INDIAN FESTIVALS : Mahashivaratri
By Meera S. Sashital
Lord Shiva prefers fasts, bel leaves, curd, clarified butter and honey more than flowers, sweets and other rituals.

The light half thirteenth of each month is called Pradosha (late evening) and is sacred to Lord Shiva. The evening is sacred to Shiva who is worshipped at sunset. A fast is kept till the stars appear. The dark half thirteenth is called Shivaratri (Shiva’s night) and is a day of fast too. But the Shivaratri which falls in the month of Magh (January-February) is considered specially sacred to Shiva. It is the main important day of the year for his worship and is therefore called Mahashivaratri (the great night of Shiva). Moreover, it is the longest and the darkest night which gives scope to take observations of the stars by keeping up all night, as Shivaites are asked to do, and hence the term ‘Mahashivaratri’.

There is an interesting legend connected with this festival. It seems there lived a hunter named Lubdhaka.He earned his livelihood by killing animals with his bow and arrow.

One day, which happened to be Magh Krishna thirteenth, i.e. the Mahashivaratri day, his creditor got him arrested and confined him in a Shiva temple. Without food he was compelled to fast. Again, he had the fortune to have the darshan of the image of Lord Shiva and hear the words ‘Shiva’ ‘Shiva’, uttered by the devotees visiting the temple. Some people released the hunter by pooling money and paying the creditor. Immediately Lubdhaka sets off on his hunting to the forest and on the way hearing everybody chanting ‘Shiva’, ‘Shiva’, mockingly repeats the holy words. The day was almost over and he was hungry.

In order to get some game and also out of fear of wild beasts, he climbs a tree which happens to be a Bel tree (Aegle Marmelos) the trifoliate tree sacred to Shiva. Due to cold and hunger he is unable to sleep, thus keeping an involuntary vigil. To pass his time and to obtain a clear sight, he plucks the leaves of the branches and throws them down. Below the tree, to his luck, is a hidden (gupta) lingam i.e. Gupteshvar, on which the bel leaves dropped by the hunter fall. Having starved the whole day leading to a fast, chanting the holy name though mockingly, keeping a whole night vigil and dropping the bel leaves on the Shiva emblem, all these acts, though unconsciously done, add to his atonement and reduce his sins.
The whole night the hunter kept constant vigil and waited for his prey. By midnight a doe big with young and in labour came to the tank. Just as the hunter took his aim the doe prayed him to spare her and promised to return to be killed after her delivery. Lubdhaka, taking pity on her allows the doe to go. Immediately another doe comes and as the hunter is about to kill pleads to be spared. She promises to return the moment she found her mate. Next a black buck comes seeking his mate and he too is spared on his promise to return. The doe keeps its promise and so does the black buck which comes with his whole family all wanting to be killed first. The hunter seeing this pathetic scene is very much moved and determines never to kill any animals in future. By now, the hunter had attained full salvation and was pardoned for his sins. Lord Shiva appears in person and takes Lubdhaka to heaven together with the black buck and its family.

According to Gupte, this is a folklore based on the astronomical shape of the Nakshatra, Mriga Shirsha, the fifth mansion of the moon. The black buck was turned into a constellation named Mriga after him. In the Ratnamala the constellation of Mriga Shirsha is figured like the head of an antelope, mriga meaning animal and shirsha meaning the head. The fifth mansion of the moon is Mriga Shirsha, and the Zodiac sign called Dhanus (bow), and that chief star, Sirius being Lubdhaka. On Mahashivaratri day thus devotees keep awake the whole night by chanting His name and observing fasts to attain prosperity and heavenly bliss. If a hunter involuntarily observes these penances and gains heavenly abode, surely how much more will a person gain ‘Punya’ by his voluntary act.
Bhishma of Mahabharata, while lying on his death bed arrows, had referred to the greatness of observing Mahashivaratri by King Chitrabhanu.

King Chitrabhanu of the Ikshvaku dynasty while observing the fast with his wife was asked by sage Ashtavakra why he was keeping a fast. Thereupon, the King tells him how in his past birth he was a hunter named Suswara and repeats the same experience as that of Lubdhaka. As a result, he had lived in the abode of the Lord happily for ages and now he was reborn as Chitrabhanu.

The story is viewed allegorically in the scriptures through the dialogue between Sastri and Atmanathan. The Sastri explains that the wild animals that the hunter fought are lust, anger, greed, all the baser qualities of a person.
The jungle is the fourfold mind, consisting of the subconscious mind, the intellect, the ego and the conscious mind. Our mind is filled with these ‘wild animals’ and they must be overcome or killed like the hunter who acquires the virtues of a Yogi by doing penance etc.
The three leaves on the stalk of the Bel are said to represent Ida, Pingala and Sushmna Nadis which are the regions for the activity of the moon, the sun and fire, or represent the three eyes of Shiva.

The climbing of the tree means the ascension of the Kundalini Shakti, the serpentine power, from the lowest nerve centre called the Muladhara to the Ajna Chakra. Keeping vigil the whole night signifies the hunter’s passing through the deep sleep state and finally reaching the Turiya state which led him to self-realization and being blessed with the vision of God. Lord Shiva Himself told Parvati that the thirteenth night in the dark fortnight of Magh was His favourite day.

Lord Shiva preferred fasts, bel leaves, curd, clarified butter and honey more than flowers, sweets and other rituals. Parvati repeated these words to all and thus the sanctity of Shivaratri was spread in the world.

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