From Lord Shiva’s birth to his Neelkanth legend and marriage with Goddess Parvati, there are stories and beliefs that explain why we celebrate Maha Shivaratri. Here’s a look at some of them.
There are several stories surrounding the origins and celebrations of Maha Shivaratri. The occasion, as such, is one of the most prominent and auspicious Hindu festivals, which is celebrated with great fervor all across the country and on foreign shores. Maha Shivaratri is observed on ‘Chaturdashi’, 14th day of Krishna Paksha (waning phase of the moon), in the Hindu lunar month of ‘Phagun’ (February–March).
On the momentous occasion of Shivaratri, all Shiva temples are packed with hordes of devotees, who come to offer milk ‘Abishekam’ to the Lingam, the symbol of Lord Shiva. The Shiva Lingam is propitiated with offerings of water, milk, dhatura, bhang and akwan flowers. Since Shiva is considered as the epitome of a perfect male, unmarried maidens pray to the Lord for getting a worthy husband.
There are several legends and myths associated with the occasion of Maha Shivaratri, some of which are discussed in this article.
Nuptial ceremony of Shiva and Parvati
Many parts of North India celebrate the occasion of Maha Shivaratri to commemorate the wedding ceremony of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. All Shiva temples are colorfully decorated with various hues of flowers and a festive fervor sets in. A Bhole ki Baraat (wedding procession of Shiva) is taken out in the evening, commemorating Shiva’s arrival as a groom.
The birthday of Lord Shiva
The Shiva Purana narrates the tale of the three supreme Gods in the Hindu trinity, discussing their strengths and virtues. Shiva assumed the form of a massive column of fire, with literally no beginning and no ending. Brahma and Vishnu went about in opposite directions in an attempt to find the end. However, Vishnu conceded defeat and said that he could not reach the end. Brahma was vain and stated that he had indeed found the end. Shiva knew that this was not possible and proclaimed that Brahma would not be worshiped on earth. This eternal column of fire came to be epitomized as the might of Lord Shiva and became his symbol, the Shiva Lingam.
Story of Neelkantha
There is an interesting story of Lord Shiva saving the world when the Devas and the Asuras, in their quest for the elixir of immortality, were churning the mighty cosmic ocean (Sagar Manthan). Several secret ingredients and objects were thrown up during the process, none so dangerous than a pot of poison. This was so powerful, that it threatened to engulf the entire universe. In his mercy, Lord Shiva consumed poison and let it linger in his throat. This resulted in his neck turning blue, and he came to be known as ‘Neelakanta’ (blue-throated one). It is reported that this is one of the reasons that Maha Shivaratri is celebrated.
The Hunter and the Shivalinga
One story narrated the tale of a hunter who took refuge in the branches of a Bilva tree to escape from a lion. Since the lion refused to leave, the hunter plucked leaves from the branches and dropped them down to earth in a bid to stay awake and not fall down. As luck would have it, these leaves fell on a Shiva Lingam at the base of the tree. Lord Shiva was extremely pleased and saved the hunter form sure death. Coincidentally, this occurred on the night of Maha Shivaratri, so ever since, Bilva leaves are used to propitiate the Shiva Lingam on this day.
When the Earth came to be associated with Lord Shiva
Legend states that Goddess Parvati once intervened to save the earth from near destruction. Shiva readily agreed and declared that all humanity should worship him on that fateful day. This occasion came to be known as Maha Shivaratri. There is also a belief that fragrant flowers blossom on the day after Maha Shivaratri, symbolizing the fertility and abundance of Mother Earth.
The tradition of Herath
Maha Shivaratri is observed as Herath or Har-ratri in the state of Kashmir. Legend states that the Shiva Lingam appeared at dusk as a fiery column of light and dazzled the Gods with its brilliance. This story is chiefly associated with Bhairava and Bhairavi, who are invoked through Tantric worship. ‘Mahadevi’ who was pleased with their penance, blessed them and merged with the Jwala-Linga.
Maha Shivaratri and the Tandav dance
Maha Shivaratri is also the night when Lord Shiva performs the heavenly ‘Tandav’ dance, which is associated with creation, preservation and destruction of the universe. The chanting of hymns, the reading of Shiva scriptures by devotees joins this cosmic dance. Annual dance festivals at major Hindu temples of Konark, Khajuraho, Pattadakal, Modhera and Chidambaram mark Maha Shivaratri. Nataraja, the supreme god of dances, is also another form of Lord Shiva. Shiva’s dances, tandava and lasya are performed in different forms by classical dancers out of respect for Lord Shiva.