Mahashivaratri - The Great Night of Shiva
The Hindu calendar follows the lunar month which consists of twenty- eight days. Each month has two fortnights. The dark fortnight is the one with the waning moon starting from the day after the full moon or Pournami and the bright fortnight is the one which starts with the first day after amavasya or new moon. The 14th night of the dark fortnight of every lunar month is known as Shivaratri — the night of Shiva. It is the darkest night of the month. It is the night just before the new moon. Thus we find that there are twelve and sometimes thirteen Shivaratris in a year. However the 14th night of the dark fortnight in the month of Phalguna (February/March) is known as Mahashivaratri or the Great Night of Shiva. This is a festival which is celebrated all over India.
The rishis of ancient India were intimately connected with the movement of the planets. They gave us instructions on how best we could make use of planetary positions and dispositions in order to allow our human system to rise to its highest potential. On the night of Mahashivaratri, the planet is tilted in exactly the right angle for people living in the northern hemisphere of the world to feel an upsurge of energy. This energy can either be directed towards spiritual activities or be dissipated in commonplace actions. The Hindu tradition never lost any opportunity to give a push to the individual to accelerate his move towards the divine. Therefore the festival of Mahashivaratri was established to make use of this spurt of energy and give it a thrust in the right direction. This is the day when nature is pushing us towards our spiritual peak. It is to make use of this, that in the Hindu tradition, the rishis established this night long festival. This is the reason why we are asked to keep awake during the night and remain with our spinal cord erect so as to facilitate the movement of the energy upwards. Spiritual energy always goes upwards through the spinal column.
As usual with all Hindu festivals, it has a deep esoteric meaning. The obscure reason behind every Hindu festival or ritual is to give an opportunity to the small, limited, individual ego to expand to its infinite boundless state. The smaller Shivaratris in all the other months are commonly known as “pradosham” which literally means, “that which removes all sins.” The time for pradosham lies between one and a half hours before and one a half hours after sunset. Pradosham is a bimonthly occasion on the thirteenth day of every fortnight in the Hindu calendar. At this time it is said that the sun and moon are in a horizontal line. There are certain vibrations during this time which help to remove our negative karmas. The same is the case with Mahashivarati. Shiva is the destroyer in the Hindu Trinity. The Shiva Tattva or his destructive power is supposed to come in closest contact with the earth at these times and especially on the night of Mahashivaratri. This destructive power is invoked in order to destroy the negative tendencies that we have accumulated during the year.
Mahashivratri is an opportunity to bring you to experience the vast emptiness within us, which is the source of all creation. It gives us an opportunity to experience that vastness or unlimited energy that Shiva signifies, which is responsible for the construction as well as the destruction of all creation. Even though Shiva is known as the destroyer, he is also the most compassionate. He is furthermore known to be the greatest of all givers. Our Puranas are filled with countless stories about his compassion and generosity.
Shiva is also the wielder of power! On this day the power he wields over the universe increases hundred fold. His role is not just destruction but “creative destruction.” This means that his destruction has a purpose. It is not mere annihilation but transformation. So, on this Great Night of Shiva we invoke him and beg him to destroy all the blocks in our system that act as impediments in the way of our spiritual progress. Before the night starts we should make a list of all our negative tendencies and concentrate on two or three of them and work on them during the long hours of vigil during the night of Mahashivaratri.
On this night devotees worship Shiva in four different forms during each of the four successive three-hour periods of the night known as “praharas”. During the first period he has to be bathed in milk, during the second period in curd, ghee during the third period and honey in the fourth. Of course water especially Ganga water is most important in all his pujas. Normally these abhishekams are done with the chanting of the Rudri which is a famous hymn to Shiva found in the Yajur Veda. Those who do not know the Rudri can also chant the “panchakshari mantra” which is Aum Namashivaya. It is customary to offer him bel or “vilva” leaves during the pujas. These leaves are said to be more precious to him than jewels and flowers. He is supposed to love datura flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant. You will find that many of the flowers ascribed to him are medicinal and some are even poisonous.
The rishis wove stories around deep spiritual truths in order to make them more palatable to the common man. Their desire was to turn everyone into a yogi and bring out the deep, hidden divine potential in every human being. The esoteric meaning behind Mahashivaratri is camouflaged in the famous story in the Puranas known as the “Churning of the Milky Ocean.” Once it is said that the devas or gods became very weak and lost their youth due to the curse of the rishi called Durvasa. The asuras or demons took this opportunity to oust the gods and grab the heavens for themselves. The miserable gods went with their tale of woe to Vishnu who comforted them and told them that they would get back their youth and strength by imbibing the “Amrit” or nectar of immortality which could be got by churning the Milky Ocean on which he himself was resting. Of course the devas were totally incapable of taking on such a tremendous task. They were forced to ask for help from their bitter enemies, the asuras. The asuras agreed provided they were given half the nectar, to which the devas were forced to assent. In olden days people used to make butter by churning yogurt. They tied a rope round a pillar and wound the rope round the wooden churn and kept on churning manually until butter rose to the top. Using this principle, the devas used a mountain as a churn and the snake on which Vishnu was lying, as a rope. The devas caught the tail of the snake and the asuras the head and they churned merrily for some days. After some time the snake started getting a bit sick of the whole affair and started to vomit the most virulent poison called “Halahala”. Had the poison fallen to the ground, everything on the earth would surely have perished. Both the gods and the demons were in a panic and prayed to Lord Shiva to come to their help. Shiva, the compassionate one, came immediately and caught the poison in his palms and drank it. But his wife Parvati, not knowing his greatness was terrified that it would kill him and caught his throat so that the poison congealed on his neck and thus his neck turned blue. This is how he got the name “Neelakanda” or the blue-necked one. Thus Shiva became the “Saviour of the World.” It is common knowledge that one who has been bitten by a snake or taken poison should not be allowed to sleep, so it is said that the devas and the asuras as well as all the sages who had assembled there, kept vigil the whole night extolling Lord Shiva and chanting his names. This was the night of Mahashivaratri. This is the story told to people in order to encourage them to keep a fast and stay awake the whole night with spine erect. Of course the esoteric secret behind the whole story has been given at the beginning of this article. In olden days people needed some story which would arouse their religious fervour in order to make them follow spiritual instructions. By following these instructions, they would benefit from the deep spiritual and scientific reasons, underlying the story which they could not understand. This is how the rishis ensured that profound spiritual truths were followed by common people so that they would all get the full benefit even though they did not understand the science behind it. Bel leaves, white flowers and ashes (vibhuti) are all special for Shiva. Again the esoteric reason is that these three things have the ability to attract positive vibrations so we are asked to apply “vibhuti” on our upper chakras before sitting for puja or meditation. The bel leaves and white flowers are always offered to Shiva during his pujas (rituals). The mantra for Shiva is the five- syllabled mantra — Aum Na-ma-shi-va-ya.
In Kashmir, the Pundits used to celebrate Mahashivaratri for fifteen days before they were driven out of the valley by the Muslims. The story told by them was that Mahashivaratri was the day on which Shiva and Parvati got married.
Many other stories are also told to encourage people to keep the fast and stay awake the whole night.
There is a famous story about a man called Lubdhaka who was a poor tribal man and a devout worshipper of Lord Shiva. Once he went into the jungle to collect firewood. As darkness engulfed the forest, Lubdhaka lost his way and could not return back to his house. He could hear the roars and growls of tigers and other wild animals coming closer and closer and was terrified. In despair he hastily climbed the nearest tree which happened to be a bel tree. He could see the tigers prowling beneath the tree and was terrified that he might doze off and fall off the tree. To keep himself awake, Lubdhaka plucked one leaf after another from the bel tree and dropped them down while chanting the Shiva mantra (Aum Namashivaya). Unknown to him there was a small Shiva Linga beneath the tree so all the bel leaves were being dropped on top of it. This happened to be the 14th night of the dark phase of the moon in the month of Phalguna – Mahashivaratri. Unknowingly he had actually performed the Mahashivaratri puja which specifies that we have to keep awake the whole night and chant the names of Lord Shiva. It is said that Lubdhaka was blessed by Shiva and given liberation or moksha.
This is one of the stories that is recited to people every year on the night of Mahashivaratri. From this arose the custom of offering bel leaves to Shiva.
Another story is about a king called Sundaresan who went hunting to the forest on his horse. He could not find any animal and by the end of the day he was totally exhausted since he had not eaten anything the whole day. He spent the night near a pond where there was a Shivaling and chanted the Shiva mantra. In the morning he saw the Shivaling and cleaned the leaves on top of it. This happened to be the night of Mahashivaratri. When he died the attendants of Yama, the king of death, tied him with a rope and were all set to take him to the nether world. However the ganas or attendants of Shiva forestalled them and told them that he was a great devotee of Shiva and thus he could not be taken to the abode of Death but would be escorted by them to Shiva, the abode of Immortality.
These stories are told to people in order to encourage them to keep vigil on this night. Even though people are not aware of the esoteric reason behind the practice they would still attain a high state of spiritual awakening if they followed the instructions. Thus everyone was exhorted to keep up the practice of fasting and keeping awake on Mahashivaratri -The Great Night of Shiva!
This year 2020 Mahashivaratri is on 21st February.