Maha Shivratri festival ~ festivals of india - local festivals, national festivals, state festivals

Maha Shivratri festival

Maha Shivratri

Maha Shivratri, or the great night of Lord Shiv, is the most important festival celebrated by Shaivites or followers of Lord Shiv. This festival falls on the thirteenth or fourteenth day of the dark fortnight of the Hindu month of Maagh (February - March). People stay up the whole night singing songs in praise of Lord Shiv, performing abhishek (sacred bathing) of the Shivling, or simply remembering Him by chanting His name repeatedly.

Maha Shivratri festival
Maha Shivratri festival

About Lord Shiv

“Shiv” means “The Auspicious One.” Lord Shiv is one of the three forms of God, along with Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma, who take care of the affairs of the material universe. Lord Shiv looks after the process of annihilation of the universe. He is also the source of fertility in all beings. Thus, He maintains the balance of life in the universe. His abode is Mount Kailash, where He lives with his Divine consort, Goddess Parvati, engaged in deep meditation.

Lord Shiv is usually clad in tiger skin and elephant skin. His hair is tied in a knot on top of His head, where He holds the Ganga, the holiest of all the rivers. Also on His head is the crescent of the fifth day moon. His favorite weapon is the Trishul, or the trident fork. The sound He loves is the beating of the Damru, a small drum that He holds in His palm, and shakes in a rhythmic manner while singing devotional songs. It also indicates His position as the creator of alphabets, language, grammar and music.
Lord Shiv is pleased by sincere devotion, and He accepts even the simplest offerings such as water and the sacred Bilva leaves, if they are given with love.

Origin

There are many stories related to the festival of Shivratri, and they vary from region to region.

Some consider this day to be the one when Shiv married Parvati. Shiv was engaged in meditation for so long and the Gods were impatient for Him to marry, for His offspring would be the only one who could rid them of their prime enemy, the demon Taraka. They were so pleased when Parvati won the heart of Lord Shiv through Her love and single-minded devotion that they celebrated all night long. Even today, Shivratri is celebrated in some temples in India by reenacting the Divine marriage at midnight.

For some, this is the day when the ocean was churned by the celestial gods and the demons for the divine nectar that had the power of granting immortality. However, before the nectar could come out, there emerged “Halahal”, the terrible poison, which started suffocating the entire world. Lord Shiv drank the poison and confined it in his neck, earning the name “Neelkanth.” Maha Shivratri is celebrated on this day, as a thanksgiving to the Lord for saving the world.

There are even more stories related to this sacred day. This is the day when Lord Shiv danced the Tandava dance all through the night. This festival is also linked to the story about the discussion between Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu regarding the greatness of Lord Shiv. Lord Shiv appeared before them in the form of a pillar, but they were unable to locate either the base or the top of the gigantic pillar. At last, He appeared before them in His personal form on Shivratri day. There are many such stories in different parts of the country, but they all illustrate the greatness of Lord Shiv.

Offerings to Lord Shiv

Lord Shiv is known as “Abhishek Priya.” He loves being bathed by milk, water and other cooling things, since it helps cool down the effect of the poison He holds in his throat. However, His favorite is the sacred leaf, known as Bilva or Bael. There is even a story to illustrate this.

Once, a hunter was returning home through the jungle, and found himself being pursued by a tiger. He climbed up a tree, but the tiger would not give up, and sat under the tree. As night fell, the hunter was scared that he would fall down and be eaten by the tiger. So, he started plucking leaves from the tree and throwing them down, just to pass the time. That night happened to be Maha Shivratri, and the tree happened to be a Bilva tree. Moreover, there was a lingam underneath the tree, and the leaves plucked by the hunter rained on the Lingam all night long. Lord Shiv was so pleased by this offering, that He appeared in front of the hunter, and blessed both him and the tiger, emancipating them. Such is the power of prayers to Lord Shiv on Maha Shivratri!

Among the other items used to bathe the Lord, the most important are milk, yogurt, ghee, sugar and honey. Vibhooti (sacred ash) and water are also used in large amounts.

Celebration

All over India, people wake up early for the ritual bath. After that, they begin their prayers to Lord Shiv and abstain from food. The whole day is spent in chanting the Lord’s name, and when night falls, devotees visit the temple to participate in the Abhishek there. Most temples are kept open all night long on this day, and prayers continue throughout the night.

Maha Shivratri festival
Maha Shivratri festival


Singing songs and repeating the name of the Lord, along with other devotees, makes it easier to stay awake, and so Shivratri is essentially a community festival. While the older people in the family actively participate in the prayers inside the temple, there are also activities to keep the children and the youngsters engaged outside the temple. Plays and dramas with religious themes are staged at many places. Thus, the whole family spends the night remembering the Lord.

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