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14. 12. 2017
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MAHA SHIV-RATRI

On the 'Triyodashi' or the thirteenth day of the waning moon (dark) l ortnight in the month of Phalgun (also pronounced Phagun, making I lie '1' sound silent) falls the festival of Maha Shiv-ratri, symbolizing the wedding day of Shiv and Parvati. This day comes sometimes in the later half of February or beginning of March, about a fortnight before the colourful festival of Holi.

It is the supremely auspicious day for the followers of the Shaiv a Cult (devotees of Lord Shiv). It is especially held auspicious for the married and unmarried ladies both because on this day the eternal couple — Shiv and Parvati — were joined in the wedlock. For the married woman desiring everlasting 'suhag' — marital bliss — Parvati or Gauri is the ultimate symbol, an ideal for the married women. The importance given to this couple exceeds the importance given to the pair Lord Ram and Sita —. For the traditional Hindu psyche, the pair of Ram and Sita had blemished family life and hence not adorable for 'Suhag' purposes. While the unmarried worship Shiv-Parvati to allow them the same kind of marital bliss as they enjoyed by bestowing a husband of their choice, the married pray for their husband's prosperity and long life so that they could get this marital bliss in its total mundane span.

The devotees spend the whole night (it is basically a nocturnal festival) in the four watches in meditation, Japa (Chanting 'His' holy name) and reading the reciting Shiv-Mahima Strotra and Shiv Tandava Strotra. The lingam — the symbol of this Great Lord is worshipped with Gangajal, milk, curds, honey and ghee. Bel (Wood apple) leaves, dhatura fruit (a kind of narcotic herb) 'aak' flowers (botanical name— Calotropis gigantea) etc. are the special favourites of the Lord.

Lord Shiv is a typical Indian deity. He lords over all that is impious in the creation. He assimilates all that is wicked and evil for human being in order to keep the creation clean. He is reputed to be of frightening aspect with ash smeared all over his body and wearing garlands of human skulls, live snakes, malas (neck-laces) of 'Rudraksha' round his neck and arms. He has matted hair piled up on his head (Jataa-joot) with the new moon stuck in the front of his head and the river Ganga emerging from his matted locks. It is said that when Ganga accepted to come down to the earth from the heavens on Bhagirath's entreaties, the river warned the king that she must get a proper cushion to land on or she might slip down to the netherland (Patal) by the force of its impact on the plain of earth. Realising the dangerous possibility Bhagirath prayed Lord Shiv who accepted to bear the river's impact on the mortal plane. But, in order to slight the river's haughtiness he made his tendril locks so thick that when the Ganga landed on its head she was unable to liberate itself from the Great Lord's matted hair. Then again Bhagirath pleaded before the Lord who, then, condescended to release the river. Hence the river is symbolically shown reposing itself on the Lord's head.

Lord Shiv's neck is also described to be blue, hence his epithet: "Neela Kantha' or (blue necked). It is said that when the deadly poison emerged out of the churrning of the ocean alongwith other objects and beings which were immediately accepted by the gods and demons, only it remained unclaimed because of its lethal toxicity. Then for the benefit of the entire creation, on Lords Brahma and Lord Vishnu's advice, Lord Shiv drank it but didn't allow it to pass down his throat. Otherwise the deadly poison might have proved most damaging to him as well, although couldn't have killed the Lord. But he reposed him in his throat region. So the poison is eliminated from the surface of the earth yet not destroyed. It is believed that the blue necked parrot like Indian bird, 'Neelkantha', is especially dear to Lord Shiv and has the power of directly reporting to the Lord. Its viewing is believed to be very auspicious on Dussehra Day. Lord Shiv appears to be a very 'moody' and most easily propitiable ;iinong all the deities. Hence his epithet :

"Aashutosh" (easily satisfiable). Unlike all other Aryan deities, Shiv has been as dear to the demons and giants as he is to man and other gods. Ravan, the arch-enemy of Lord Ram is said to be a great devotee of Lord Shiv. Yet another Asur named Banasur, the grandson of Prahlad (the chosen devotee of Lord Vishnu), was also a great devotee of Lord Shiv. Shiv, in fact, is one of the two most popular deities of the Hindu fold. That is why this festival of Shiv-ratri is celebrated all over the subcontinent and now even beyond it, as many Indians have settled elsewhere too.

This is the night of Lord Shiv's marriage. Like all marriages in the traditional Hindu fold it is also celebrated after the sunset. There is an interesting legend attached to his marriage.

Long ago Shiv had his first wife called Sati or Shakti. She was the daughter of Daksha, the progenitor of all beings. Once when Lord Shiv with Sati was returning from sage Agastya hemitage where they had gone to listen 'Ramkatha' (Tale of Rama). By this time Lord Vishnu had incarnated as Ram and Ram had not only been exiled but even his spouse Sita had been kidnapped by Ravana. So when coming back, Shiv spotted at a distance Rama and Lakshaman roaming about listlessly in Sita's quest, he bowed in reverence. Now, Sati was surprised to see her Lord bowing before the seion of a mortal royal family. She argued mentally : "My Lord is supposed to be one of the Supreme Lords of the Trinity (comprising Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh) and why should be bow before the son of an illustrious king Dashrath, a mere mortal ?" Since she had only recently heard the 'Ramkatha' she could recognize Ram and Lakshman without difficulty. Moreover, sage Agastya had described Sita's beauty so vividly that she could have recognized her had she been present. When she asked Shiv, the Lord tried to impress upon her that Ram was the mortal incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, and whatever he was doing was his mortal play (Leela) only. "But why he is unnecessarily making his brother also grieve in vain when it is only a mortal drama ?"

Sensing that the non-believer's instinct in Sati was growing, Shiv resignedly said : "Then you may test him whether he is only mortal Ram or divine Vishnu ?" Although Sati was rather perturbed with the prospect of 'testing' her husband's choosen Lord, yet deciding that if Rama was really Lord Vishnu's incarnation, the Supreme Preserver of this Creation, most certainly nothing wrong would come to her after having his Darshan (Realisation of His Real Form). "And if Rama is not Vishnu really, then I would have proved my point before the Lord."

With this decision, by imagination she disguised herself as Sita since she remembered Sage Agastya's vivid description of her form, and reached before Rama. Although Lakshman was bewildered seeing 'Sita' appearing before them so casually, Ram saw through Sati's game and quietly asked : "Why are you loitering in so lonely environs; and where is my Lord Shiv ?"

As he uttered Shiv's name Sati realised who he actually was and that she had been identified, so leaving the question unanswered, she returned quickly to Shiv's proximity. Meanwhile, Shiv had known all that transpired through his yogic mediation and intuition and so he offered Sati a seat before him and not towards his left which is believed to be the traditional seat of a wife. It was because, having known that Sati had tried to adopt Sita's form — who in reality was deemed by him as his mother — he mentally deserted her. Sati had also sensed it that she had been deserted mentally; discarded by Shiv as his wife because she tried to adopt Sita's appearance. But neither of them openly said anything. Meanwhile, this intolerable grief of being deserted mentally as wife of Shiv, she continued to bear through the agony though staying at Kailash, Shiv's chosen abode. One day she learnt that her father 'Daksha' had organised a big Yagya in order to celebrate his being chosen as Progenitor of all Creation. Since Daksha had a tiff with Shiv in the court of Brahma, no invitation was extended to him for the Yagya even though the former was latter's father in law. He decided to neglect even his own daughter in the animosity he had developed for Shiv.

Now Sati thought this to be an ideal occasion to visit her father's place and get a relief from her mental agony of staying with her husband as a stranger. Although Shiv tried to prevent her from going to Daksha's place uninvited, Sati's argument was that going to one's lather's place required no invitation. Though not impressed by the argument, yet for the sake of allowing his wife a welcome change, he allowed her.

But when she reached near Daksha's well decorated place with a huge 'Havan' on before it, she was surprised to detect no welcome in her father's eyes. Even her sisters treated her contemptuously. Only her mother met with due affection. When she reached exactly at the venue where the Yagya was on, she was stung to the quick seeing the sacred oblationary 'Prasad' offered to all minor and major gods but nothing reserved for her Lord Shiv. Seeing this she thought that it was a sacrilege committed by her father since it was mandatory to offer oblation to Shiv. Though she was herself discarded by Shiv, her anger knew no bounds beholding her husband so glaringly slighted and insulted. This was too much for her. Discarded by husband and dismissed by father, she thought she must die. And there and then, she immolated herself by jumping into the blazing holy pit of the Yagya.

When the news about this sorry event reached Shiv, he blew up and started performing his Destruction-Dance, Tandava. Meanwhile his henchman, led by Shiv's anger personified, Veerbhadra, destroyed the Yagya and brought Sati's charred body before Shiv. Seeing that Shiv grew more furious and clinging his dead-wife's body to his own body began to move about the world madly. Then Lord Vishnu had to cut the dead body into peices with his discus—Chakra Sudarshan - in order to eliminate the source of Lord Shiv's agony. He had divided the dead body into 12 pieces . Following this a melancholic Shiv returned to a cave.

By this time a demon Taraka had taken birth and was disturbing the divine realm and altering the course of Dharma on the earth. It was told by the divine seers capable of seeing the destiny before¬hand that this demon was slayable only by Shiv's son. But Shiv could get a son only when he married again — while he had grown indifferent to everything in the world. In order to arouse passion in Shiv to agree to remarry, Love-god, Cupid, was sent who was burnt to ashes by Shiv's deadly wrath. But Shiv had to be married. Meanwhile Shakti had taken re-birth as Parvati in Himachal, the Lor$ of Mountain's house. Narad the divine seer predicted seeing eer hand that she would be the ideal wife of Shiv. But how to attract Shiv towards marriage ?

In the meantime, Shiv learnt that his first wife, Sati had, again taken birth as Parvati. Now he was willing to remarry her repenting for his being rather too hard to Sati. He should have made her realise the greatness of Lord Vishnu's incarnation as Rama instead of asking her to confirm it herself and when she confirmed Rama's authenticity as Vishnu's incarnation, he unilaterally deserted her. Hence Shiv thought he ought to give Sati a second chance in the form of Parvati. But he wanted to test her love for him. In order to test it, he despatched a team of high sages near her.

The high sages found her to be engaged in deep penance to get Shiv as her husband. Although the sages tried their level best to dissuade her from her resolve to marry only Shiv or remain unwed, she stood firm. The sages' every argument against Shiv proving to be the ideal husband was faithfully contradicted by her. At last convinced the sages returned to Kailash and reported to Shiv Parvati's unwavering love for him. Eventually Shiv also consented and their marriage day was announced.

It may be noted that this is the only occasion in entire Hindu calendar when a marriage is celebrated with so much fanfare. While traditionally it is only the day of incarnation of Lord Vishnu in human form that are celebrated (like Lord Rama's or Krishna's birth), in Shiv's case his second marriage. It is a joyous occasion but for attaining enough piety to deserve celebration of marriage of their holy Lord the devout keep fast.

Traditionally, after a formal bath in the Ganga or other holy water courses, the devout start congregating at the temples of their choices. The functions usually start from afternoon and continue till late night — at many places like Varanasi, the whole night. The hub of the activity of this festival is temple and not homes. At about 4 p.m. or so, people start gathering at the temple, carrying a glassful of pure milk, bel fruit and leaves, 'ber' fruit and flowers. All chanting their favourite Shloka or Mantra to seek blessing of Shiv, pour milk over the Shiv-Lingam while showering 'ber', 'bel', flowers, etc. before it. Drinking a typical drink made from almonds, pistachios, milk, honey and Bhang (Cannabis indica) is held particularly auspicious. After the pooja, the devotees gather around Lord Shiv's image or idol, and sing bhajans and devotional songs. The Kashmiri Pundits celebrate this occasion with great fanfare and gusto mixing many rituals like gambling in it which is normally done around Diwali.

Devotees in thousands gather at the Shiv shrines all over the country and spend the whole night practicing devotion and piety. Special pooja celebrations are hpid at Varanasi, Tarkeshwar, Baidyanath, Walkeshwar, Rameshwaram and Mahakal (Ujjain). At Pashupatinath, in Nepal also, a grand celebration is held on this occasion. The devotees keep strict fast and donot take even a drop of water. Shiv's one epithet is also Mahakal (Time, the immutable). He is Mahakaal who destroys and dissolves everything to its elemental state but he, as Shankar, also resorts to reproducing what has been destroyed. His symbol, Lingam, or the Phallus, symbolizes reproductive power. As a Mahayogi, the great ascetic, he combines in himself the highest perfection of austere penance and abstract mediation. In this form, he is a naked ascetic, Digambara ('clothed with the elements'). He is also called Chandrashekhar (or with the moon at his forehead or shikhar or "moon-crested), Gangadhar (carrying the Ganges), Girish (Mountain Lord), Pashupati (Lord of all animal kingdom), Vishwanath, (the Lord of the world) etc.

Why is he so enamoured of Bel patra (Bel or wood-apple leaf) which are a must in his worship ? While the school of hedonist claim that since the bel fruit reminds him of Gauri's (Parvati's) breasts- being the Lord of the sensual pleasure also he is easily propitiated by looking at them, other schools claim that there is a legend woven in his having this preference which is given below.

Once there was a hunter called Suswar who lived near Varanasi. He earned his liveliwood by killing and selling birds and beasts. One day he went on a hunting expedition, but was overtaken by darkness and could not return home. The forest was dense and'full of terrible beasts of prey. For his protection from them, he climbed atop a 'bel' tree unknowingly for passing the night. During the course of the night he suffered pangs of hunger and thirst on one hand, and on the other he was very much worried about his dear wife, children and old mother at home, who had been waiting anxiously for his return.

In his great anxiety, he wept and began to pluck the bel leaves and dropped them on the ground. Under the tree, there was a Shiv Linga and that night happened to be Shiv Ratri. The hunter's worship, though performed unwillingly, highly pleased Shiv. Hence the hunter following his quitting his mortal frame, got a blissful place in the abode of Lord Shiv. After ages he was again reborn as a king, named Chandrabhanu. It is believed that all rituals and methods of performing Lord Shiv's worship devised by this mythological king. Chanting the five syllabled Shiv Mantra, "OM NAMAH SHIVAYA" bestows especial merit on this day on to the devotees.

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