunter in the forest could not find anything to kill for his food. He sat on the branch of a wood-apple tree. To attract deer, he started throwing leaves from the tree onto the ground. He was not aware of a Shiva Lingam beneath the tree. Shiva was pleased with the leaves of the wood-apple and the hunter’s patience, and he blessed him with wisdom. The hunter abstained from eating meat from then onwards.
Once the earth was facing destruction and Goddess Parvati pleaded with Lord Shiva to save the world. Pleased with her prayers, he promised to do so on the pretext that the people would worship him with fervor. From that night onwards, it was celebrated as Maha Shivaratri.
It is also believed that Goddess Ganga, the holy river, descended from the heavens in full force. Shiva understanding her intention to unleash herself on earth caught her in his matted locks and slowly released her in several streams. He prevented destruction on earth. The Shivalinga is bathed on the auspicious night of Shivaratri to honor and revere Shiva. Making offerings like the Linga is an annual occasion to be relieved of sins and past karma; to start life on the path of virtue and attain liberation by reaching Mount Kailash.
There is a traditional belief that Sadashiv appeared as Lingodbhav Moorti at midnight on Maha Shivaratri. This is stated as a reason for devotees to keep a night vigil and offer Abishekam (hydration ceremony) to the Shiva Linga at midnight, revering Shiva through the night.
Maha Shivaratri is a night of introspection, focus, fasting, prayers, meditation, and social harmony, keeping an all-night vigil at Shiva temples.