Maha Shivaratri: A Night for Celebrating Shiva
Maha Shivaratri is steeped in myth and legend, and throughout India, it has become known as one of the biggest Hindu festivals for those who worship Lord Shiva. Worshipers celebrate on Chaturdashi of Krishna Paksha in Phagun, known as the Hindu lunar month.
What Is Maha Shivaratri?
Based on legend from the Shiva Purana, two of the main Hindu Gods, Vishnu and Brahma were warring with each other to know who had superiority over all creation. The other gods looked on this explosive battle with distasteful eyes of disgust and asked Shiva if he might intervene for them. Shiva, having no real form, assumed the form of a great column of fire and separated the two of them. Soon Vishnu and Brahma realized their fight was in vain and the two paired up to find the head and feet of Shiva. Brahma became a swan and floated to the heavens in search of Shiva’s head while Vishnu transformed into Varaha and delved deep inside the earth’s crust to find Shiva’s feet. Light is limitless and neither Vishnu nor Brahma found Shiva’s head nor feet despite a search that looked over thousands of miles.
Brahma’s Great Punishment
On the journey to the sky, Brahma found a Ketaki flower wafting slowly down from heaven. When Brahma asked of her origins, she said she had been offered towards the top of the column of fire. Brahma took the flower as witness of finding the head, which infuriated Lord Shiva for Brahma’s lying. He cursed him that no one would ever pray in honor of him, and to this day, Hindus never worship Brahma. In fact, only one temple has ever been dedicated to him – the Pushkar temple. Hindus have also banned using the Ketaki flower as an offering of worship to Shiva.
Why Do Hindus Celebrate Maha Shivaratri?
Because Shiva pacified the fierce and bloody battle between Vishnu and Brahma, the tradition always celebrates the day to honor him. How it gets celebrated, however, will largely depend on what part of India you’re in. For example, North Indians often celebrate the wedding of Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva. Temples in these parts have devotees decorating them with flowers. They often come out in a procession in Bhole ki baraat. The procession happens closer to the evening. Traditionally, at the temple in Pashupatinath in Nepal, holy men called sadhus will cover themselves in ash and smoke marijuana to imitate Shiva and his love for marijuana.
The Tale of Neelkantha
Another one of the popular beliefs in Maha Shivaratri associates the festival with a legend where Lord Shiva drank a poison to save everything in the universe. As the ocean churned, demons and gods uncovered several mysterious objects, but among them was known as a poison pot. Lord Shiva knew the world would suffer its ill effects and drank the poison to stop the universe from succumbing to its effects. Even the gods had to dance to keep Shiva from the great harm of the poison. They also did it to keep him awake throughout the night.
While the poison failed to harm Shiva, it did turn his neck blue. After he drank the poison, he had a new name – Neelkantha. In this tradition, the night of Maha Shivaratri has been celebrated ever since.
Maha Shivaratri has many different myths and legends surrounding it, and it has been celebrated for a variety of different reasons. According to one popular belief among the Hindus, Maha Shivaratri happens every year because of a time when Goddess Parvati plead Lord Shiva to save the earth from certain destruction and death. Lord Shiva nodded in agreement, but he did this under the condition that the Earth would now worship him. From that story, Maha Shivaratri was born, and some even believe the flowers will bloom on the day after as a sign of fertility on Earth.
Maha Shivaratri: Known by Another Name?
If you visit Kashmir in northern India, the Shiva followers call it Har-ratri or Haerath. In the Tantric texts, this has been known as Bhairavotsava. People in this region sing praises to Shiva in honor of when Mahadevi merged herself with jwala-linga.
What are the Customs and Traditions of Maha Shivaratri?
All across the country, Hindus celebrate this holiday with remarkable fervor. It bears immense significance to Hindu culture. On this day, throngs of devotees will visit temples and a ritual-based bath in honor of Lord Shiva. Singing bhajans and fasting have also become an important part of this festival. From dawn to dusk, dishes and fruits will be offered in honor of Lord Shiva. Ascetics prepare a special drink that is said to have been one of the favorites of Lord Shiva. This drink is called Thandai, which has been prepared with almonds, bhang (cannabis) and milk. As Shiva devotees drink, they give prayers to Shiva in search of his blessing.
The Holy Bath
Many Shiva devotees will take a bath early in the morning in the Ganges River. Many Hindus in India call it the Holy River where the Goddess Mother Ganga presides. They will also pray to the Sun God and Shiva and Lord Vishnu to forgive their sins. During Maha Shivaratri, many people will wear new clothes to symbolize rebirth. Throughout India, the devotees visit Shiva temples and offer sincere prayer to seek blessings from this deity.
Maha Shivaratri celebrates a day for Shiva. It is commemorated on February 13th. There are many legends surrounding it and reasons for its origin, but the common underlying thread is how they use the day to worship Shiva. Some Hindus call it the day where ignorance and darkness are overcome in life and in the world. Many Hindus will also celebrate it by chanting and prayers and fasting. Have you ever visited India during Maha Shivaratri? If so, what was your experience of this Indian festival and what rituals and traditions did you observe?