Mahashivaratri (the great night of Shiva) falls on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight of Phalguna (February- March), and is dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva. This festival is purely religious in nature and universally observed by all Hindus. On this day devotees sing bhajans in honor of Shiva, recite Sanskrit shlokas (verses) from scriptures, offer prayers in the morning and evening, and some observe fasting throughout the day. People visit nearby temples of Shiva and offer prayers in large crowds. The prayers and worship continue late into the night when the devotees offer coconut, Bilva leaves, fruits, and specially prepared sacred food to Shiva and his divine consort Parvati. Offering Bilva leaves to Shiva on Shivaratri is considered very auspicious by his devotees.
The origin of Shivaratri is attributed to several stories in Hindu mythology. One very popular story traces the origin of this festival to the churning of the Ocean of Milk by devas (gods) and asuras (demons). It is said that when both gods and demons were churning the Ocean of Milk to obtain amrita (water of immortal life), they came across many unusual substances, including the deadly poison Kalakuta. As soon as they touched the poison, it exploded into poisonous fumes that threatened to envelope the entire universe by darkness. When the destruction of the universe seemed inevitable, the gods ran for assistance from Brahma and Vishnu, but neither was able to help. At last they ran to Lord Shiva, who raised his trident and condensed the fumes. In order to save the creation, Shiva swallowed the poison without spilling a single drop. The poison left a dark blue mark on Shiva’s throat. The gods praised and worshipped Shiva for saving the universe.
The philosophical essence of the above myth is as follows: gods and demons symbolize all kinds of individuals (both good and bad) in the world. The Ocean of Milk represents the ideal world that is full of peace and happiness for all human beings. Churning the Ocean of Milk signifies the human activity in the world. The amrita symbolizes happiness and the poison represents human greed and selfishness. Shiva symbolizes the atman (self), the spiritual essence of an individual. Worship of Shiva denotes meditation and contemplation by an individual on his or her own self.
The above story is symbolic of the fact that individuals perform actions in the world in order to achieve happiness. In this process a person is usually overpowered by greed and selfishness, ruining his or her efforts for obtaining peace and happiness. Thus the only way to achieve peace and happiness is by worshipping Shiva at night, that is, by meditating on one’s own self during the night when the individual is free from the distractions of the physical world. When the individual attains self-knowledge, he or she can live in the world without being affected by anger, greed, and selfishness, the three enemies of one’s soul. Shlce Shivaratri symbolizes the worship of the atman within, this festival is celebrated as a purely religious festival by all Hindus, as stated earlier.
Another story in Hindu mythology also emphasizes the auspiciousness of Shivaratri: On the day of Shivaratri, a hunter, who had killed many birds in a forest, was chased by a hungry lion. The hunter climbed a Bilva tree to save himself from the lion’s attack. The lion waited throughout the entire night at the bottom of the tree for its prey. In order to stay awake to avoid falling from the tree, the hunter kept plucking the leaves of the Bilva tree and dropping them below. The leaves fell on a Shiva Linga that happened to be located at the bottom of the tree. Shiva was pleased by the offering of the Bilva leaves by the hunter, although inadvertently, and saved the hunter in spite of all the sin the hunter had committed by killing the birds. This story emphasizes the auspiciousness of worshipping Shiva with Bilva leaves on Shivaratri.