MONDAY, FEBRUARY 20: The great night of Shiva turns into morning today, and Hindus emerge from an all-night vigil for Lord Shiva to continue devotions today, on Maha Shivratri. Most worshippers of Lord Shiva fast for 24 hours on Maha Shivratri—some consuming not even a drop of water during that time—as it’s believed that the Lord noted fasting as the ritual that pleases Him the most. Today, Hindus worldwide will visit Shiva temples, bathe ritually and offer bael leaves. In some regions of India, dazzling and roaring processions collect throngs of worshippers in the streets. Colorful arrays of fireworks are a common nighttime finish to this widely celebrated holiday. (Check out a slideshow of Maha festivities from the Huffington Post.)
As with most Hindu observances, Maha Shivratri is based on several legends. In one legend, the goddess Parvati prayed and meditated to ward off evil on a moonless night, so that her husband, Shiva, might be safe; thus, Hindu women today either pray for the well-being of their husbands or of their future husbands.
A secondary legend tells of an ancient battle, during which a pot of poison emerged from the ocean; Lord Shiva drank the poison, and His neck turned blue. (Wikipedia has details.) Finally, a story is told of King Chitrabhanu of the Ikshvaku dynasty, who observed the Maha Shivratri fast with great devotion. When asked why he did so, the king answered that, in a previous life, he had been a hunter who had unknowingly worshipped Lord Shiva one Maha Shivratri by giving his food to a hungry stranger. Upon death, the hunter’s soul was escorted to the abode of Lord Shiva. (Learn more at TajOnline.com.)
Who is Shiva? Meaning “auspicious,” Shiva is a member of the Hindu Trinity, comprised of Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Many Hindus view Shiva as a “personal God,” rather than an all-encompassing God, and it’s to Shiva that worshippers pray for spiritual blessings. It’s believed Shiva has great compassion for His devotees.
Hindu countries worldwide have been gearing up for Maha Shivratri for days—even weeks—with events like the Pashupati Area Development Trust rally and the creation of clay shivlingas. Even Bollywood actors get involved in the festivities, as is detailed in this article from the Times of India.