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Maha Shivaratri

Maha Shivaratri (Maha Shivratri, Maha Sivaratri, Shivaratri, Sivaratri) is a festival that is dedicated to the worship Lord Shiva on the 13th or 14th day of the Hindu month of Maagha or Phalguna. The festival usually occurs in the month of February or March and is observed for one day and night only.

Goddess Parvati & Lord Shiva
The Hindu god Shiva next to the goddess Parvati.
The Hindu god Shiva next to the goddess Parvati.
©iStockphoto.com/kolluru ashok

What Do People Do?

Maha Shivaratri is celebrated during the night and day that comes just before the new moon. Many Hindus celebrate with special rituals dedicated to Lord Shiva, which includes prayers, going to temple, folk dances, and music. It is common to fast during Maha Shivaratri and to stay up all night at a place of worship singing hymns and verses of praise and devotion to Lord Shiva. Many devotees offer special food that is made from the fruits of the season, vegetables, and coconuts. People who fast only break their fast the next morning to eat the prasad - the food offerings that were offered to Shiva.

Married women observe the fast of Shivaratri and pray for the well being of their husbands and sons, while unmarried girls observe the fast in hopes of finding a good husband like Lord Shiva. They may perform the traditional Shivalinga puja ritual - where they circulate the Shivalinga three to seven times and then pour water, milk, yogurt, honey, sandalwood paste and/or rose water over it.

A very famous tradition associated with the shivratri celebrations is drinking thandai, which is a drink made of bhang - cannabis, sweet almonds and milk.

Public Life

Maha Shivaratri is a gazetted holiday in India so government offices, post offices and banks may be closed. Stores and other businesses and organizations may be closed or have reduced opening hours. It is not a nationwide public holiday in countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States but some cities may hold large celebrations for the occasion.

Background

There are many stories associated with Maha Shivratri which include the night that Lord Shiva performed the Tandav, a celestial dance of creation, preservation and destruction, and the legend of Lubdhaka. It also celebrates the wedding of Shiva and Sati, the mother divine.

According to the legend of Lubdhaka, Lubdhaka was a poor tribal man and a devotee of Shiva who went into the deep forests to collect firewood and got lost. In the darkness, Lubdhaka climbed a bael tree for safety and shelter for the night. The growls of tigers and wild animals scared him and in order to stay up all night he plucked one leaf at a time from the tree and dropped it while chanting the name of Shiva. The next morning, Lubdhaka realized that he had dropped thousands of leaves onto a Shiva lingam and due to his devotion to Shiva, Lubdhaka was rewarded with divine bliss and safe passage home.

Symbols

Lord Shiva is a major Hindu deity, the destroyer, who is often represented in deep meditation or dancing on the demon of ignorance. Shiva lingam is the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva and is usually made of granite, soapstone, quartz, marble or metal, and has a 'yoni' or vagina as its base representing the union of organs. It is worshipped all night and given offerings that are believed to have its own meaning:

  • Bathing the Shiva lingam with rose water, milk, honey and bel leaves represents the sanitization of the soul.
  • Vermilion paste applied to the Shiva lingam is symbolic of a good feature.
  • Offering of fruits represents a long life and fulfillment of desires.
  • Burning incense sticks symbolizes prosperity.
  • The lighting of the lamp means achievement of knowledge.
  • Offering of piper betel leaves represents happiness.

The three horizontal stripes of holy ash applied to the forehead by worshippers of Lord Shiva is called tripundra. These stripes symbolize spiritual knowledge, purity and penance, as well as the three eyes of Lord Shiva.

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