Shiva (Lord Shiva) + ratri (night), so Shivaratri means the night of Lord Shiva.
Every lunar month on the 13th or 14th day of the dark half of the moon phase there is a Shivaratri but in the Vedic month of Phalgun (February-March) there is a Maha Shivaratri. The ceremony takes place mainly at night, which is observed in the honour of Lord Shiva, who was married to Parvati (Mother Durga) on this day.
Devotees of Lord Shiva generally observe a strict fast on this day and some go to the extent of a nirjal fast i.e. they do not even have a sip of water.
They stay awake the entire night. The Shiva lingam is worshipped throughout the night by washing it every three hours with milk, yogurt, ghee, honey and so forth, whilst chanting of the mantra “Om namah shivaya”, continues. Offering of bael leaves are made to the Lingam. Bael leaves are very sacred (as Tulsi to Lord Vishnu and dhar to Mother Durga are very pleasing to Them) and Lord Shiva becomes pleased with that offering. Many different hymns glorifying Lord Shiva are sung with intense fervour and devotion. Aspirants perform japa of the Panchakshara mantra “ Om namah Shivaya”
He who utters the names of Lord Shiva during Shivaratri with perfect devotion and concentration is freed from all sins that he/she have committed. He/she reaches the abode of Lord Shiva and resides very happily there.
NOTE: the Vaishnavas however worship Lord Shiva on this day in order to receive His blessings to become a better devotee of Lord Krishna (Vishnu) and not to attain residence in the abode of Shiva.
When creation was completed Lord Shiva and Parvati Mata went to live on the top of Mount Kailash.
Parvati asked, “O adorable lord, which of the many rituals observed in your honour pleases you the most.”
The Lord replied, “the fourteenth night of the new moon in the dark fortnight during the month of Phalgun, is my favorite day. It is called Maha Shivaratri. My devotees give me great joy and happiness bymere fasting than by ceremonial baths and offerings of flower, sweets and incense.”
“The devotee observes strict spiritual discipline in the day and worships me in four different forms during each of the four successive three hour periods of the night. The offering of a few bael leaves is more precious to me than precious jewels and flowers. My devotee should bath me in milk in the first period, in yogurt in the second period, in ghee in the third, and in honey in the fourth and the last. In the morning he should feed Brahmins (that is if this is possible), and after doing that he/she breaks his/her fast. No ritual can compare with this simple routine in sanctity.”
Parvati was deeply impressed by the words of her husband. She repeated this to her friends, who in turnpassed it on to everyone else. Thus the sanctity of Maha Shivaratri was broadcast all over the world.
The Shivaratri fast is aimed at controlling a persons’ two biggest vices (rajas – the quality of passionate activity) and (tamas – that of inertia).
At many ashrams around the world Shivaratri is celebrated in the following manner.
Aspirants fast the whole day, many of them without taking a single drop of water. Some ashrams perform a grand havan (fire yajnas) to Lord Shiva for peace and welfare of all. The whole day is spent in chantinge of the mantra “Om namah Shivaya” and in meditation upon the Lord. At night all assemble in the temple and chant this mantra and during the four quarters of the night the Shiva lingam is worshipped with intense devotion.
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