Ceremonies of Mahashivratri

The Hindu festival Mahashivratri is an extremely paschal and ritualistic event. The day begins with a cleansing bathe in holy water, ideally in the Ganga or some other source of holy water. After bathing, clean clothes are adorned and the prayers begin. Women are to either pray for their husbands and sons or, if unmarried, to pray to find a man as good as Shiva. Lord Shiva is considered the example of an exemplary husband. There are chants hailing Shiva and then the linga are circled between three and seven times. After the ritualistic circling, either water or milk is poured onto the Shivalinga.

The Hindu celebration occurs on the 14th day of the Phalgun Hindu calendar, which would correspond to either February or March in the English calendar. The moon must be a new moon as Mahashivratri stands for “the great night of Shiva” and recognizes the long dark night.

There are six ceremonial items that must be incorporated into any Mahashivratri celebration. They are:

1)   Bathing the Shivalinga with either water, honey or milk that contains either Wood apple or beal leaves = represents purification of the soul

2)   Vermilion paste is then applied to the Shivalinga after the bathing = represents virtue

3)   Fruit offerings = represents gratification of desires and a prayer for longevity

4)   Incense burning = represents wealth

5)   Lighting of the lamp = represents knowledge

6)   Betel leaves = represents being pleased or happy with one’s worldly pleasures

As part of the worship ritual, three lines of ash are applied to one’s forehead; which are believed to represent purity, penance, and spiritual knowledge. These three lines are also representative of the three eyes of Shiva.

It is customary to wear a rudraksha seed rosary during the worship ceremony. The rudraksha tree is said to have been created by Lord Shiva’s tears, and as such is considered a sacred tree.

There are festivals all over India to celebrate Mahashivratri. Many of them incorporate fairs and the worshipping of other religious deities, such as the Mandi festival which celebrates over 200 deities throughout the fair. There is also the Sahasrakalasabishekam which is a 10 day-long festival celebrating Kroshta Muni’s and Lord Parasurama’s ritualistic bathing of the deity, Shiva, with a thousand pots of holy water.

There are many other mantras and festivals of differing focuses throughout India, such as the mantra in the Vedas or the Mahasivarathri Procession; which is a grand procession to the temple that is joined throughout the processional journey by several other mini processions. It is considered by many to be the most dramatic and sensational celebratory display of color, sound, pageantry and fireworks – a celebration befitting the irreverent Lord Shiva for being protector of the world.

History of Mahashivratri

Mahashivratri is a Hindu festival celebration that in essence means “the great night of Shiva”, referring to the all-night fasting, meditation and worship that is customarily observed. There are many tales to describe how Mahashivratri first came to be; however, one of the most popular versions is where a pot of poison capable of destroying the whole world emerged from the ocean and Shiva drank it to protect and save the world. But he did not swallow it; to protect the world, which supposedly exists in Shiva’s stomach, he held it in his throat. Therefore, his neck turned blue due to the poison. Afterwards, he went off to meditate in the Himalayas. But prior to his departure, he was advised to stay awake all night after swallowing the poison, and thus the gods played music and danced for him all night long to help keep him awake.

Another tale tells of a man gathering firewood in the forest who, upon hearing the ferocious roar of a tiger, climbed a tree to flee and then stayed awake all night to avoid falling out of the tree. To keep awake, he threw bael leaves from the tree one by one, all night long. Upon daybreak he saw Lord Shiva at the base of the tree instead of a tiger and was thankful to him for keeping him safe all night. Lord Shiva was pleased to see the pile of bael leaves at the base of the tree and perceived it to be an offering from the man.

Similarly there is a story of a man who was returning home from a day of hunting and climbed a tree to rest. While he slept droplets of dew dripped from his body and down the tree, thus producing an offering to Lord Shiva along with the bael leaves that fell from the tree that night, forming a ritualistic offering on the holiest of nights – the night of Sivaratri. This version potentially explains the all night worship that follows an all-day fasting, as the hunter worried all night about his wife and children who were starving and waited for their return with the game of birds he had with him from his hunting quest.

The Mahashivratri celebration is observed on the 13th night of the Phalgun month of a Hindu calendar, when there is a new moon (i.e., a moonless night). For it is believed that the Lord Shiva told Parvati that this was his favorite day of the year and that she had shared this news with her friends, who in turn shared it with the world.