The Great night of Lord Shiva is celebrated every year on the 13th or 14th night of the Tamil month of Maasi. An eventful night that is filled with joyous chaotic celebration of Shiva, saving the world. While each state and region has their own local festivals, Mahashivaratri is observed uniformly across India. Before we go into what we must do to earn the affection of the Ascetic God, let us first look at why we are celebrating this day. It all started when the Devas and the Asuras wanted the Potion of immortality that would grant them divine status. Indra was in disgrace by the Saints of Devaloka. The Asuras took advantage of his weakened state and overthrew the Deva rule on earth and established their own kingdoms. The only way Indra could retrieve his strength and power was through Amrit. But he could not do the task alone, even if he could gather all the Devas together. He called upon the Asuras, promising them a share of the potion if they would help him churn it out of the ocean.
The Devas approached Vishnu who offered to help them obtain it, while distracting the Asuras. When the cosmic ocean was churned for Amrit, many things and beings sprang forth from the ocean. A particular pot of poison was amongst the first to emerge from the churning. The fumes from this poison called the Halahala soon began taking effect on the Asuras and Devas. It was indeed a threat to all of existence, in all three worlds. The Devas who were terrified by the poison’s potency, sought the help of Shiva. Shiva volunteered to consume the poison, but it was too potent, that it burnt his throat. Even or someone as powerful as him, the poison burned its way down his body. Parvati, who could not bear her Lord bearing such pain, constricted his throat with her hands to stop it from progressing further. He held the poison in his throat without swallowing it, which turned his throat blue. He was henceforth called the Neelakantha and the night is remembered and celebrated as Shivarathri, in gratitude to him.
Purity is a virtue that is essential in every human being. This purity includes the mind, body and surroundings. We need to be pure in order to appease the Lord, as only a pure soul can achieve the desired connection to the divine energy. A ritual bath in the waters of the Ganga is required for purification of soul, mind and the body. For people living in other cities, one must take a bath, and then sprinkle Gangajal on their heads.
Shiva is an Abhishegapriyar, meaning one who is fond of Abhishegam. The Shivalingam at home, must be anointed with Gangajal, followed by milk and honey. If you have placed Shiva in any form in your Puja room, then Abhishegam must be performed every day. Shiva being the destroyer of evil, is said to retain such heat in his body, as befits his fiery nature. This Abhishegams serve to quench his thirst and cool his being, lest his power destroy the material world. This is why the Shiva idol or Shivalingam is doused with water at least three more times on the night of Shivaratri apart from the main Puja.
After anointing the Lingam, vermillion paste must be applied to it, symbolising auspiciousness and virtuousness. Vermillion or KumKum is an essential part of a Hindu lifestyle. The characteristic mark of the Kumkum tilak sets them apart. This is a mark of devotion. The tilak also obscures the third eye, ensuring no one can mesmerise them in any way. Since Shiva is an ascetic and relies on his third eye to see things even when his material eyes are closed, he Tilak helps him to focus on his penance.
Offerings of Bel leaves, fruits and flowers are made to Shiva, all of which are very special to him. The bel or Bilva tree originated from the right hand of Lakshmi after a long, severe penance. The bel leaves must always be grouped together in threes. Select healthy, clean leaves, removing the thick part towards the stem. The Puja is only beneficial with healthy leaves joined together in threes. Before offering them to Shiva, check the Bel Patras once to ensure all of them have three leaves joined together.
Diyas are lit in front of the Lingam to invoke the energies of knowledge and wealth. Shiva is the destroyer of evil. Thus the energy invoked through lighting a lamp on Shviaratri is a protective force surrounding the home. The light also wards off any negative energy that may be in our space. The light also attracts the benevolent attention of the Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi.
Many devotees observe fasting through the day and the night. Some abstain from all foods while few make an exception with the likes of food like fruits, Sabudhana Kheer, Amaranth grain and Buckwheat halwa. This diet is wholesome ensuring we get all the nutrients. Since we are observing a fast for God, the quantity to be consumed is minimal. The foods mentioned here are high in energy, which is required to stay awake all night. The people keep the celebrations running all through the night, singing songs in praise of Shiva and chanting hymns. The Pujas also go on till daybreak. Upon its completion, the food offered as Neyvedhyam to Shiva is distributed as Prasad to the devotees, who break their fast with it.
We are in constant interaction with lot of people and lot of different kind of energies in our surroundings. Not all of them are positive and beneficial. We need protection against the negative energy surrounding us. Specifically, being the destroyer of all evil, we need the protection of Shiva. This is ensured by following the requisite life of virtue and purity, and following the rituals aforementioned. In this manner one can connect with the divine energy of Lord Shiva.