by Samya Mukherjee
Maha Shivaratri is a Hindu festival celebrated annually in honour of Lord Shiva. The sacred festival marks the union of Lord Shiva and Goddess of Shakti. The name also refers to the night when Lord Shiva performs the heavenly dance. There is a Shivaratri in every luni-solar month of the Hindu calendar on the 13th night or 14th night of the new-moon, during the dark half of the lunar month of Falguna - once a year in late winter (February/March or Falguna) and before the arrival of Summer. The word ‘Shivaratri’ is formed by amalgamation of two words – ‘Shiv’ and ‘Ratri’ where ‘Shiv’ means Lord Shiva and ‘Ratri’ means night. Therefore, Shivaratri means ‘The Night of Lord Shiva’.
Observed by : The Hindus
Significance : Night of marriage between Lord Shiva and Devi Parvati
Observances : Fasting, yoga, all night vigil, worship of Lingam
It is a major festival of Hinduism and this festival is solemn and marks a remembrance of overcoming darkness and ignorance in life and the world. It is observed by remembering Lord Shiva and chanting the prayers (Vedic mantras or Rudram), practising sadhana, fasting and meditating on ethics and virtues such as honesty, non-injury to others, charity, forgiveness and the discovery of Lord Shiva – such sacred practices bestow a sense of peace within us and oneness with the world. Since Lord Shiva helped to pacify the Gods, Shivaratri is celebrated in this honour. Goddess Parvati once pleaded Lord Shiva to save the earth from destruction – that is how the day came to be known as Maha Shivaratri. This is an ancient Hindu festival whose date of origin is fully unknown. According to South-Indian calendar, Maha Shivaratri is observed on Chaturdashi tithi during Krishna-paksha in the Bengali month of Magha, and in other parts of India on 13th/14th night of Krishna paksha in Falguna of Hindu calendar, the Gregorian date however remaining the same. In Kashmir, the festival is called Hararatri or phonetically simpler Haerath or Herath by Shiva-devotees of Kashmir. Shivaratri occurs on every month but Maha Shivaratri occurs only once in a year. Out of the twelve Shivaratris in the year, the Mahashivaratri is considered to be the most auspicious one.
Maha Shivaratri is an annual festival dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and is particularly important in the Shaivism tradition of Hinduism. Unlike most Hindu festivals which are celebrated during the day, the Maha Shivaratri is celebrated at night. Furthermore, unlike most Hindu festivals which include expression of cultural revelry, the Maha Shivaratri is a solemn event notable for its introspective focus, fasting, meditation on Shiva, self-study, social harmony and all night vigil at Shiva temples. The celebration includes maintaining a ‘jagaraan’, an all-night vigil and prayers with religious hymns because Shaiva Hindus mark this night as ‘overcoming darkness and ignorance’ in one’s life and the world through Lord Shiva. Offerings of fruits, leaves, sweets and milk to Shiva are made, some perform all-day fasting with Vedic or tantric worship of Shiva and some perform meditative Yoga. In Shiva temples, “Om Namah Shivaya”, the sacred mantra of Lord Shiva is chanted throughout the day. Devotees of Lord Shiva praise and pray to Shiva through the recitation of Shiva-Chalisa.
Maha Shivaratri is considered as the day when adiyogi or the first guru awakened his consciousness at the material level of existence. According to Tantra, at this stage of consciousness no objective experience takes place and the mind is transcended. The meditator transcends time, space and causation. It is regarded as the brightest night of the soul when the yogi attains the state of Nirvana (the stage succeeding Samadhi or illumination). The Maha Shivaratri is mentioned in several Puranas, particularly the Skanda Purana, Linga Purana and Padma Purana. These medieval era Shaiva texts present different versions associated with this festival and mention fasting, reverence for icons of Lord Shiva such as the Lingam.
Legendary concept about Maha Shivaratri : Our culture, traditions and festivals have a deeper meaning. All of them are associated with a specific divine energy. This divine energy is given a name and form for us to understand the virtues, qualities and its blessings clearly. One among these energies and the presiding energy is Lord Shiva. Different legends describe the significance of Maha Shivaratri. According to one legend in the Shaivism tradition, this is the night when Lord Shiva performs the heavenly dance of creation, preservation and destruction. The chanting of hymns, the reading of Shiva scriptures and the chorus of devotees join this cosmic dance and remember Lord Shiva’s presence everywhere. According to another legend, this is the night when Lord Shiva and Devi Parvati got married. A different legend states that the offering to the icons of Lord Shiva such as the linga is an annual occasion to get over the past sins, if any, to restart on a virtuous path and thereby reach Mount Kailasha and liberation. Yet another legend goes on to say that Shivaratri is celebrated as the day when Brahma and Vishnu got into a major tiff about their supremacy over each other and angry Lord Shiva punished them by taking the form of a massive fire that spread across the length of the universe. Vishnu and Brahma then got into a race to find the end of the fire and prove themselves – only to be dismayed. Brahma resorted to a lie and angered Lord Shiva again, who cursed that no one would ever pray to him.
The Maha Shivaratri has served as a historic confluence of artists for annual dance festivals at major Hindu temples such as at Konark, Khajuraho, Pattadakal, Modhera and Chidambaram. The significance of the dance tradition to this festival has historical roots. The event is called Natyanjali, literally ‘worship through dance’ at the Chidambaram temple, which is famous for its sculptures depicting all dance mudras in the ancient Hindu text of performance of arts called Natya shastra. Similarly at Khajuraho shiva temple, a major fair and dance festival on Maha shivaratri, involving Shaiva pilgrims camped over miles around the temple complex, was documented by Alexander Cunningham in 1864.
On Maha Shivaratri, devotees wake up before sunrise and take ritual bath, preferably in the holy waters of river Ganga. Next, devotees pay a visit to the nearest Shiva temple and do ‘Jalabhishek’ on Shivlinga with six different dravyas including milk, yoghurt, honey, ghee, sugar and water. After that, devotees offer akshat, abir, gulal etc on Shivlinga. Devotees also burn incense sticks, light-lamps; offer white clothes, sweets, fruits and panchamrit. This ritual worship of Lord Shiva on Maha Shivaratri continues throughout the entire day and night. Devotees break their fast on the next morning of Maha-Shivaratri by partaking prasad. On the day of Shivaratri, the devotees worship Lord Shiva, observe a strict fasting and do various religious activities to please Lord Shiva. The ardent devotees keep awake all night. Others visit one of the Shiva temples or go on pilgrimage to Jyotirlingams. Married women observe fast on Maha Shivaratri for the well-being of their husbands and sons whereas unmarried women pray for a husband like Shiva, who is considered to be the ideal husband.
Ratri means that which gives rest and comforts us – night is when all activities stop, everything is quiet and peaceful. The environment becomes calm and the body naturally goes to sleep or in rest mode. Ratri also means that which gives relief from three types of problems – Adhyatmik (problems to the body), Adhibhoutik (problems to the mind) and Adidaivik (problems to the soul). When any one is sleeping at night, there is no worry about food, water or clothing – all that one want is to sleep to get relief from the worries of the day. Hence three types of peace are needed to even get that deep rest : first is material peace. If there is any disturbance around, one cannot sleep. Secondly one need peace in the body and mind. Thirdly one need peace in the soul. Without any of the three, deep rest is completely impossible. Thus, night is that which gives rest from all three aspects (physical, mental and spiritual). ‘Shivaratri’ is the night of that transcendental divine consciousness, which brings solace to all layers of consciousness. This night is symbolic of the merging of Shiva and Shakti, making the environment more alive. Thus it is beneficial to stay awake on Maha Shivaratri. This night brings a sense of deep serenity and benevolence. Any meditation done on this day is a hundred times more effective.
Astrological link with Maha Shivaratri : When the sun and the moon are in particular alignment, it helps to elevate the mind. Such days were congenial for spiritual practices. According to Indian astrology, there are certain days and time frames in a year that are conducive to spiritual growth and meditation. Maha Shivaratri is one such day. Maha Shivaratri is the wedding of the material and the spiritual. It is said that Shiva tattva (principle / energy) is generally ten inches above the material ground. On this day this consciousness descends and touches the elements of earth. It is good time for our inner consciousness to come alive within our body. This is why a spiritual seeker has a special significance on Maha Shivaratri. When all–pervading energy unites with the earth, it helps to achieve a deeper and enriching experience of meditation.
“When one has access to mystical realms through deep sadhana and detachment to the material world, one is able to experience the Ananda Tandava. There are multiple dimensions of existence. One who has gained entry to the subtle realms of creation will find that the dance of Shiva is happening in a ceaseless continuum. This blissful dance of the cosmic rhythm can be enjoyed only after transcending the body, mind, intellect and ego-complex.” ( Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar)
Importance of meditation or sadhana on Maha Shivaratri : Maha Shivaratri is a time to celebrate the Shiva-tattva (theories of Lord Shiva). Spiritual seekers and devotees of Lord Shiva meditate and rejoice in the energy of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva actually represents our soul and tattva is the principle of truth. Maha Shivaratri is that time of the year when we rest in the truth/principle of our soul. It means we are seeking the higher truths of life that are lying within us. It is a time for sadhana – a deep rest for the body, mind and ego. This deep rest awakens a devotee to the highest knowledge of the Shiva-tattva. Meditation gives us access to something that is beyond the scope of the mind and intellect. There is a point during meditation when we can experience space – a space of nothingness and love. This experience takes us to the fourth level of consciousness that is called Shiva.
“Every Mahashivaratri is meant to wake up every particle of your body. The festival is a wake-up call to move away from conflicts and move towards truth, beauty, peace and benevolence – the ethereal qualities of Shiva.” (Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar)
- SAMYA MUKHERJEE
Mr. Samya Mukherjee, is a young writer from Kalyani, West Bengal, India who specializes in religion, spirituality, philosophical ideas and ancient cultures. His writings include the areas of hindu scriptures, prophets and eminent religious figures, renowned holy temples of India, mythological stories about hindu Gods and Goddesses as well as the related festivals. Contact Samya via email: email@example.com