Mahashivratri falls on the date 24 February (India Time) in 2017. It falls every year on the fourteenth day after the Purnima, one day before Amavasya, in the lunar month of Magha. This day is considered as the most auspicious for all Shiva devotees and spiritual seekers. Mahashivratri means, the “Great Night of Shiva,” and it is the darkest day of the year. Thus, it is a very appropriate time to worship Shiva, who is the Lord of Destruction. The word Shiva means “that which is not.” That which is not can only be dark!
The festival is celebrated widely throughout India and by Hindus around the world as well. The largest celebrations occur at the Velliangiri Foothills in Tamil Nadu, South India. The Velliangiri Mountain is known as the Kailash of the South, and it is said that Shiva spent much time here many thousands of years ago. Mahashivratri is a night when many hundreds of thousands of devotees make the pilgrimage to the top of the mountain. At the foothills, stands the Dhyanalinga temple, where the devotees stop to pay obeisance to the largest live linga in the world. Mahashivratri at the Dhyanalinga also includes the Pancha Bhuta Aradhana, a special celebration which involves the cleansing of the five elements in the body – earth, water, fire, air, and space.
At the Isha Yoga Center, also at the foothills, over 600,000 people celebrate Mahashivratri with Isha Foundation and yogi and mystic, Sadhguru. The celebrations are also webstreamed live for free at their Mahashivratri website.
Mahashivratri is a day when the planetary positions are aligned such that there is a natural upwards pull in the energy of human being. This upward pull aligns with the spine, and helps one raise their kundalini, or psychic energy without much effort. The scriptures say that sitting erect and aware during this one night can surpass the benefits of even many years of intense sadhana.
Preparing for Mahashivratri
Mahashivratri holds the highest place in terms of all practices, rituals and austerities. The Shiv Puran speaks of the importance of performing sadhana on this day. There are a few steps a devotee can take to maximize the benefits that he or she can receive.
1. Eat sattvic food. It is advised to avoid consuming tamasic foods, especially meat and substances such as alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. Eat foods that will be easily digested, such as fruits and raw or boiled vegetables.
2. Spend the day listening to some of the sacred chants of Shiva. Our page on the many Shiva songs provides Youtube videos to the chants, as well as downloadable mp3 versions for your desktop or mobile.
3. If you have access to any sacred spaces or temples, spend some time in them.
4. At night, refrain from sleeping or lying down. Keep your spine erect and stay awake and alert throughout the night.
Stories of Mahashivratri
There once was a forest hunter, a Bhil tribal, whose name was Gurudruha. “Gurudruha” means one who receives the grace of the Guru, but still remains without gratitude for this great benediction. Being a poor man, he spent most of his time in the forest hunting for food. One a particular day, having failed at finding any food, he was returning home, when he came upon a pond.
Being hungry, he sat at the shore of this little pond and began to wonder what would happen to him and his family if brought no food home. Then he realized that if he waited at the pond, he might get a chance to shoot some animal that came that way looking to quench its thirst.
Gurudruha climbed up a bael tree beside the lake and and waited. A small linga had been established at the base of the tree, and it happened to also be the day of Mahashivratri. The sun set and three hours passed. Gurudruha saw a doe, a female deer walk up to the pond with her young fawn. As he prepared to take aim and let loose his arrow, some leaves from the bael tree fell loose from the branches and scattered upon the shivalinga. A few drops of water from his vessel also fell onto the linga. Unaware, Gurudruha had worshipped Shiva as appropriate, during the first quarter of the night.
When the doe heard the noise, she looked up and saw Gurudruha take aim. She asked him what his intentions were and Gurudraha replied that he wished to kill her so he could take her meat to his family. The doe pleaded with him to allow her to leave so that she could leave her fawn with her husband safely. She promised to return immediately after that. Gurudruha was reluctant, but on seeing the pleading look in the doe’s eyes, he relented and gave her permission.
In the meantime, the doe’s sister also arrived at the pond with her fawns. Gurudruha again made ready and took aim, and in the process dislodged a few more leaves and drops of water onto the linga. It was the second quarter of the night, and Gurudruha had once again worshiped Shiva, unaware.
When the second doe heard the noise, she too looked up and the same act was repeated again. Once again the doe pleaded, once again Gurudraha was reluctant but he finally relented.
Gurudruha sat despondent upon the tree, waiting for the two does. The third quarter of the night began when a stag, a male deer, arrived there looking for his wife and children. Once again, the acts were repeated. Gurudruha took aim, dislodging leaves and water and inadvertantly worshiping the linga. The stag heard him and seeing what was about to happen, requested Gurudruha to allow him to find and meet his family one last time. The deer promised to return. Gurudruha let him leave too.
The third quarter ended and the fourth began. Suddenly, Gurudruha saw all the three deer coming towards the pond. He was extremely pleased at having a chance to bag all three animals for his family. He drew his bow and dislodged the leaves and water onto the linga. He had thus worshiped Shiva again, and had been awake all night on the great night of Mahashivratri, while also observing a fast.
Such is the power of this great night that though Gurudruha had done all this unaware, he still attained enlightenment. Thus, Gurudruha became an enlightened one and attained mukti.
Mahashivratri is a religious fast observed on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight of the lunar month of Phalgun in the North and Magha in the South. Literally, the name means “the night consecrated to Shiva.” Shiva is one of the highest Gods of the old Indian pantheon and he is distinguished from the lesser Gods by the title of Mahadeva or the Great God. He has countless other names corresponding to his countless attributes or derived from his equally numerous exploits. Outside India, he is known as one of the three Gods comprising what has been erroneously called the Hindu Trinity, in which Shiva figures as the “Destroyer.”
But this concept of Shiva has now become antiquated and faded in the light of brighter conceptions that arose later, which represent him as a beneficent deity, or Somasundara, “The Beautiful and Eternally Blessed One,” and Shambho, “The One who showers Blessings.” His personality is also made more interesting by his being represented as a human householder, as Shankara, dwelling with his wife Parvati, and rearing a family of two sons – Ganesha and Kartikeya.
Shiva, Lord of Mahashivratri
Shiva is a God transcending all the other Gods in the multiplex character of his personality. Sometimes he is regarded as the divine imposture of the disintegrating powers of nature, the forces that bring about disruption, decay and death – in short, as the dreaded Destroyer, who derives pleasure in destruction for its own sake. In this form, he is believed to be fond of haunting cremation grounds, of playing with the skulls and bones of the dead, thus gratifying the society of ghosts and goblins. In this form, he is represented as extremely irascible in temper, as Rudra, prone to killing and slaughtering at the slightest provocation, possessing a violence and intensity that inspire his worshippers with more awe than reverence.
On one occasion, Daksha held a great sacrifice to which all the Gods were invited, but he intentionally omitted to invite Shiva and his wife and the God became so enraged at this insult that he cut off the head of the sage and replaced it by that of a ram. On another occasion, he burnt up a number of Gods by emitting a flash of lightning that darted from his third eye, and afterwards smeared his body with the ashes extracted from their burnt out bodies. This could probably have instigated the ritual of applying the ashes on the body, which has become the distinctive mark of a devotee of Shiva.
Sometimes Shiva is depicted in a different character-as the divine agent of the reproductive powers of nature, whence he derives his names of Sadashiva, Shankara, and Shambho. It is in this character that he is represented by the familiar, but often misunderstood symbol of the “Linga.” He is also regarded as the supreme ascetic who has attained the highest perfection by prayer, penance and privation. In this form, he is pictured as an ordinary human being in the garb of a holy anchorite, with ash-besmeared body and matted locks, gathered into a knot above the forehead, wearing a strip of bark or leopard skin around the loins, and sitting in rapt meditation under the shades of a lush green tree. It is in this character of an invincible ascetic that Shiva scorched to ashes the wayward God of love, Kamadeva, who once endeavoured to seduce him away from his course of self – mortification. Thenceforth, Shiva gained complete emancipation from the bondage of passion, and by his example, taught mankind the way to gain the height of bliss by voluntary torture of the flesh, by incapacitating turbulent passions through undisturbed meditation.
Shiva is sometimes represented with five faces, whereupon he is known as Panchamukhi; and he has three eyes, the third being located in the centre of the forehead. These three eyes are supposed to symbolize the God’s omniscience-his knowledge of the past, present and the future. He is said to have a blue-coloured throat, which attributed him the name of Nilakanta; and he is said to have derived the hue from his having drunk up the poison which foamed forth from the surface of the sea, during the churning of the ocean – a primordial occurrence, frequently mentioned in Indian mythology as the origin of a number of objects that figure in subsequent myths. His vahana is the bull, and hence an image of this creature is to be seen in every temple dedicated to Shiva.
The month specially sacred to Shiva is Shravan (July-August); the tithi (phase of the moon) favourable for his worship is the Trayodashi, or the thirteenth day of the dark fortnight; and the auspicious day of the week set aside for him is Monday. Mahashivratri is considered to be an exceptional occasion for the worship of Shiva, who is usually worshipped daily with a very simple procedure – by devotedly pouring a bowl of water over the Linga set up in one of the nearest temples. The villagers gratify themselves by faithfully bathing a smooth stone, boulder or pebble that might have been placed by a pious-minded rustic at the foot of a pipal tree anywhere over the roadside or in the middle of a village grove or at the side of a public well.
The exact origin of the Mahashivratri fast is lost in the dimness of passing years, but the festival is mentioned in the famous Indian epic, the Mahabharat. This of course, by no means, furnishes any clue as to the date of its origin, for, apart from the fact that the chronological value of the epic is greatly lost by a multiplicity of later interpolations, the festival is described in one of the concluding books of the poem –the Shanti Parva, which some authorities believe to be of doubtful authenticity.
As it is, a pretty detailed exposition of the Mahatmaya (or religious efficacy) of the Mahashivratri vow emerges out of the mouth of Bhishma, the octogenarian leader of the Kuru forces in the great battle of Kurukshetra. Bhishma is lying wounded on the battle-field, his body resting on a bed of arrows, and in this posture, he gives a discourse to a circle of mourning kinsmen on the principles of duty, the truths of philosophy and the eternal mysteries of life and death. According to the legend that is believed to have been uttered by the dying hero himself, the fast of Mahashivratri was first publicly observed by King Chitra Bhanu of the lkshvaku dynasty, who is said to have been a great king who ruled over the whole of Jambu Dwipa, the most ancient name of India – a name older than Bharata Varsha, which was derived from king Bharata. Chitra Bhanu was a king as renowned for his power as well as his piety, helping the poor, protecting the weak, and honouring the Brahmans. Once upon a time it so happened that on the day of Mahashivratri, as the king and the queen were observing this holy fast, the sage Ashtavakra, accompanied by some of his disciples, came on a visit to the court. The king gave them food and gifts, befitting their position.
When the sage was preparing to depart, he discovered that the king was abstaining from food and drink, and so he asked, “What sorrow has come upon thee that thou has not taken thy meal to-day? Why art thou putting thy soul to further torture by thus abstaining from food and drink? Know that the human soul is one with God, and it is by giving pleasure to oneself, and not by inflicting pain, that one can best please God.”
The sage, who was as famous for his knowledge as well as his deformity of body, being “crooked” at eight different places (whence his name of Ashtavakra), was an Epicurean, who taught that the highest good was the calmness of the mind, found pleasure in the path of piety. Chitra Bhanu, thereupon, proceeded to explain why he was keeping a fast that day, and to do so, he had to recount some of the events of his former birth. He told the sage that in his previous life he had been a hunter, by name Suswar, who made his living by killing game birds and animals, and selling them in the bazaar.
One day, as he was wandering through a forest in search of game, he was overtaken by the darkness of the night, and being unable to go back home, he climbed up a bilva (wood-apple) tree for shelter. He had shot a deer that day, but had had no time to take it home or to sell it in the market to buy food for himself and his family. Distressed with hunger and thirst, thinking of his poor wife and children who were anxiously expecting his return, he wept, and his tears along with the withered leaves of the bilva tree, dropped in showers upon the ground. The shower of tears and dry leaves fell right upon Shiva’s head. Shiva is known to be fond of frequenting the shades of bilva tree. Bilva leaves, being an indispensable offering in the worship of Shiva on all occasions, when the leaves and water was showered upon him, Shiva was convinced that some pious votary of his was worshipping him in all devotion.
Next morning, the hunter returned home, and his wife and children seeing him safe again, forgot their hunger and their grief. He sold the deer that he had shot on the previous day, and with the proceeds bought food for himself and his family. It so happened that as he was about to break his fast, a stranger appeared at the door and begged for food. According to ancient custom, a stranger or guest has to be satiated with food and drink before a householder can partake his own meal; and so this unknown man was served with a share of the meal, before the hunter and his family could break their day long fast.
The proper observance of a religious fast demands that not only is the man to abstain from meals on that particular day, but that he shall not take any food even on the next, until he has fed another; and then only is the fast considered complete. This sequel to a fast is known as its Paran and its preparatory rites are called the Sanjut. The hunter, of course, knew nothing of the fast or of the Paran beyond the fact that it was a day of forced starvation to him and to his family, brought upon them by one of the inevitable games of fate. But through this unforeseen mischief of destiny, as he certainly took it to be at the time, he had unconsciously earned not only the merits of the fast itself, but those of the Paran as well. The hunter lived for many years thereafter, without any idea of his spiritual gains, until, when the hour of death came, he became aware of two spirit-messengers from God Shiva, sent down for the purpose of conducting the soul of the pious hunter to the abodes of the blessed, on Mount Kailash, the paradise of Shiva. It was only then that he learned for the first time that he had been so richly rewarded for his observance of a fast on the day of Mahashivratri, that too accidentally, which had been much beyond his control – that swift sunset which had overtaken him within the depths of that dark forest, whereupon he had been obliged to take refuge over the tall branches of a bilva tree, spend a night of hunger, shedding tears along with the withered bilva leaves.
The Mahabharat legend adds that the hunter lived in the paradise of Shiva for thousands of years, at the end of which he was transported to a higher heaven, called Indra Loka, the home of Indra, ruler of the skies, where he spent an enormous length of time in the enjoyment of ineffable bliss. He was then promoted to a loftier heaven still, called the Brahma Loka, the abode of Brahma, the Creator; and finally he was elevated to Vaikuntha, the highest heaven, the celestial mansion of Vishnu himself.
After living in these other blissful regions for long ages of time, the hunter was born again on earth, as heir to the kings of the Ikshvaku dynasty, and came to bear his present name of Chitra Bhanu. By special favour of God Shiva, Chitra Banu retained the memory of his past life and in his new kingly guise, the hunter had pledged to observe this annual fast, by the inadvertently observance of which, he had reaped such a rich harvest of both earthly and spiritual felicity.
The Mahashivratri fast is observed to this day in the form in which king Chitra Bhanu is believed to have observed it. Those who undertake it abstain from food and drink during the day, and at night they worship God Shiva, either in their own house or in some neighbouring Shiva temple, by themselves or through the medium of a priest. The ordinary villagers content themselves by pouring water on the image of Shiva; whereas the rich conduct elaborate rites with costly offerings to the God and substantial gifts to the poor. The offerings that are deemed essential are bilva leaves, dhatura, rice and water, preferably water from the holy river Ganges, failing which, water from any stream or consecrated well or tank. At the conclusion of the worship, wherever it is conducted with some ceremony, the priest or the head of the family recounts to the assembled company of worshippers the above related legend of the hunter who became a king. Listening to this tale itself is believed to shower the listener with blessings.