Lord Shiva is Mukteswar (one who gives liberation) and Papkateswar (reliever of sins). He is Asutos (quickly and easy to please) and Abdar Dani (bestower of boons). On account of these attributes, people worship him throughout life and especially on the night of Maha Sivaratri, which was celebrated on the night prior to full dark night (Amaveseya) n the month of Magh-Phagun (February-March). When almost all other festivals are celebrated in day time, Maha-shivaratri is celebrated in the night, which is symbolic of injustice, ignorance, darkness, sins and evils, atrocities, loot and theft, violence, corruption, treachery, falsehood, downfall and degradation. Lord Shiva appeared just before the universe entered Kaliyug, the period of complete darkness (Amaveseya symbolized).
Maha Shivaratri is thus celebrated one night before Amaveseya. Lord Shiva appeared just in time, so that he could save the world from Tamogun (darkness and ignorance). Lord Shiva is known as Hara because he defeated the submersion of the universe into complete darkness. Snakes, lions, peacocks and bulls shown along with Lord Shiva's images symbolize freedom from evil exhibiting fearlessness. So on the night prior to Amaveseya, Lord Shiva's special worship is done as Mahasivaratri, so that there should be less darkness, less corruption. Great souls have great deeds, so Lord Shiva's appearance is utmost great. He appears only when everything is inauspicious and under utter distress.
Unlike Lord Ram and Lord Krishna, who give permanent blessings, Lord Shiva gives his blessings and boon, when called for and then he is back to his Sivalok. Invocation of Lord Shiva, just before night of complete darkness the fourteenth day of darkness in Phalgun (February), the last month of the year is celebrated on this night.
Lord Shiva has no bodily or worldly form, but only divine, devotional and celestial form. One can only meet his grace, when one should not imagine him as a worldly figure and when you see him from your inner soul- conscience. Lord Shiva's form is like a point as the soul is. Forgetting all other worldly poisons (passion, anger, greed, affection and ego) one should only devote on one point 'Lord Shiva'. Then only, one can gain blessings from the Lord and be contented, comfortable and really happy. The present times of treachery, deception, falsehood, corruption and evil, demand full devotion and invocation of Lord Shiva, so that he may remove the darkness, ignorance and evil, prevailing today. True worship of God Lord Shiva is the need of the hour.
On Shivaratri, Lord Shiva is worshipped in the form of Lingodbhavamurti, the pillar of fire that appears to span the neither world and the sky, but has indeed neither a beginning nor an end. Linga means sign, also smoke. It denotes a manifestation of that which is not manifested, a form of the formless, a hint and glimpse of the unknown and the unknowable. It is a scrawl by an artist to portray that which cannot be portrayed even on a canvas as big and large as the heavens, a blind sculptor's groping towards an all encompassing truth.
Even the Gods cannot comprehend Lingodbhavamurti. Lord Vishnu, who reposes on the coils of Atlanta (snake), is awestruck by the fiery manifestation. On an impulse, he frees himself from the embraces of Goddess Lakshmi, rides his boar and goes out looking for the origin of the pillar of fire. Down, down he goes, into the bowels of space, many worlds below the earth. But he fails in his quest. Lord Brahma, who is seated on the lotus, sprung from the naval of Lord Vishnu, goes on a similar adventure riding his Harnsa (swan), the divine gander. He soars into the sky, beyond the clouds, beyond the world of Gandharvas, beyond Dhruva and Saptrishi. But he fails to discover the crown of Lingodbhava. The Gods, too cannot know that, which has neither a beginning nor an end.
On Sivaratri, the worship of Lingodbhavamurti is with Bilva leaves, heaps of bilva gathered from quince trees tended with godly respect and affection. We bring baskets full of Nandi flowers, dronapushpa, parijata and ixora red like the lips of Uma.
In Andhra Pradesh, the Sri Kalahasteswara temple at Kalahasti and the Bharamarambha Malikarjunaswamy temple at Srisailam, are thronged by Pilgrims, during the festival in February-March. It is a time for them to solemnly invoke Lord Shiva through fasts and chants.
In Rajasthan, on Lord Krishna fourteenth day of Phalgun (February-March), the day is observed as Mahasivaratri. A special Puja is arranged on this auspicious occasion. A fair is held at Dabeswarji in Jaipur.
In Assam, the night of Siva is celebrated by his many devotees congregating on Peacock island, which holds the Umananda temple. They keep an all night vigil chanting prayers and hymns during this festival, normally held in March.
Shivaratri in Mauritius
Indo-Mauritians are very proud of their Hinduism, but not rigid about it. On a great lake, known as Ganga Sagar, Shivaratri is celebrated with great fervour by thousands of pilgrims. It is dotted with temples, but curiously, the one closest to the parking lot has a diorama of Lord Shiva as Mount Kailash, but no Shiva Linga, Nandi, bell or circumambulatory.
Legend of Maha Shivratri:
The origin of the sacredness of the Maha Shivratri is related to the following Puranic legend:
In a forest, unknown to public, on the Himalayan mountains there once lived a hunter with his wife and an only child in a humble cottage. He was in the habit of going out daily in the morning with his bow and arrows and returning home in the evening with some game or other, which furnished the food for the whole family. As usual he went out in search of game on a certain morning.
It was an unusually hot day and he wandered throughout the forest, but was not able to secure any game. The evening was fast approaching. Darkness had almost set in. Thinking it was no use lingering longer in the dense forest he turned his course towards his cottage with a melancholy countenance, for, what could his wife and child do for their supper that night? This was his sole thought.
Sometimes he would stop on the way and say to himself that there was no use in going home without any flesh to cook.
He saw a big tank on the way, "Ah! To be sure some animal or other must come to this tank to drink water. I shall hide myself behind some thick bush and wait for the occasion." On second thoughts, he considered it safer to climb a tree to be beyond the reach of any beast of prey. To attract beasts to the side of the tree on which he was resting he kept dropping tender leaves from the tree. He was not disappointed in his maneuvers. During the first watch of the night a doe antelope, after drinking water in the tank, approached the tree to feed of the tempting leaves without any idea of the danger that hung overhead.
The hunter, glad at heart, hastily prepared to take aim at the poor beast. The antelope perceived the danger and instead of running away, most piteously addressed the hunter in a human voice, "0! Hunter dear! Do not kill me now." The hunter, though startled to hear the animal speak in a human voice, said, mustering up his courage: "My charming antelope! I cannot but kill you at once. My wife and child are dying at home from hunger. You must be their food tonight." "Even so, hunter. I have a dear husband and an affectionate child at home. I must take leave of them before I fall down dead by your shaft. For their sake save me for only a few hours. You are not a hard-hearted bachelor. As you feel for you wife and child, surely you must realise what my misery will be if I do not take leave of my lord and child before I lay down my life."
The hunter, moved at the piteous words of the beast, thought within him how hard-hearted he was to resolve to kill a beast so that he may feed on its carcass. But kill he must, if he should eke out his livelihood in that forest. The antelope promised to return after taking leave of her husband and her child. He permitted her to do so and she promised to be back in the fourth watch of the night.
The First watch of the night was almost over. Our hero was wide-awake. Having lost his first opportunity that night, he waited for another beast to approach his tree. And his heart leapt with joy at the sight of another beast approaching the tree during the second watch. He again prepared himself to aim his shaft at it. He was again astonished when he heard that antelope also begging him in human voice. Again there was a conversation, in the course of which the hunter learnt that the second antelope was the husband of the first one. It also requested the hunter to spare it till the fourth watch of the night, as it wanted to see its wife and child. The hunter gladly granted the request; for he was sure of carrying away both these beasts at the fourth watch. He thought that beasts which argued in such an honest fashion would never prove untrue. During the third watch appeared the child of the first two antelopes. This beast also astonished the hunter by a similar request, which of course was readily granted, to be spared till the fourth watch of the night.
Thus the three watches of the night were spent by the hunter in strict wake fullness. He had not had even a wink of sleep. The tree on which he lodged for the night happened to be the Bilva tree (crataeva religiosa) the leaves of which are held to be sacred to Shiva; and in dropping the leaves he was unwittingly offering worship to Shiva throughout the night, for the leaves happened to fall on a ruined image of Siva which lay under the branches of that tree. To add to the hunter's fortune, the night on which all these things took place happened to be a Shivarati night, though the hunter was ignorant of it. The three watches were over. The hunter was anxiously waiting for the return of the three antelopes as promised. The fourth watch also was running out fast. Still the beasts never came back.
The hunter had almost set himself down for a fool for having let the animals go in the First instance. The morning twilight had almost appeared; he turned his face towards the east and a most heart-rending sight met his eyes. There he saw in the dawn of the early morning the three honest animals each weeping at the fate of the other two, unmindful of its own. Even the hunter's hard heart melted away at what he saw. He turned to the other side to hide his tears; but he saw there his wife and child, who after spending the whole night in the forest in his search came running towards him in joy when they saw him.
He turned his eyes again towards the east with something in his mind more noble and elevated than he had ever had. He had almost resolved to excuse the beasts and give back their lives though they had not returned to him yet. But just as the lord of the day was making his appearance on the horizon, there stood before the hunter a divine vimana which carried away all the six-the three antelopes, the hunter, his wife and child-to the heavens, to the realm of Shiva. In connection with this marvellous passing away to heaven of the beasts, the hunter and his family, is held the popular belief that Mrgasira-the fifth lunar mansion containing three stars in Orion and figured by an antelope's head, which appear in the heavens is a symbolic representation of this Puranic story.