When is Maha Shivratri (07.05.2018)
Observed in Countries with Hindu populations, especially India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka
Observed on Thirteenth or 14th of the dark half of Phalguna, the 12th month of the Hindu calendar
Place of Origin New Zealand
The Maha Shivratri Festival honors Lord Shiva (the “Auspicious One”) and the third form of God as the Destroyer. Maha Shivratri falls on the 13th or 14th day of the month of Phalguna (February–March).
The name Maha Shivratri means “the great night of Shiva,” and the celebrations of this festival occur mainly at night. Devotees observe a fast during the day and keep a vigil throughout the night. The Shiva lingam (the phallic symbol of Shiva, which depicts the creative force) is worshipped all through the night by bathing it with curd, milk, rosewater, and honey, and by ceremonially chanting “Om Namah Shivaya” (“Glory be to Shiva”). Bilva (“wood apple”) leaves are offered to the lingam.
The leaves are considered sacred because it is believed that the goddess Lakshmi resides in them.
Hymns in honor of Lord Shiva are sung with great passion and dedication. It is said that people who utter the name of Shiva during the festival day with real dedication and fervor are liberated from all sins. It is believed that after death they will reach the heavenly dwelling of Shiva and live in bliss. Also they are freed from the otherwise endless cycle of births and deaths. Many pilgrims gather at places where there are temples dedicated to Lord Shiva.
Origins and History
There are numerous legends and folklore regarding the origins of Maha Shivratri. According to one, during the samudra mathana (“churning of the ocean”) by the demons and gods, a poison came out from the ocean. The poison was so deadly that it had the power to wipe out the entire world. After being entreated by the gods to save them, out of sympathy for living beings, Shiva consumed the poison and kept it in his throat by binding it with a snake. His throat turned blue as the poison took effect; thus Lord Shiva came to be known as Neelakantha (“Blue-throated”). So that he might live the gods kept Shiva awake throughout the night by entertaining him with songs and dances, and this is why devotees keep a vigil.
Another legend connects Shivratri with the Hindu trinity. Once Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu (the two other gods of the trinity) had an argument over the extent of each other’s powers. Lord Shiva, however, challenged both of them. Shiva appeared as a blazing lingam and challenged the other two gods to measure the same. Both Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma were unable to measure the lingam.
Lord Shiva came out of the lingam and proclaimed himself the most dominant.
According to yet another legend, King Daksha fervently opposed his daughter Sati’s marriage with Lord Shiva and did not even invite them to a yagnya (“holy sacrifice”) that he had organized at his palace.
On the day of the yagnya King Daksha openly insulted his daughter, who had gone there uninvited. What is more he hurled indignities on her husband (Shiva), who was not present. Unable to bear the tirades a distraught Sati jumped into the sacrificial fire and killed herself. Lord Shiva unleashed his fury and grief at the death of Sati by performing Taandav, a violent dance.
He obliterated Daksha’s kingdom, observed austere penance, and left for the Himalayas. The other gods, fearing that Shiva’s penance might end the world, brought back Sati in the incarnation of Parvati. Shiva and Parvati subsequently married, and their celestial union is commemorated on Maha Shivratri.
The legends also tell of a hunter who ventured into a thick forest while chasing a deer and found himself by the river Kolidum. There he heard a tiger’s growl. To save himself he climbed a nearby tree. Showing no intentions of leaving, the tiger waited on the ground. The hunter stayed up in the tree all night and to keep from falling asleep he plucked one leaf after the other, throwing them down. Under the tree was a Shiva lingam, and the tree was in fact a bilva tree. Thus unwittingly the man had propitiated Shiva with bilva leaves. At dawn the hunter looked down from the tree hoping to find the tiger gone. Instead he had a vision of Lord Shiva there. He prostrated himself before the deity and achieved salvation from the endless cycle of birth and death.
On the day of Maha Shivratri, a three-tiered podium is erected around a fire. The highest plank symbolizes swargaloka (“heaven”) the middle plank stands for antarikshaloka (“space”), and the bottom plank represents bhuloka (“Earth”). Eleven urns (kalash) are placed on the swargaloka plank representing the 11 appearances of the Rudra Shiva.
These are adorned with wood apple (“bilva”) and mango leaves on top of a coconut symbolizing Shiva’s head. The shank of the coconut is not cut; that represents his hair. The three spots of the coconut symbolize his three eyes.