An important Hindu festival, Maha Shivaratri means “great night of Shiva,” and is celebrated the 13th night and 14th day of the new moon during the dark half of the month of Phalguna—this falls within either February or March. This solemn holiday venerates Lord Shiva, one of the most important deities in Hindu culture.
When Shiva is depicted as a man, he has a blue throat and face, and a white body. He has a third eye set in his forehead that represents wisdom and insight, a cobra necklace that signifies his power, a trident, which represents the Hindu triumvirate, and the vibhuti, which are three lines on his forehead that represent Shiva’s all-powerful nature.
Hindu believers feel that Shiva’s power of destruction is used to destroy not only matter, but illusions as well, thereby lending Maha Shivaratri a spirit of celebration from the darkness of ignorance.
The origin—the most prominent of several—of Shivratri lies in the story of how Shiva saved the world. According to the Puranas—Sanskrit writings containing Hindu legends—a container of terrifying poison rose up inthe mythical churning ocean called Samudra Manthan. Demons and gods alike were terrified at this poison’s power—it was said to hold the power to destroy all creation.
These beings went to Shiva for help, and help he did. Shiva, in order to protect all creation, drank the poison, holding it in his throat rather than swallowing it. This caused his throat to become blue, giving him the alternate name of “Nilkantha,” the “blue-throated one”. Maha Shivaratri celebrates Shiva’s brave actions that ultimately saved the world.
Another legend tells of a hunter who climbed into a woodapple tree while hunting, and began throwing the leaves to the ground to attract deer, unaware that there was a Shiva Lingam—a symbol representative of Shiva—beneath the tree. Pleased with the offering of woodapple leaves, Shiva appeared to the hunter and blessed him with wisdom.
The simplest legend simply states that this day is considered Shiva’s because, when the Goddess Parvati asked Shiva about his favorite day, he claimed the date that is now Shivaratri.
The Rituals of Shivaratri
It all begins on a moonless night, when Hindus offer up prayers to Shiva, the lord of destruction. This is the night when Shiva is said to have performed the Tandava Nritya—the divine dance that is the source of the cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction. Celebrating devotees remain awake all through the night of the 13th, visiting their local Shiva temple or embarking on a pilgrimage to Jyotirlingams—objects representing Shiva, of which there are 12 in India and 5 in Maharashtra.
For the remainder of the night, adherents remain awake, visiting one of the Shiva temples and going on pilgrimages to Jyotirlingams—a handful of devotional places representing Shiva. Throughout the next day, these devotees fast, and chant the sacred Panchakshara mantra, “Om Namah Shivaya,” which translates to “salutations to Shiva,” and toss offerings of grain into the fire.
On the day of Shivaratri, a platform with three levels is built around a fire, with the top level representing heaven, the middle representing peace, and the bottom representing earth.
Eleven urns are kept on the heaven plank, which symbolize the 11 manifestations of the destructive form of Shiva. These urns are decorated with leaves and mango placed atop a coconut, which represents the head of Shiva.
One of the most solemn and important rituals of the day is the bathing of the lingam—the symbol of Shiva. This symbol resembles male genitalia, and has female genitalia at the base, representing the union of both organs. Adherents worship the lingam through the night, bathing it every few hours in the offerings of the cow—milk, sour milk, butter, dung, and urine. The five foods of immortality are also placed before the lingam—these are clarified butter, milk, curd, honey, and sugar.
There is a reason why Shiva is worshiped in this particular form. The gods Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the preserver, were in conflict concerning who was supreme, each declaring their superiority.
But as they argued, an enormous lingam appeared before them, covered in flames. Both gods were struck by its seemingly infinite size, and left their quarrel, endeavoring to measure it. Vishnu took the form of a boar, travelling downward to the netherworld. Meanwhile, Brahma became a swan, and flew upward to measure the lingam. Both, however, failed in their task.
Upon their failure, Shiva appeared out of the lingam and proclaimed that he was the creator of them both, and should, thereafter, be worshiped in phallic form rather than in bodily form.
Shivratri is also especially important for women, as married women use this day to pray for their sons and husbands. Unmarried women pray that they might receive a husband who is as like Shiva as possible.
The Most Important Hindu Festival
The Maha Shivratri festival is well-attended by hundreds of thousands of people each year, and, for many, it is the most sacred of all Hindu festivals, with devotees who perform sincere acts of worship for Shiva being absolved of all sins, attaining moksha—the escape from the cycle of death and rebirth.
This, for Hindus, moksha is one of the four primary goals of human life, alongside virtue, prosperity, and fulfillment, and so we can see why Maha Shivratri is so widely celebrated and revered.
Above all, this is the night and day when darkness is cast out of the human mind and heart, and illusions are destroyed by the cleaving sword of Lord Shiva, driving humanity out of its blindness and into the light.