By Swami Harshananda
Occurence of Mahāśivarātri
The deity Rudra-Śiva is as old as the Ṛgveda. The Śiva sect and Śaivism are of hoary antiquity. Hence religious observances on the days considered dear to Śiva must have been existed since the ancient days. The 14th day of the dark half of every month, kṛṣṇa caturdaśī, is called ‘Sivarātri’ or ‘Māhaśivarātri’. The one in the month of Māgha (February-March) is christened as ‘Mahāśivarātri’, since it is the greatest of all.
Tale Associated with Mahāśivarātri
In several purāṇas like the Skānda, Padma and Garuda, there are stories and passages of hyperbolic eulogy of this Mahāśivarātrivrata. One of the common stories is how a niṣāda or a kirāta (a hunter or an aborigine) who ‘observed’ the vrata on the Mahāśivarātri day unknowingly, out of the force of circumstances, by fasting, keeping vigil and bathing a Śivaliṅga (the emblem of Śiva) with water was taken to the world of Śiva. If it is observed knowingly with devotion it would lead to big rewards. This seems to be the gist of such stories.
Significance of Mahāśivarātri
Of all the major festivals, Mahāśivarātri is the only one wherein the austerity part, as signified by the very word ‘vrata’, is predominant. There is practically no festivity, revelry or gaiety in its observance. The whole thing being one of continuous solemnity. This is but natural since Śiva is the god of the ascetics, the very incarnation of vairāgya or renunciation.
Origin of Mahāśivarātri
About the origin of Mahāśivarātri, there are several myths. Four myths which are generally believed are detailed here.
When Brahmā (the fourfaced god of creation) and Viṣṇu were disputing on each other’s greatness to establish their own supremacy, a huge liṅga or pillar of fire appeared suddenly between them and a voice from the void declared that he who would find the extremities of this liṅga would be considered the greater one. Neither of them succeeded and were hence obliged to accept the greatness of Śiva who had manifested as that pillar of light. This was the origin of Śivaliṅga and Mahāśivarātri.
According to the second myth, Mahāśivarātri is the day on which Śiva Mahādeva drank the hālāhala poison that emerged out of the milky ocean when it was being churned by the devas and the dānavas (gods and demons). He thus saved the worlds from destruction.
A third myth attributes its greatness to the day of marriage of Śiva with Pārvatī, the daughter of the mountain king Himalaya.
A fourth myth describes this day on which Lord Śiva, out of joy, burst forth into a great dance which has since been known as Sivatāṇḍavanṛtya.
Disciples Followed on Mahāśivarātri
This vrata is open to all human beings. The basic disciplines to be kept up on this day are:
- Ahinsā - non-injury
- Satya - speaking the truth
- Brahmacarya - continence
- Dayā - compassion
- Kṣamā - forgiveness
- Anasṅyatā - absence of jealousy
Observances of Mahāśivarātri
- Fasting is strictly observed.
- Jāgaraṇa or keeping vigil in the night.
- Worship of Śiva throughout the night
- Bathing the śivaliṅga with pañcāmṛta
- Japa of the mulamantra
- Prayer for forgiveness
At the end of the vrata, the performer do pāraṇā or break the fast by partaking of the offerings. One may take a vow to observe this vrata for 24 or 14 or 12 years. At the end of this period, one has to perform the udyāpana, a concluding rite indicating the completion of the vow.
Rituals of Mahāśivarātri in Modern Times
In the modern days, fasting, visiting Śiva temples and keeping awake in the night are common, though pujā throughout the night at homes is confined to the more orthodox sections.
Temples Celebrating Mahāśivarātri
The festival is celebrated with great solemnity and eclat in the famous temples of Śiva at:
- Vārāṇasi - Banaras
- Other pilgrim centers
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore