Tuesday, 13 February marks the 2018 observance of Maha Shivaratri – this is known to be one of the biggest festivals of Hindus who worship Lord Shiva.
Devotees offer water, milk, dhatura, bhaang and flowers to Shiva’s idol or Shivalinga and worship the Hindu God of destruction.
In Hindu mythology, everyday in the calendar holds some significance and the stories often vary from different regions and communities.
We take a look at some of the mythical stories behind Maha Shivaratri.
Wedding of Shiva and Parvati
North Indians celebrate the day as the wedding anniversary of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Temples are decorated with flowers and devotees take out a procession in the name of Bhole ki baraat or Shiva’s baraat procession in the evening.
Shiva’s birthday – the emergence of Shivalinga
According to a legend in the Shiva Purana, two of the triads of Hindu Gods – Brahma and Vishnu – were fighting to establish who’s superior between the two.
Horrified at the intensity of the battle, the other gods asked Shiva to intervene and he assumed the form of a huge column of fire in between Brahma and Vishnu to make them realise the futility of their fight. Brahma and Vishnu decided to find the topmost end of the fire column. Brahma assumed the form of a swan and went upwards while Vishnu took the form of Varaha and went inside earth. As light has no limit, neither Brahma nor Vishnu could find the end despite searching for thousands of miles.
During his journey upwards, Brahma came across a Ketaki flower wafting down slowly. When asked where she had come from, the flower replied she had been offered at the top of the fire column. Brahma decided to end his search and take the flower as a witness. This angered Shiva who then punished Brahma for lying and cursed him that no one would ever pray to him. Till date, Hindus do not worship Brahma and there is only one temple dedicated to him – the Pushkar temple in Rajasthan.
The Ketaki flower too was banned from being used as an offering for any worship, as she had testified falsely. Since Shiva helped pacify the fight among the Gods, the day is celebrated in his honour.
The legend of Neelkantha
Another popular belief associates Maha Shivaratri with the legend of Lord Shiva drinking poison to save the universe. During the churning of the ocean (the legendary sagar manthan), gods and demons discovered several objects and one of them was a poison pot. Lord Shiva drank the poison to save the universe from its effects. Gods danced in order to protect Shiva from the harmful effect of the poison and keep him awake for a night. The poison eventually didn’t harm Shiva, but turned his neck blue. This was when he got the name Neelkantha. Since then, the night is celebrated as Maha Shivratri.
Hunter who discovered Shivalinga
According to a popular legend, a hunter could not find anything to kill for his food in a forest, he decided to spend the night on the branch of a Bel tree to be safe from wild animals. To keep himself awake, the hunter started throwing the leaves of the tree on the ground, unaware that there was a Shivalinga beneath the tree. Pleased with the patience of the hunter, Lord Shiva appeared in front of the hunter and blessed him with wisdom. It was the night when we now celebrate Maha Shivaratri. According to another belief, every Kashmiri girl is a Parvati and is wedded to Shiva. The Shivratri symbolises the wedding.
According to another popular belief, Goddess Parvati once pleaded Lord Shiva to save the earth when it faced destruction. Lord Shiva agreed to save the world on the condition that the people of the Earth would have to worship him with dedication and passion. From that day onwards, the night came to be known as Maha Shivratri. It is believed that flowers bloom exactly the day after Maha Shivratri, hinting at the fertility of the earth.
In Kashmir, Shiva followers observe the day as Har-ratri or Haerath or Herath. Mentioned as ‘Bhairavotsava’ in Tantric texts, Bhairava and Bhairavi are invoked through Tantric worship. According to the legend, the linga appeared at the dusk as a blazing column of fire and dazzled Vatuka Bhairava and Rama (or Ramana) Bhairava, Mahadevi’s mind-born sons, who approached it to discover its beginning or end but miserably failed. Exasperated and terrified, they began to sing its praises and went to Mahadevi, who merged herself with the awe-inspiring jwala-linga. The Goddess blessed both Vatuka and Ramana that they would be worshipped by human beings and would receive their share of sacrificial offerings on that day.
According to another popular legend, Maha Shivaratri is the night when Shiva performs the heavenly dance of creation, preservation and destruction. The chanting of hymns, the reading of Shiva scriptures by devotees joins this cosmic dance.
Maha Shivaratri is marked by annual dance festivals at major Hindu temples Konark, Khajuraho, Pattadakal, Modhera and Chidambaram. Nataraja – the supreme god of dances – is also another form of Lord Shiva. Shiva’s dances, tandava and lasya are performed in different forms by classical dancers with respect for Shiva.