The word Shivratri, translated as The Night of Shiv, is made up of two words- Shiv, the regenerating aspect of God, and Ratri which means night. It falls during the dark fortnight, Krishna Paksha, of Phalguna (February/March). It is considered to be the night festival for the devotees of Shiv. They observe a 24-hour fast and keep a strict vigil overnight meditating, chanting, singing devotional songs and reading literature extoling the glory of Lord Shiva. The Lingam, the symbol of Shiv, is worshipped by offering Ganges water, curd, milk, fruits, flowers, bael leaves, honey and liquid butter (Ghee). The exact method of worshipping varies from one region to another.
Since Shivratri is a very ancient festival, there are many legends and stories about its origin and significance. According to one mythological explanation, on this day, the devotees of Shiv celebrate the marriage of Shiv and his consort Parvati. It is also connected with a story of how a hunter, called Suswar, acquired the grace of Lord Shiv when he unintentionally worshipped him. The story goes that one day when Suswar was being chased by a hungry tiger, he climbed up a tree to save his life. The frightened hunter stayed up the tree all night as the tiger sat under the tree waiting for his meal to come down. Suswar, hungry and thirsty, started plucking and throwing down the leaves just to keep himself awake. It so happened that the leaves were falling on the top of a Shiv Lingam located under the tree. Lord Shiv was very pleased with his worship, though done unintentionally, and blessed him. In his next life, Suswar was reborn as a king named Chitrabhanu who observed Shivratri with his people.
However, according to many Hindus, Shivratri has a deep philosophical significance which lies in the literal meaning of the expression Shivratri, a combination of two words- Shiv and Ratri. The word Shiv is made up of two syllables- Shi and va. Shi denotes ‘removal of sins’, and va means ‘release from worldly ties’. In other words, Shiv symbolically represents the fatherly aspect of the Omnipotent and Omnipresent God who helps us keep away from sinful acts which will result in attaining Moksh, the release from the cycle of births and deaths. The word Ratri is also a combination of two syllables- Ra which means pain and miseries, and tri connotes remover or destroyer. Symbolically, Ratri denotes the motherly aspect of God, for a child forgets all the stresses and strains when he peacefully sleeps in the lap of his mother. Thus, the festival of Shivratri celebrates the union of the fatherly and motherly aspects of God.
Regardless of its origin, Shivratri reinforces Hindus’ faith in the greatness and glory of God. The act of fasting makes them experience themselves the pangs of hunger that starving people around the world suffer. It also offers them an opportunity to spend a night with their family, which helps them to retain their spiritual heritage.
Book: Hindus of Canada
Author: Ajit Adhopia