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Maha Shivaratri (The Grand Night of Lord Shiva)

This year Mahashivaratri is on 12th of February. By the time this article will publish it will be over. Still I have thought of writing the article on Mahashivaratri.

When creation had been completed, Shiva and Parvati (His wife) 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 replied, “The 14th night of the new moon, in the dark fortnight (Krishna Paksha) during the month of Phalgun (Feb/ March), is my most favourite day. It is known as Shivaratri. People observe a strict fast on this day. Some devotees do not even take a drop of water. They keep vigil all night. The Shiva Lingam is worshipped throughout the night by washing it every three hours with milk, curd, honey, rose water, etc., whilst the chanting of the Mantra Om Namah Shivaya continues. Offerings of bael leaves are made to the Lingam. Bael leaves are very sacred as, it is said, Lakshmi resides in them.




SCIENCE BEHIND THE FAST

The two great natural forces that afflict man are Rajas (the quality of passionate activity) and Tamas (that of inertia). The Shivaratri Vrata (fast) aims at the perfect control of these two. The entire day is spent at the Feet of the Lord. Continuous worship of the Lord necessitates the devotee’s constant presence in the place of worship. Motion is controlled. Evils like lust, anger, and jealousy, born out of Rajas, are ignored and subdued. The devotee observes vigil throughout the night and thus conquers Tamas also. Constant vigilance is imposed on the mind. Every three hours a round of worship of the Shiva Lingam is conducted. Shivaratri is a perfect Vrata (fast).

THE STORIES OF MAHASHIVRATRI

There are several stories which are associated with this special grand night of Lord Shiva.

1. SAMUDRA MANTHAN STORY

During Samudra Manthan by the Gods and demons, a highly toxic poison came out of the ocean. As per the advice of Lord Vishnu, Gods approached Lord Shiva and prayed him to protect life by consuming this poison. Pleased with their prayers, out of compassion for living beings, Lord Shiva drank this poison and held it in his throat by binding it with a snake. The throat became blue due to the poison (Thus Lord Shiva is also known as Neelakantha) and Shiva remained unharmed. The wise men advised Gods to keep Lord Shiva awake during the night. To keep him awake, the Gods took turn performing various dances and playing music. A vigil was thus kept by the Gods in contemplation of Shiva. As the day broke out, Shiva, pleased with their devotion blessed them all, and also said that whosoever worshipped & contemplated on him on this day shall be blessed with the fulfillment of his or her wishes. Since then, on this day and night devotees fast, keep vigil, sing glories of Lord and meditate.

2. MANIFESTATION OF LORD SHIVA AS A JYOTIRLINGA ON THIS DAY

On this day manifested the great & also the first ever effulgent (Jyotirmaya) form (Anala-skanda or a pillar of fire) of Lord Shiva in front of Lord Vishnu & Brahmaji.

The story goes that once both Vishnuji & Brahmaji got infected by ego. The result was a clash between both these Gods. In order to show their respective superiority they decided to fight it out. Lord Shiva decided to intervene so as to make them realize that there is something more to life than the powers of an embodied being. 

He manifested in the form of a huge pillar of fire (Anala-skanda) whose beginning and end could not be seen. Vishnuji & Brahmaji decided to check what this strange thing was. While Vishnuji, in the form of varaha (boar) went down towards patal-loka to see the end of this pillar, Brahmaji sitting on his swan went up. Even after years of travel they could not see the beginning or the end of this manifestation. Brahmaji saw a leaf falling off, and thought it fell down from the top of pillar of fire, and returned satisfied that he had seen the starting point. They came back, while Lord Vishnu accepted that he could not see the end, Brahmaji said that he had seen, which was a lie. Lord Shiva cursed Brahmaji that no one will ever worship him. Then he too surrendered. This manifestation of Lord Shiva in the form of the first effulgent linga was on this special day of Mahashivratri, and thus all devotees pray to the effulgent linga (jyotirlinga) of Lord Shiva.

3. STORY OF CHITRABHANU

In the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, Bhishma, whilst resting on the bed of arrows and discoursing on Dharma, refers to the observance of Maha Shivaratri by King Chitrabhanu. The story goes as follows.
Once upon a time King Chitrabhanu of the Ikshvaku dynasty, who ruled over the whole of Jambudvipa, was observing a fast with his wife, it being the day of Mahashivratri. The sage Ashtavakra came on a visit to the court of the king.

The sage asked, "O king! why are you observing a fast today?"
King Chitrabhanu explained why. He had the gift of remembering the incidents of his previous birth.
The king said to the sage: "In my past birth I was a hunter in Varanasi. My name was Suswara. My livelihood was to kill and sell birds and animals. One day I was roaming the forests in search of animals. I was overtaken by the darkness of night. Unable to return home, I climbed a tree for shelter. It happened to be a bael tree. I had shot a deer that day but I had no time to take it home. I bundled it up and tied it to a branch on the tree. As I was tormented by hunger and thirst, I kept awake throughout the night. I shed profuse tears when I thought of my poor wife and children who were starving and anxiously awaiting my return. To pass away the time that night I engaged myself in plucking the bael leaves and dropping them down onto the ground.

"The day dawned. I returned home and sold the deer. I bought some food for myself and for my family. I was about to break my fast when a stranger came to me, begging for food. I served him first and then took my food.

"At the time of death, I saw two messengers of Lord Shiva. They were sent down to conduct my soul to the abode of Lord Shiva. I learnt then for the first time of the great merit I had earned by the unconscious worship of Lord Shiva during the night of Shivratri. They told me that there was a Lingam at the bottom of the tree. The leaves I dropped fell on the Lingam. My tears which I had shed out of pure sorrow for my family fell onto the Lingam and washed it. And I had fasted all day and all night. Thus I unconsciously worshipped the Lord.

"I lived in the abode of the Lord and enjoyed divine bliss for long ages. I am now reborn as Chitrabhanu." I have now realized about the infinite love & compassion of Lord Shiva. Even unconscious acts of goodness are blessed in such a way, then what to talk of our conscious acts of expressing our love, respect and reverence for Lord Shiva. He is indeed Ashutosh, one who gets pleased very soon. Lord Shiva is indeed an embodiment of infinite love, love & compassion that is why he is so easy to please. He showers us with his blessings at every moment of our lives, may we all devote this day of Mahashivratri to express our gratitude unto his feet. It is a very auspicious day.

4. STORY OF LUBDHAK

There once lived a tribal named Lubdhak, who was a devotee of Shiva. It was his usual practice to go into the forest to collect firewood. One day he wandered deeper than usual and night fell before he could come out. It was the night before the no moon night and the thin crescent moon offered no light. He was not able to find his way in the dark and soon got lost. A hungry tiger smelt him out and with a loud roar made his intentions clear. 

Lubdhak knew he could not outrun the tiger and so he climbed up a bael tree. In order to keep awake so that he would not fall down in his sleep he began to pluck the leaves from the bael tree and drop them one by one, each time chanting “Om Namah Shivaya”, which means I bow down to Shiva. In this manner, he passed the night. Until dawn, he had dropped a thousand bael leaves. When he descended the tree in the morning, he saw a lingam, which he had missed in the dark. Unknowingly he had been dropping leaves on the lingam. This was the 14th night of the waxing moon of the month of Phalgun and came to be celebrated as Mahashivratri.

5. DAY OF REUNION OF SHIVA AND PARVATI

King Daksha, Sati’s father opposed Sati's marriage with Shiva. At a Yagna (holy sacrifice) the king ignored Shiva’s presence and thereby insulted the latter publicly. Sati was so angered by this that she jumped into the sacrificial fire and ended her life. Lord Shiva unleashed his fury at the death of his wife by performing the violent dance, Tandava. He wiped out Daksha’s kingdom, undertook rigorous penance and retired to the Himalayas. The Gods, who feared that the severity of Shiva’s penance might bring an end to the world, revived Sati in the new avatar of Parvati. Shiva-Parvati married and this divine reunion is celebrated on Maha Shivaratri.

SHIVA’S MARRIAGE PROCESSION

Shiva is eternal, endless, formless, limitless and conscious being, the cosmic soul who roams about in the cremation grounds until he unites with Shakti. Shivaratri takes place on the darkest night of the moon, when Shiva goes to the house of Parvati in the Himalayas, riding upon a huge bull. He is accompanied by his marriage party of Rakshashas all of whom are most peculiar and terrible to look at. Some have eyes in their stomachs and noses in their necks, some have huge ears like an elephant or else no ears at all, only holes. Some have three legs and others only have one. Some are riding upon donkeys and some upon pigs.

Such a strange procession was Shiva's marriage party that when it approached Parvati's town. All the children who had rushed out to greet them with drums and conches ran away in fright. As soon as Parvati's mother heard the news, she nearly fainted. For not only was her son-in-law's marriage party made up of ghouls, but Shiva was practically naked, covered only in ash, with matted hair and snakes all over his body. How was it possible to give the most beautiful and tender Parvati, soft as a flower, to such a horrible husband?

She was thinking to herself that actually it was all Narada's fault. He was the one who had suggested this gruesome match, telling them a batch of stories about the great and wise king of Yogis, Shiva. And it was he who had arranged the marriage. The whole household was in a state of distress. But when Parvati heard about the frightful wedding party, she merely replied, 'If it is my destiny to marry him, then why should I hesitate?'

All the townspeople were totally aghast as Shiva approached the house of Parvati, but no sooner had he entered her gate then their horror changed to awe. For Shiva and his Rakshasha associates were instantaneously transformed into beautiful Gods, too dazzling to even behold. Shiva appeared in the finest of silks and was ornamented from head to toe with gold, silver and precious jewels. And so the wedding took place with great joy and wonder. Then afterwards, Shiva brought Parvati down with him to the earthly level.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MAHASHIVRATRI

The divine union which takes place when Shiva comes to meet Shakti is Shivaratri. It represents enlightenment in absolute darkness, the evolution of creation in empty space, the manifestation of knowledge in Nirvikalpa. When the whole of Maya sleeps, this is what Sannyasins call Shivaratri. It signifies the passing of the entire universe and all worldly attachments into the unconscious state where there is neither abode nor any sensual possibilities. This is the end of all directions into which the mind, the Sun, Moon and Stars have all disappeared. 

Here the fire of passion is extinguished and there prevails only Shoonyata. This state of consciousness is called Shiva or Shankara, the state of Siddha. But this is not the final state, the ultimate aim. Beyond Shoonyata where everything is submerged, the universal consciousness which is Shiva and the universal power which is Shakti, surrounded by Devas, Rakshashas and Ghosts meet in Advait (union) Mudra in great bliss and happiness, fear and surprise on the highest summit of Mt. Kailash. Then they return to the state of Shoonya. The last day of the dark fortnight, Shiva's marriage party will have returned to its starting place. Sages, aspirants and devotees are all aware of his departure and accept conscious Shakti in her most illumined state.


SHIVA THE FIRST YOGI

In the Yogic scriptures, Shiva is known as the first Guru or the Adi Guru of Yoga. His first disciple was Parvati, his wife. According to mythology, once Lord Shiva was teaching Yoga to Parvati near the bank of a river. There was nobody else around, but a fish was listening with keen interest. Parvati saw it and was happy that the fish, though a water animal, had a keen interest in Yogic philosophy. She prayed to Lord Shiva to transform the fish into a human being. So the same fish was reborn as a man and that man became famous in yogic history as Matsyendranath, the first of the Natha Yogis, who propagated Hatha Yoga to their disciples. Yogi Matsyendranath used to sit in a peculiar asana for meditation, which became famous as Matsyendrasana.

The second set of Yogic teaching was expounded to the Sapta Rishis, or the first seven sages. Yoga here does not mean a particular exercise or a technique; it is about the very science of creation and how to take this piece of creation (you) to its ultimate possibility. This teaching happened on the banks of Kanti Sarovar, near Kedarnath. This is when the world's first Yoga programme happened.

Mahashivratri is a festival that was chosen to honour Shiva, the Adi Guru, from whom Yoga originated. On this night the planetary positions in the northern hemisphere are such that there is a natural upsurge of energies. If one just stays awake and keeps one's spine erect throughout the night, it naturally pushes a person towards his spiritual peak.

TANTRA AND KUNDALINI YOGA

According to Tantra and Kundalini Yoga, when Shakti is awakened, she arises in the form of divine energy to envelop Shiva - the totality of consciousness. This is called the cosmic embrace of Shiva and Shakti. Until she is awakened from her deep slumber in the Mooladhara Chakra, Shakti lies dormant in the womb of primal nature (Moola Prakriti). When she is aroused, she forces herself into Sushumna. Like lightning she rises up to unite with Shiva in the Sahasrara chakra, where they become one. This is Shiva-Tantra.

In Shivaratri, however, the concept is reversed. This consciousness or Shiva comes down to unite with Shakti. Thus they become one, but for the sake of the universe, they live as two and function as duality. In darkness there is no light; in light there is no darkness, yet still the two remain together.

HOW TO CELBRATE SHIVRATRI

1. Observe fast on this day, taking only fruits & milk.
2. Perform elaborate Puja(worship) of Lord Shiva, and perform Rudrabhisheka. Chant various hymns & Bhajan (divine music) of Lord Shiva.
3. Use this day to bring to your mind the infinite ways your life has been blessed. In our obsession with thinking on what all I dont have we fail to see the infinite ways in which we are so positively blessed. The fact that you can read right now is a great blessing, ask someone who cannot see. Feel truly blessed & gratified and express your thanks & devotion at the feet of Lord by chanting the mantra ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ as many times as you can.
4. Practice Dhyana for longer periods than the usual routine. Be one with your loving God, and revel in utter fulfillment.
5. Remain more introvert on this day contemplating about the truths of life.
6. Go for Darshan of Lord Shiva where he is properly & regularly worshipped.
7. Try to get Darshan (visit) & Satsang( discourses)of some learned Mahatmas. Offer Sewa (donation) at Ashrams & Temples.
8. It is believed that anyone who utters the name of Shiva during Shivratri with pure devotion is freed from all sins. He or she reaches the abode of Shiva and is liberated from the cycle of birth and death.


Courtesy: Dr. Rita Khanna
Aum Shanti