- Culture & Society
Maha Shivaratri - The Great Night of Shiva
01 Mar 2022
This festival is dedicated to one of the most important gods of Hinduism: Shiva. He is worshipped all over India and every month there is a Shivaratri (Shiva's night) when the believers fast and worship Shiva. At the end of February/beginning of March, Maha Shivaratri (the great night of Shiva) is celebrated once a year at the beginning of spring.
Shiva takes the role of the destroyer in the Hindu trinity, while Brahma is worshipped as the creator and Vishnu as the preserver. Maha Shivaratri, however, is not about Shiva's destructive power, but about redemption from sins and the beginning of new life. For everything that is created must eventually come to an end and Shiva is the one who makes that possible.
As the name suggests, the festival is celebrated at night and in the evening. The celebrations usually consist of prayers, meditation, dances and sometimes even yoga. Some devotees fast all day and all night to express their worship of Shiva and ask for salvation from their sins. Especially in Shiva temples, the celebrations are found in grand style all over the country. Dances are performed there through which Shiva is honoured and reminded of his dance Tandava Nritya. Shiva dances this dance for the creation, preservation and destruction of the world. It is not uncommon to find ceremonial processions in the streets on this night.
But this Indian festival is not only celebrated in Shiva temples. In smaller temples, in shrines to Shiva and also at home, Shiva is worshipped, mostly in the form of the Shiva Lingam. This lingam is a symbol of the god's creative power. It is decorated with the leaves and blossoms of the bel tree (Indian quince) and doused with milk, honey and other offerings. Incense sticks and candles are lit and the sacred mantra "Om Namah Shiva" is chanted throughout the night.
Why is Maha Shivaratri celebrated?
There are various reasons for devotees to celebrate this festival. Some dedicate this day to the marriage of Shiva and his wife Parvati. Others worship Shiva for his heroic deed of saving the sacred potion of the gods from being poisoned. Some also celebrate this festival because Shiva danced the Tandava on this day. Still others believe in a particularly favourable constellation of the planets on this day, which releases a divine energy that one can harness for one's life.
We will briefly recount two of these mythological events here.
The story of Shiva and Parvati
Shiva was married to Sati. But Shiva and Sati's father Daksha were at odds with each other. Therefore, Sati sacrificed her body to the fire to end the dispute. The death of his wife hit Shiva hard and he retreated to the mountains to meditate. A prophecy said that Shiva would marry Parvati who is a reincarnation of Sati. Parvati worshipped Shiva and the love god Kama was supposed to kindle love for Parvati in Shiva as well. But Shiva felt disturbed in his meditation by the love arrow of Kama and he killed Kama.
The rejection of Shiva made Parvati very sad and she decided to win him over through worship and humility. She fasted and lived a very ascetic life. After some time, Shiva was so impressed by Parvati's sacrifice that he fell in love with her and married her. At the request of the other gods, Shiva brought Kama back to life.
The marriage of Shiva and Parvati is also celebrated as the union of Shiva and Shakti (the female energy) on Maha Shivaratri. Shiva and Parvati are considered an exemplary pair of gods and are therefore often depicted together.
The god with the blue neck
On Maha Shivaratri, some also celebrate the sacrifice Shiva made to save the gods from poisoning. One of the most famous stories in Hindu mythology is that of the churning of the ocean (Samudra Manthan). Since Indra, the ruler of all the gods, was cursed, the gods lost their home. Indra asked Vishnu, the preserver, for help to regain what had been lost. Vishnu agreed on the condition that the gods cooperate with their enemies, the asuras. For this purpose, they were to create a whirlpool in the ocean of milk with the serpent Vasuki. This was to produce the nectar of immortality (Amrit), which the gods were to drink from in order to get rid of the curse. This process is similar to churning cream into butter.
While the asuras and the gods were pulling on both sides of the snake, it spewed out poison that almost contaminated the nectar. But Shiva caught the poison with his mouth. Before he could swallow the poison, his wife Parvati held his throat shut to prevent it from spreading. This caused his throat to turn blue and since then Shiva has also been called Neelkanth (blue-neck). The Amrit was spared and the gods were saved.
On Maha Shivaratri, some devotees celebrate this deed of Shiva and worship him for his sacrifice.
Have you ever witnessed a Maha Shivaratri celebration and want to tell us about it? Or would you like to know more stories from Hindu mythology? Write to us in the comments or to [email protected]!
Written by: Tanja Holbe
Cover Photo Credit: Shiva Lingam by Naman Sood - Unsplash
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