This year Maha Shivratri is on the last day of February, Friday February 28th. (Take a look at the words themselves and the meaning will become easily clear. “Maha” means “great” and you may have heard it before in places like Gandhi’s title Mahatma, meaning “Great Soul [Atman]. “Shiva” is clear. Attached to “Shiva” is “Ratri” which is the Hindi word for “night.”)
This is a day to seek Shiva’s blessings and you know this year I will be joining the many other women who ask Shiva to bless them with a child. Women also ask blessings for their husbands and unmarried ladies ask to be blessed with a good husband.
Last year I wrote a little about how to celebrate. Looking back over that post I’m surprised to find that I didn’t include the story about the hunter in the forest, which is one of the legends most closely connected to Shivratri. It is said that one night a hunter in the forest attracted the attention of a tiger and he was running for his life. He climbed a tree and the tiger paced below. To keep himself awake so he wouldn’t fall out of the tree, he plucked leaves and let them drift to the ground. Little did he know that it was Shivratri and he was in a bael tree, whose leaves are particularly beloved of Shiva. In the morning he found that there was no tiger, but there was a Shiva Lingam below him. Shiva was pleased with this worship, even though it was unintentional and blessed the hunter.
How to Celebrate
Wake up early and bathe at sunrise (in the Ganges is best, but my shower will have to do for me!). Dress in fresh or new clothes. Wear a rudraksha mala if you have one (more info on how to wear here: http://www.astromandir.com/rudcare.html).
Go to the temple and give a bath to the Shiva lingam with bael leaves, milk, and cold water (You can do this at home. Check Indian grocery stores for bael/bel leaves or bilwa leaves with three parts. Also decorate your lingam with mountains of flowers). Apply kumkum to the lingam after the bath. Suggestion here for decoration:
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. -http://hinduism.about.com/od/festivalsholidays/p/mahashivratri.htm
Fast throughout the day and night. (This fast can include eating fruit and drinking water. Some devotees do eat a plain mash called phalar, but nothing is eaten after sundown). Some devotees also drink thandai, a drink which is supposed to be sacred to Shiva. (Here is a recipe: http://shvetasrecipes.blogspot.com/2011/03/thandai-maha-shivaratri-special.html)
Spend the night chanting Om Namah Shivaya and other songs. It is said that these chants purify us of “sin.”