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Maha Shivratri (Maha Vad 14)

The Great Night of Shiva

Mahashivaratri is celebrated in the whole India but it is particularly popular in Uttar Pradesh. Mahashivratri falls on the 13th (or 14th) day of the dark half of 'Phalgun' (February-March). The name means "the night of Shiva". The ceremonies take place mainly at night. This is a festival observed in honour of Lord Shiva and it is believed that on this day Lord Shiva was married to Parvati.

In Shikshapatri written by Lord Swaminarayan Himself, He instructs His followers about reverence and worship of Lord Shiva:

Slokh 23 - When passing by temples of Lord Shiva and other Deities, one shall bow to them and pay due reverence to the Deities therein.

Slokh 47 - No distinction shall be made between Narayana and Shiva, as they are both proclaimed as Brahmaswarupa (Above all material modes) by the Vedas.

Slokh 79 - They shall devoutly observe the austerities on Ekadashi, Janmashtmi and other birth anniversaries such as Shivaratri etc. and celebrate them with great reverence.

Slokh 84 - My followers shall regard the five Deities named here with reverence - Vishnu, Shiva, Ganapati, Parvati and the Sun.

Slokh 149 - In the month of Shravana, they shall worship Mahadeva with reverence, with Bilva-Patras and the like, or request others to worship Mahadeva on their behalf.

Furthermore, in the First Vachanamrutam of Loya, which are the divine words of the Supreme Personality Himself, He says, ‘I have great respect for Shiva because He has renounced the world, mastered Yoga and a great Devotee of God’.

In the 12th Canto of Shreemad Bhagwatam, Ved Vyas states the following: " …Vaiṣṇavānāḿ yathā Shambhuḥ - Shiva is the greatest of Vaishnavas"

In the 4th Canto and 59th Chapter of Shreemad Satsangi Jeevan, Lord Swaminarayan elaborate on how to celebrate this festival. Bhagwan should be dressed with brightly coloured garments, and His abhishek should be performed in the evening. Lord Shiva should be worshipped with bel (Bilva) leaves and savoury dishes should be offered to Bhagwan, along with the performance of loving kirtans in his honour.

How We Celebrate Shivaratri

Devotees bath at sunrise, preferably in the Ganga, or any other holy water source. They offer prayers to the sun (surya), Vishnu and Shiva. This is a purificatory rite, an important part of all Hindu festivals. Wearing a clean piece of clothing after the holy bath, worshippers carry pots of water to the temple and bath the Shivling. The temple reverberates with the sound of bells and shouts of shankerji ki jai ‘Hail Shiva'. Devotees go around the Shivling, three or seven times, and then pour water over it.

Stories From The Puranas

The Puranas contain many stories and legends describing the origin of this festival. According to one, during the Samudra Manthan, a pot of poison emerged from the ocean. This terrified the gods and demons as the poison was capable of destroying the entire world, and they ran to Shiva for help. To protect the world from its evil effects, Shiva drank the deadly poison but held it in his throat instead of swallowing it. Because of this his throat turned blue, and he was given the name Neelkantha as (Neel means blue and Kantha means neck). The celebration of Shivratri is marked of as an event when Shiva saved the world.

Lord Shiva is the deity of death and destruction, without which growth and rebirth could not take place. Lord Shiva's third eye in the centre of His forehead opens only in extreme anger, whilst His matted hair carries the Goddess Ganga down to earth. All Hindus observe Mahashivaratri. Devotees gather in great numbers and attend the temples of Shiva, perform pooja to the Shivaling, sing bajans, offer prayers and on this day one has to observe a fast.

This worship continues late into the night when coconut, bilva leaves (Bilipatra) and other foods are offered to Lord Shiva and his divine consort Parvati.

Lord Swaminarayan has placed Lord Shiva equal to Narayana (Shikshapatri 47 ‘And the oneness of Narayan and Shivaji should be understood, as the Vedas have described both to be brahmaroopa'). Lord Shiva is also regarded as one of the five foremost deities (Shikshapatri 84 )And those under My shelter should respectfully believe in these 5 deities: Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva, Ganapati (or Ganesh), Parvati (Lord Shiva's consort), and Surya (the sun-god), for these reasons Lord Swaminarayan has requested that we must perform poojan of Lord Shiva with Bilva leaves (Shikshapatri 149 ‘and in the Indian month of Shravan, lovingly perform or have someone perform on one's behalf) the worship of Shree Mahadeva (Lord Shiva) in the various ways, using bilva-leaves, etc. and also observe the rules of fasting on this day.

People observe a strict fast on this day. Some devotees do not even take a drop of water and they keep vigil all night. The Shivalingam 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 Bilva leaves are made to the Lingam as Bilva leaves are considered very sacred and it is said that Goddess Lakshmi resides in them.

Greatness of Maha-Shivaratri - Shiva Maha Puran

Once a very poor Bhil; Gurudruha was unable to hunt any animal for food to feed his family. He sat down on the bank of a pond and lamented thinking of the consequences his family would face from hunger. He climbed up a bel-leaf (Bilva Patra) tree nearby with the motive of hunting down an animal which may come to quench its thirst.

Coincidentally this was the auspicious day of Shivaratri and he was unaware of a Shivlinga established under that tree. After the first three hours of the night passed, he saw a female deer arriving with her fawns. In getting ready to aim at his prey the sudden movements made some bel-leaves fall on the Shivalinga along with some drops of water from his water vessel. Thus, in this way Gurudruha unwittingly accomplished the worship of Shiva in this time. Upon hearing the noise made by falling drops of water, the female deer looked up and saw Gurudruha aiming at her with the intention to kill. The female deer pled for mercy and to be allowed to leave her young ones in the safe custody of her stag. She promised to come back. He was initially reluctant but eventually let her go.

Meanwhile the sister of female deer arrived there with her fawns. Upon seeing her he aimed weapon at they prey. His sudden movements again repeated the leaves and water falling onto the Shivlinga. He unwittingly performed worship again as it was the second prahar of the night. Look up to the hunter the deer pled the same and was let free by him as she too promised to return.

When the third prahar began a Stag came in search of his deer and fawns. Upon sighting it, Gurudruhas sudden movements made more leaves and water fall on the Shivlinga hence unwittingly performing worship again. The Stag too pled for freedom so that he could meet his deer and fawns and promised to return to be hunt. He too was given freedom.

Later Gurudruha heard some noises and saw all the three preys coming towards the pond to fulfil their promise. He was extremely pleased at the prospect of getting flesh of three animals. Upon getting ready to aim more leaves and water dropped on the Shivlinga and he yet again unwittingly accomplished the worship to Shiva in the fourth prahar. The thought of hunting and killing no longer remained in his heart. He thanked the animals for their help in his attainment of enlightenment.

Lord Shiva became extremely pleased and appeared before him. He blessed Gurudruha with a boon, that in his next life he would get an opportunity to serve Lord Shree Rama and would gain fame as Nishad. Lord Shiva also told him that by the blessings of Shree Rama he would attain salvation. Whilst describing virtues of observing fast on Shivaratri, Sutji mentioned to the sages, that a fast observed unwittingly on Shivaratri yields such virtues then what could be said about a fast is observed deliberately. The fast of Shivratri bestows both worldly pleasures and salvation.

Stories from Mahabharat

In Mahabharat within the story of King Chitrabhanu and his previous life. As the king sat in his palace, observing the fast along with the entire town, a sage asked the king the purpose of his fast. The king went on to explain that he had a gift – that which enabled him to remember incidents from his previous lives. In his last life, the king was a hunter in Varanashi and he made his keep by killing and going on to sell birds and animals. On one particular occasion, he was out venturing the forest, when darkness fell. He was unable to return home and sought to find shelter for the night, such was his luck that he found a Bilva tree, which he climbed and rested. He had caught a deer, and so tied it at the foot of the tree. Anxiety refused to leave his mind that night, as he continuously worried what his poor family would eat. Without realising, he began to pluck leaves from the tree and dropped them to the ground beneath him. The next morning, having sold the deer and bought food for the family, he returned home and was about to break his fast when a stranger approached him. Out of courtesy, he stood up, offered the food to the stranger and then sat to eat again.

At the time of his death, he was visited by two messengers of Lord Shiva, sent especially from Kailash, and it was only then that he learnt of his unconscious worship to the great deity on the night of Shivratri. For as he wept and dropped leaves to the ground, little did he know that there was a Lingam just beneath, and with the drop of each leaf, he shed the pure sorrow of his family, and he also fasted day and night, although he did not realise it, simply through the absence of food. As a result, the king spent a blissful time in the divine abode of Lord Shiva, before returning to be reborn as the King Chitrabhanu.

A Festival Especially For Women

Shivratri is considered especially auspicious for women. Married women pray for the well being of their husbands and sons, while unmarried women pray for an ideal husband like Shiva, who is the spouse of Kali, Parvati and Durga. But generally 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.