Mahashivratri is one of the most celebrated cultural festivals in India. It is held in honor of Lord Shiva, one of the principal deities described in India’s ancient scriptures such as the Puranas primarily in Shiva Purana, the Upanishads, the Vedas and other texts.
The other deities include Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu. Together, these three deities are glorified and worshipped by millions in the Indian sub-continent. Celebrating Mahashivratri involves a number of rituals like Shiva Pujas, Shiva Abhishek, reading or hearing of shivratri katha (stories), staying awake (night vigil called jagaran) and the like. The pivotal point of these rituals is to connect with Lord Shiva and experience a divine joy.
What happens during the Mahashivratri festival?
Mahashivratri is a significant and the most essential pat of the Shivaism sect (followed by believers of Shiva) of the Hindu society. ‘Maha’ in Sanskrit means ‘great, ‘Shiv’ means ‘Lord Shiva’ and ‘Ratri’ means ‘night’; it means it is the great night of Lord Shiva.
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Most Vedic or Hindu festivals are marked or celebrated during the day. Mahashivratri is celebrated at night when the cosmic energy stemming from various planetary positions reaches its peak. The atmosphere in the cosmos is supercharged with shambhu tattvas.
Any spiritual activity performed on this day automatically generates favorable results because the influence of tamas (the mode of ignorance or darkness) is curtailed to a greatest– extent. When this mode is reduced, people tend to feel spiritual and experience a higher consciousness.
Other festivals are about celebrations, reunions, merriments and revelry. What distinguishes Maha Shivratri from the rest of the festivals is its idea of introspection. During this festival, people especially the devotees of Shiva engage in the following:
What to do on Mahashivratri?
• Fasting :- Abstaining from food is considered to be an important part. It amounts to performing austerity or tapasya to please Lord Shiva. On the physical front, fasting detoxifies your body, improves your digestion as the stomach is given enough rest and increases your focus or meditational strength. Some devotees abstain from taking even water (nirjala), some have a single meal while others stay on milk and fruits.
• Jagaran :- ‘Jagaran’ means staying awake. As said earlier, Mahashivratri is celebrated at night. People observe night vigil and engage in prescribed rituals such as Shiva Abhishek, Rudra Abhishek, Bhajans (devotional songs), Meditation and breaking of the fast next day during an appropriate time.
• Shiva Abhishek : This is the most essential, central part to this festival. It is an ancient ritual mentioned in the Shiva Purana that includes offering sacred items (dear to Shiva) and meditating on Him. This ritual starts after sunset and lasts till morning. The whole night is divided into four prahars (units of time) and this ritual happens once in each prahar. Offerings include Bel Patra (leaves of Aegle marmelos or Wood Apple), water, milk, flowers, fruit juices, honey and other holy waters.
• Chanting of Shiva Mantras : ‘Mantra’ in Sanskrit means ‘a tool to control one’s mind (manas). Chanting Sanskrit mantras on such auspicious day harmonize your mind, senses, body and soul. People flock to Shiva temples in masses and chant Shiva mantra such as the seed mantra (Om Namah Shivay), Rudra mantras, Mahamrityunjaya mantra and others that spiritualize the atmosphere.
Why Mahashivratri is celebrated? Stories of Mahashivratri:
There are many Puranic stories or legends around the celebration of Mahashivratri. In all the stories, Lord Shiva is gloried and His wonderful feats are celebrated, sung by His devotees. All these feats are superhuman and occur perennially in the spiritual world to attract His devotees.
• The most significance event on this night is marriage of Lord Shiva and Paravati (Shakti). Their marriage is considered to be the most auspicious and worth hearing and reciting.
• It is the night when Lord Shiva displayed His Lingam form to Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu who argued over their supremacy. This Lingam as brilliant as a thousands suns did not have any beginning or end, featuring its infinity.
• On this day, Goddess Parvati performed a strict austerity (tapasya) for Lord Shiva. In the various Vedic scriptures, She is described as the inseparable energy of Shiva although any legends talk about Her separation from Shiva. By performing tapasya to obtain Shiva, She teaches us to purify our selves to attain the higher consciousness. Sheis regarded as Shakti or Bhavani, the protector, the destroyer (of pure evil) and regenerator of the universe and all life.
• One significant on this night is that of Samudra Manthan. Bhagavad Purana describes the occurrence of Churning of Milky Ocean (Samudra Manthan) between demigods and demons to produce valuable items from the churning. When the deadliest poison called Halahala emerged spreading in all directions, it was Shiva who drank it and saved each and everyone. It is this night when Shiva rescued the whole universe by drinking this all- devouring poison.
• On this night, Lord Shiva performed the Tandava, the cosmic dance of creation, sustenance and annihilation. As fear personified, Lord Shiva dances intensely and irrepressibly but it all appears wonderful and divine to His devotees.
In conclusion, Mahashivratri is the night of the ultimate union of the soul (Shiva) and mind (Shakti). The festival is about devotion to the Divine, self-introspection and harmony within and without with fellow beings.