Sivaratri, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is celebrated on the moonless night of the month of Phalguna, which is the fourteenth day in the krishnapaksha or dark half. Owing to a special planetary conjunction, spiritual practices done on this day are considered to be especially auspicious and beneficial. There is a reference to this in one of the Puranas, where Shiva himself tells Parvati Devi [the Divine Mother] that this day is particularly dear to him, and that those who perform the prescribed austerities on this day will be freed from all sins.
One popular story from the Puranas goes like this: There was once a poor hunter from Varanasi. His name was Suswara. He lived with his wife and child in a small hut. Theirs was a hand-to-mouth existence. Suswara would go to the forest and hunt whatever game came his way, and thus feed his family. One particular day, he caught many small animals and birds, which he put into a sack. Encouraged by the catch, he wandered deeper into the forest in search of more game. Soon darkness set in and he turned to go home. He was a little worried as the forest was infested with dangerous animals. He did not like the idea of spending the night there. Soon it became very dark. Unable to find his way back, Suswara climbed a tree to be safe from the wild animals.\
Attracted by his scent, animals came lurking under the tree. Hoping to scare them away, Suswara plucked some twigs from the tree and threw them at the animals, but to no avail. Throughout the night the animals kept prowling beneath the tree.
Suswara was unable to get even a wink of sleep. He kept vigil throughout the night. He plucked leaves from the tree, which happened to be a bilva tree, and dropped them on the ground. Unknown to Suswara, there was a Shivalinga at the foot of the tree; and so, although he was unaware of it, by dropping the sacred bilva leaves, Suswara was making a sacred offering to the Shivalinga. That night happened to be Shivaratri. So the hunter had unknowingly kept a night-long vigil and worshipped Shiva.
According to the Shiva Purana, the Mahashivaratri worship should incorporate six items: offering bilva leaves to the deity after giving it a ceremonial bath, which represents purification of the soul; applying vermilion paste on the linga after bathing it, which represents virtue; offering food, which is conducive to longevity and the gratification of desires; lighting incense, which yields wealth; lighting an oil lamp, which signifies the attainment of knowledge; and offering betel leaves, which marks satisfaction with worldly pleasures. These six items form an indispensable part of the Mahashivaratri worship, be it a simple ceremony at home or grand temple worship
According to the mythology, each of these dravya used in the abhisheka blesses a unique quality:
- Milk is for the blessing of purity and piousness.
- Yogurt is for prosperity and progeny.
- Honey is for sweet speech.
- Ghee is for victory.
- Water is for purity.
Significance of the Rituals
The story above is an allegory. Just as the hunter sought to kill wild animals, the spiritual seeker tries to overcome lust, anger, greed, infatuation, jealousy and hatred. The jungle is the mind where all these negativities roam about. A spiritual aspirant must kill these "animals" to be free.
The name of the hunter was Suswara, which means "one of melodious voice." This indicates the purity of intent and speech, which, in turn, imply a level of mental purity.
The hunter was born in Varanasi. Vara refers to the forehead while nasi is the nose. The point where both meet is Varanasi, in other words, the point midway between the eyebrows. This point is also called the ajna chakra and is regarded as a nexus of the three nadis: ida, pingala and sushumna. A spiritual aspirant who concentrates his or her mind on this point gains concentration and gradual control over his senses. The killing of the animals thus indicates control over one's vasanas [latent tendencies].
The bilva tree corresponds to the spinal column. The tree's leaves are special: each stalk has three leaflets. The three leaflets represent the three nadis mentioned above. The climbing of the tree represents the ascent of the kundalini shakti from the muladhara to the ajna chakra.
Keeping awake is symbolic of the kind of awareness and oneness of purpose that a spiritual aspirant needs to reach the goal. He cannot afford to be slack even for a moment.
Shiva is the Supreme Consciousness that illuminates the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep. Offering the threefold bilva leaves to the Shivalinga heralds the return to a level of consciousness beyond the three states, which is the fourth state, turiya. The dawning of that state is consonant with the awakening of the individual.
Maha Shivaratri literally means "the great night of Shiva". According to a legend in Shiva Purana, it was on this day that Shiva first manifested himself in the form of a huge column of fire, known as Jyotirlinga. According to another legend, Shiva married Parvati on this day.
The significance of Shivaratri is the celebration of the union of Shiva and Shakti (Parvati) by continuously repeating the panchakshara mantra, Om Namah Shivaya. One, who repeats Om Namah Shivaya during Shivaratri, with perfect devotion and concentration, is freed from all sins. It is said that repeating the mantra on this night even one time earns the merit of a thousand repetitions. By repeating the great mantra, one is able to still the mind. The goal of meditation is to make the mind completely free from worldly thoughts. Only when the mind becomes totally silent is the state of meditation experienced. It is not easy to achieve such a state. It may sound paradoxical, but it is true that such a thoughtless state can be achieved if the mind is filled with mantra (inner sound) for a long time.
It is very important to understand the true meaning of the mantra, Om Namah Shivaya. The mantra refers to your own “I”-awareness. Your “I”-awareness is called Krishna, Shiva, Shakti, Allah, Jesus, Buddha, or the Absolute Reality. In other words, during the mantra repetition, you are calling your own name, which is the essential nature of your Supreme Reality. Truly, one who meditates upon one’s own inner Self is considered to have worshiped all the gods and goddesses. This is the secret of all secrets.
This festival is most fervently observed by the Kashmiri Pandits, the ancient inhabitants of Kashmir and south Indians who are ardent devotees of Lord Shiva. The beginning of Kashmir Shaivism, which treats the individual soul and the universe as identical with Shiva, is traced to the Shiva Sutras, which were composed by Lord Shiva himself. Vasugupta (860–925), a great sage who lived in Kashmir, revealed the famous Shiva Sutras.
Lord Shiva is considered to be the Form of Light, which the Shiva Lingam represents. According to ancient scriptures, Shiv Lingam is a mass of divine light. These are the twelve jyotirlingas (Lingas of Light) at 12 places of pilgrims where people gather on the Shivaratri day: Kedarnath, Viswanath, Baidyanath, omkareswar, Mahakaleswar, Somnath, Nageswar, Triyembakeswar, Bhim Shankara, Ghurmeshwar, Mallikarjun, and Rameswaram.
The Shiva Lingam is the most common object of worship of Lord Shiva. In the full figure of Shiva, the male and female principles are united, and he himself is depicted as a half man and a half woman called Ardhanarisvara. Both masculine and feminine together represent the oneness of Shiva and Shakti. The emblem under which Shiva particularly delights to be worshipped is the Lingam. The lower part of the Shiva Lingam is Shakti, and the upper part Shiva. Shiva represents Purusha, the unmanifest Absolute and Shakti represents Prakrti, the totality of all manifest existence. While worshipping the Shiva Lingam, a true devotee would identify the Shiva Lingam with the entire universe.
It is essential for spiritual seekers to wear rudraksha beads because they are extremely useful. Rudraksha beads destroy harmful bacteria, and keep the blood pressure normal. Medical scientists are beginning to believe that wearing a genuine rudraksha has a beneficial effect on controlling blood pressure. They protect a seeker from all misfortunes and calamities. Baba Muktananda said, “If you are wearing rudraksha beads, they keep the body pure all the time.” Women as well as men can wear them.
Assurance of Lord Shiva
Swami Sivananda (1887-1963) of Rishikesh, one of the greatest spiritual masters of the 20th century, has narrated the following dialogue between Shiva and Parvati, revealing the sanctity of Shivaratri ritual. When creation had been completed, Shiva and Parvati went out to live on the top of Mount Kailas. Parvati asked, "O venerable Lord! which of the many rituals observed in Thy honour doth please Thee most?" The Lord Shiva replied, "The 14th night of the new moon, in the dark fortnight during the month of Phalgun, is my most favourite day. The devotee observes strict spiritual discipline in the day and worships Me in four different forms during each of the four successive three-hour periods of the night. The offering of a few Bilva leaves is more precious to Me than the precious jewels and flowers. My devotee should bathe Me in milk at the first period, in curd (yogurt) at the second, in clarified butter (ghee) at the third, and in honey at the fourth and last. Next morning, he should feed the Brahmins first and, after performing the prescribed ceremonies, he can break his fast. O Parvati! there is no ritual which can compare with this simple routine in sanctity.”
On Shivaratri day the devotees of Shiva observe fast. They keep vigil all night. Hymns in praise of Lord Shiva, such as the Shiva Mahimna Stotra of Pushpadanta and Ravana’s Shiva Tandava Stotra are sung with great devotion. The Guru Gita, a section of the Shiva Purana dealing with the instructions of Lord Shiva to his consort Parvati on how to attain liberation while living in the physical body, is recited. Not many people know that Shiva is the original Guru, which is evidenced in this famous Sanskrit verse: “Om namah Shivaya guruve satchitananda murthaye.”
The prayers and worship continue late into the night when the devotees offer coconut, Bilva leaves (which have to be a stalk with three leaves), fruits, and specially prepared sacred food to Shiva and his consort Parvati. Offering leaves of a Bilva tree (Aegle marmelos tree) to Lord Shiva on Shivaratri is considered very auspicious.
Vaishnnvaites and Shaivites need not feel any tension since two of the names-- Shiva and Rudra
Lord Shiva is easily pleased. One of the names of Shiva is Asutosh, which means “easily pleased.” May Lord Shiva be pleased with everyone through the following prayer:
Om Namah Shivaya! O Asutosh! you are my inner Self. My mind is Parvati. My ten states of prana (life force) are your servants. My body is your house. My actions in this world are your worship. My sleep is Samadhi. My walk is circumambulation (the act of walking around) of you. My speech is your prayer. Thus do I offer all that I am to you. Om Namah Shivaya!