Word Mahashivratri means, Maha is the Big One, Shiv means auspiciousness, and Ratri means night. Maha Shivratri, the night of the worship of Lord Shiva, occurs on the 14th night of the new moon during the dark half of the month of Phalguna.It falls on a moonless February night, when Hindus offer special prayer to the lord of destruction. The festival is principally celebrated by offerings of Bael (Bilva) leaves to the Lord Shiva and devotees observe day and night fast and perform ritual worship of Shiva Lingam to appease Lord Shiva.
* Significance of MahaShivratri
Festival of Mahashivratri is the most important festival for the millions of devotees of Lord Shiva. The festival has been accorded lot of significance in Hindu mythology. It is believed that worship of Lord Shiva with devotion and sincerity absolves a devotee of past sins. The devotee reaches the abode of Lord Shiva and lives there happily. He is also liberated from the cycle of birth and death and attains moksha or salvation.
Per Hindu mythology, the day was determined as follows: after creation was complete, Parvati asked Lord Shiva which rituals pleased him the most. The Lord replied that the 13th night of the new moon, during the month of Maagha, is his most favorite day. Parvati repeated these words to her friends, from whom the word spread over all creation.
* Mythological association with Mahashivratri
There are various interesting mythological stories has been associated with Mahashivratri.
1) According to the Puranas, during the great mythical churning of the ocean called Samudra Manthan, a pot of poison emerged from the ocean. The gods and the demons were terrified as it could destroy the entire world. When they ran to Lord Shiva for help, he in order to protect the world, drank the deadly poison but held it in his throat instead of swallowing it. This turned his throat blue, and since then he came to be known as 'Nilkantha', the blue-throated one. Shivratri celebrates this event by which Shiva saved the world.
2) Once Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma argued over each other's prowess. However, Lord Shiva challenged both of them. He appeared as a flaming Linga and challenged the duo to measure the gigantic Linga (phallic symbol of Lord Shiva). Lord Brahma, who took the form of a swan, and Lord Vishnu who became a boar and went to Netherland, were both unable to measure the Shivlinga. Then Lord Shiva came out of the Linga and declared himself the most powerful. Maha Shivratri therefore means the grand night of Shiva. The devotees of Shiva fast during this day and pray to the lord throughout the night. This legend goes to prove the supremacy of Mahadev over other Hindu Gods.
3) King Daksha, opposed Sati's marriage with Shiva. At a yagnya (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, Taandav. 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 reunion is celebrated on Maha Shivratri.
On the day of Shivratri, a three-tiered platform is built around a fire. The topmost plank represents 'swargaloka' (heaven), the middle one 'antarikshaloka' (space) and the bottom one 'bhuloka' (earth). Eleven 'kalash' or urns, are kept on the 'swargaloka' plank symbolizing the 11 manifestations of the 'Rudra' or destructive Shiva. These are decorated with the leaves of 'Bilva' or 'Bael' (Aegle marmelos) and mango atop a coconut representing the head of Shiva. The uncut shank of the coconut symbolizes his tangled hair and the three spots on the fruit Shiva's three eyes.
Devotees of Lord Shiva observe the Shivratri Festival by following the prescribed rituals with sincerity and devotion. All through the day, devotees abstain from eating food and break their fast only the next morning, after the night long worship.
Devotees bathe at sunrise, preferably in the Ganga, or any other holy water source. They offer prayers to the sun, 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 to bathe the Shiva linga.
The linga is bathed with milk, water, and honey. It is then anointed with sandalwood paste. People offer wood apple or Bael leaves and fruit, milk, sandalwood and jujube fruit (bér) to the linga. Shiva is believed to be very hot tempered, and hence things that have a cooling effect are offered to him. People decorate the linga with flowers and garlands and offer incense sticks and fruit. In bigger temples, there is almost a stampede as devotees seek favors from their beloved god. Many also employ the services of a priest to perform special prayers.
According to the Shiva Purana, the Maha Shivratri worship must incorporate six items:
• Bathing of Shiva linga with water, milk and honey, the ceremonial offer of cooling bael leaves to the hot-blooded deity, representing purification of the soul.
• The vermilion paste applied on the linga after the ritual bath represents virtue.
• Offering of fruits symbolizes longevity and gratification of desires.
• Burning of incense sticks yields wealth.
• The lighting of the lamp symbolizes attainment of knowledge. >/
• Offering of betel leaves marks satisfaction with worldly pleasures.
All-Night Shiva Worship
Worship of Lord Shiva continues all through the night on Shivratri Festival. Devotees stay awake all night and spend the night in Shiva temples in worship of Lord Shiva. Singing of hymns and verses in praise and devotion of Lord Shiva besides the intense chanting of Om Namah Shivay, the mantra that is said free people from all their sins, continue through the night on Shivratri.
* Om Namah Shivaya
Om Namah Shivaya is known as the great redeeming mantra also known as five-syllable mantra
The meaning :
It means "I bow to Shiva." Shiva is the supreme reality, the inner Self. It is the name given to consciousness that dwells in all. Shiva is the name of your true identity- your self.
According to Hindu mythology there are three Gods who run this creation. The Brahma - who creates the universe, the Vishnu - who preserves the Universe and the Shiva- who in the end destroys the universe. Among the three deities, Shiva, though considered as destroyer, also symbolize the - the inner self which remains intact even after everything ends.
In this mantra the chanter (one who repeats the mantra) bow to Shiva- his true self.
Om Namah Shivay is a very powerful mantra. It has been said about this mantra that if this mantra vibrates continually in your heart, then you have no need to perform austerities, to meditate, or to practise yoga. To repeat this mantra you need no rituals or ceremonies, nor must you repeat it at an auspicious time or in a particular place." This mantra is free of all restrictions. It can be repeated by anyone, young or old, rich or poor and no matter what state a person is in, it will purify him.