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Maha Shivratri is a Hindu festival celebrated every year in reverence of Lord Shiva. It is celebrated every year on the 13th night/14th day of the Maagha or Phalguna month of the Hindu calendar. Celebrated in the dark fortnight or Krishna Paksha(waning moon) of the month of Maagha according to the Shalivahana or Gujarati Vikrama or Phalguna according to the Vikrama era.

‘Shivaratri’ means ‘night of Lord Siva’. The important features of this religious function are rigid fasting for twenty four hours and sleepless vigil during the night. Every true devotee of Lord Siva spends the night of Sivaratri in deep meditation, keeps vigil and observes fast.

According to the Shiva Purana, the Mahashivaratri worship must incorporate six items:
1.    Bathing the Shiv Linga with water, milk and honey, and Wood apple or bel leaves added to it, representing purification of the soul;
2.    The vermilion paste applied on the Shiv linga after bathing it, representing virtue;
3.    Offering of fruits, which is conducive to longevity and gratification of desires;
4.    Burning incense, yielding wealth;
5.    The lighting of the lamp which is conducive to the attainment of knowledge;
6.    Betel leaves marking satisfaction with worldly pleasures.

In accordance with scriptural and discipleship traditions, penances are performed in order to gain boons in the practice of Yoga and meditation, in order to reach life's summum bonum steadily and swiftly.

Tripundra refers to the three horizontal stripes of holy ash applied to the forehead by worshippers of Lord Shiva. These stripes symbolise spiritual knowledge, purity and penance (spiritual practice of Yoga), so also they represent the three eyes of Lord Shiva.

Wearing a rosary made from the rudraksha seed of the rudraksha tree (said to have sprung from the tears of Lord Shiva) when worshipping Lord Shiva is ideal. A rudraksha seed is a mahogany-like color, sometimes black, and sometimes may have traces of sacred sandalwood powder, turmeric, kumkum, or holy ash if the rosary was used in worship ceremonies or anointed.

1.According to a legend, Parvati performed tapas, prayed and meditated on this day to ward off any evil that might befall her husband on the moonless night. Since then, Mahashivaratri is believed to be an auspicious occasion for women to pray for the well-being of their husbands and sons. An unmarried woman prays for a husband like Shiva, who is considered to be the ideal husband.

2.Another legend of the day is that Shiva and Shakti married each other.

3.There is one more legend of Shivaratri associated with Samudra Manthan, a process in which the asuras and the gods joined hands to churn out amrut(necter) from the depths of the ocean, using a mountain and a snake as a rope. Among many things that came out, a pot of poison came out of the ocean and on the request of gods, Lord Shiva drank the poison. The poison was so potent that it changed the color of His neck to blue. For this reason, Lord Shiva is also called Neelkanth

4.Another version relates that the whole world was facing destruction and Goddess Parvati worshipped her husband Shiva to save it. She prayed for the jivas (living souls) remaining in sea - like particles of gold dust in a lump of wax -- during the long period of pralaya (deluge) night, that they should, upon becoming active again, have His blessings, but only if they worshipped Him just as she did. Her prayer was granted. Parvati named the night for the worship of Ishwara by mortals Maha-Sivaratri, or the great night of Shiva, since Pralaya is brought about by Him.

The Lord Shiva's Favorite Day:
After creation was complete, Parvati asked Lord Shiva which devotees and rituals pleased him the most. The Lord replied that the 13th night of the new moon, during the month of Maagha, is his most favourite day. Parvati repeated these words to her friends, from whom the word spread over all creation.

The Story Of King Chitrabhanu:
Once upon a time King Chitrabhanu of the Ikshvaku dynasty, who ruled over the whole of Jambudvipa (India), was observing a fast with his wife, it being the day of Maha Shivaratri. The sage Ashtavakra came on a visit to the court of the king.

The sage asked the king the purpose of his observing the fast. King Chitrabhanu explained that he had a gift of remembering the incidents of his past birth, and in his previous life he had been a hunter in Varanasi and his name was Suswara. His only livelihood was to kill and sell birds and animals. The day before the new moon, while roaming through forests in search of animals, he saw a deer, but before his arrow flew he noticed the deer's family and their sadness at its impending death. So he let it live. He had still not caught anything when he was overtaken by nightfall and climbed a tree for shelter. It happened to be a Bael tree. His canteen leaked water, so he was both hungry and thirsty. These two torments kept him awake throughout the night, thinking of his poor wife and children who were starving and anxiously waiting for his return. To pass away the time he engaged himself in plucking the Bael leaves and dropping them down onto the ground.

The next day he returned home and bought some food for himself and his family. The moment he was about to break his fast a stranger came to him, begging for food. He served the food first to stranger and then had his own.

At the time of his death, he saw two messengers of Lord Shiva, sent to conduct his soul to the abode of Lord Shiva. He learnt then for the first time of the great merit he had earned by unconscious worship of Lord Shiva during the night of Shivaratri. The messengers told him that there had been a Lingam (a symbol for the worship of Shiva) at the bottom of the tree. The leaves he dropped had fallen on the Lingam, in imitation of its ritual worship. The water from his leaky canteen had washed the Lingam (also a ritual action), and he had fasted all day and all night. Thus, he unconsciously had worshipped the Lord. As the conclusion of the tale the King said that he had lived in the abode of the Lord and enjoyed divine bliss for a long time before being reborn as Chitrabhanu. This story is narrated in the Garuda Purana.

When creation had been completed, Siva and Parvati had been living on the top of Kailas. Parvati asked: “O venerable Lord, which of the many rituals observed in Thy honour doth please Thee most?” Lord Siva replied: “The thirteenth night of the new moon, Krishna Paksha, in the month of Phalguna (February-March) is known as Shivaratri, My most favourable Tithi. My devotee gives Me greater happiness by mere fasting than by ceremonial baths, and offerings of flowers, sweets, incense, etc.

“The devotee observes strict spiritual discipline in the day and worships Me in four different forms in the four successive Praharas, each made up of three hours of the night. The offering of a few Bilva leaves is more precious to Me than the precious jewels and flowers. He should bathe Me in milk at the first Prahara, in curd at the second, in clarified butter at the third, and in honey at the fourth and last. Next morning, he should feed the Brahmins first and break the fast after the performance of the prescribed ceremonies. There is no ritual, O Parvati, which can compare with this simple routine in sanctity.

Just hear, My Beloved, of an episode which will give you an idea of the glory and power of this ritual, said Lord Shiva to Parvati.

“Once upon a time, there lived in the town of Varanasi a hunter. He was returning from the forest one evening with the game birds he had killed. He felt tired and sat at the foot of a tree to take some rest. He was overpowered by sleep. When he woke up, it was all thick darkness of night. It was the night of Shivaratri but he did not know it, He climbed up the tree, tied his bundle of dead birds to a branch and sat up waiting for the dawn. The tree happened to be My favourite, the Bilva.

“There was a Linga under that tree. He plucked a few leaves dropped them down. The night-dew trickled down from his body. I was highly pleased with involuntary little gifts of the hunter. The day dawned and the hunter returned to his house.

“In course of time, the hunter fell ill and gave up his last breath. The messengers of Yama arrived at his bedside to carry his soul to Yama (god of Death). My messengers also went to the spot to take him to My abode. There was a severe fight between Yama’s messengers and My messengers. The former were totally defeated. They reported the matter to their Lord. He presented himself in person at the portals of My abode. Nandi gave him an idea of the sanctity of Shivaratri and the love which I had for the hunter. Yama surrendered the hunter to Me and returned to his abode quickly.

“The hunter was able to enter My abode and ward off death by simple fasting and offering of a few Bilva leaves, however involuntary it might be because it was the night of Sivaratri. Such is the solemnity and sacredness associated with the night”.

Parvati was deeply impressed by the speech of Lord Siva on the sanctity and glory of the ritual. She repeated it to Her friends who in their turn passed it on to the ruling princes on earth.

Shiva, as the god of destroying evil, is the third among the divine trinity of Hindu mythology. The holy mantra consisting of five-syllables: "Na" "Ma" "Shi" "Vaa" "Ya" (Om NamaH Shivaaya) in praise of Lord Shiva is chanted incessantly on special occasions like Shivaratri. His thousands of names, each of which describe His greatness, may also be chanted. Shiva means "auspicious". As Shankara, He is the giver of happiness to all. Nataraja (the king of dancers) is a favourite form adored by dancers and musicians.

There is a special mantra in the Vedas (the most ancient scripture in the history of human race and which forms the fountain-head of the Hindu culture) - Rudra Sukta - which is recited by pundits while they offer a holy bath to Lord Shiva by way of washing a Shiva-linga or a Shaligrama which are the symbols of god with the waters of sacred rivers like the Ganges. This ritual is known as "Rudrabhisheka". A Shaligrama constitutes a sacred pebble that often conceals ammonite fossils within. Such precious stones are brought from the river Gandaki at the frozen summits of the Himalayas.

Washing the Shaligrama as a part of Shiva-puja symbolises the removal of impurities from our mind. It also means washing off false ego. Unless we attain self-realization, we all become the victims of a false-self or an ego. False-self is due to an illusion (or ignorance), a covering upon our real soul, of our mind, which then acts from mistaken identity. According to Vedanta (philosophical doctrines), this accumulation of false-self upon our real Self is often the root cause of our bondage and sufferings in life. This notion of purification (of Shaligram stone by holy waters) also symbolises at the philosophical level, the eradication of the accumulated material interests (of us) which often blur the inherent spiritual hard core or Reality.

Mrtyunjaya Mahaa Mantra:
The Mrtyunjaya-maha-mantra, which is found in the Mahānārāyaṇopaniṣat and chanted as part of ŚrīRudram, is said to eradicate diseases, pain, sufferings and death:

Om Tryambakam Yajaamahe Sugandhim Pushti-vardhanam Urvaarukamiva Bandhanaan- Mrityor-muksheeyamaamrtaat - Om .
Meaning: O three-eyed one (Lord Shiva), we worship you, the One of sublime fragrance who is the source of all vitality, growth and splendour. Just as a ripe cucumber is plucked from its vine, May we transcend death and gain Immortality.

Swaha Om Tryambakam Yajaamahe SugandhiM Pushti-vardhanam Urvaarukamiva Bandhanaan- Mrityor-muksheeyamaamRtaat - swaha
Om Tryambakam Yajaamahe SugandhiM sadhana-vardhanam Urvaarukamiva Yonani- Mrityor-muksheeyamaamRtaat - swaha
Meaning: Om. O three-eyed one (Lord Shiva), we worship you, the One of sublime fragrance who is the source of all vitality, growth and splendour. Just as your ripe cucumber is grows in its vine, May we receive the shower of vitality and immortality.

Source: wikipedia

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