Maha ShivaRathri is the festival of Lord Shiva. This festival is celebrated in the month of Magha (falling in Feb-Mar), on the Bahula Chaturdasi day (fourteenth day after the full moon), during the night. In fact, there is one such Chaturdasi day in each of the twelve months, which are referred to as Masa Shiva Rathri (meaning Shiva Rathri of the month). However, various reasons are cited in mythologies for celebrating this festival only in the month of Magha.
It is said that on the midnight of Bahula Chaturdasi in the month of Magha, Lord Shiva took the form of the great Linga (cylindrical shape whose top surface is concave). This midnight time, called the Lingodbhava time (meaning the birth time of the Linga), is the time when the Lord is worshipped.
As per the mythologies, the Shiva's Linga started growing very huge in size and occupied the entire universe at the time of its genesis and no one could fathom its beginning or end. Then, Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu set out to find both ends of the great Linga to prove that nothing is beyond their reach. Brahma went up in the form of the divine Swan and Vishnu went downwards tunnelling in to the earth in the form of Varaha. Brahma went up and up and still could not find the top end.
On his way up, Brahma encountered Mogili flower (an aromatic flower) and a cow. So, he requested the Mogili flower and the cow to lie that he had indeed reached the Shiva Linga top and that they were the witnesses for that. Both of them obliged Lord Brahma and lied accordingly. Since he tried to belittle the greatness of Shiva, he was cursed that he is not worthy of worship by people and there won't be any temples for Brahma anywhere. Shiva also cursed Mogili flower that it will not be eligible as an offering to Lord Shiva. Shiva cursed the cow that seeing a cow's face first thing in the morning will be treated as a bad omen by the people. If at all see, its tail should be the one that can be see.
There are five famous Shiva temple towns in Andhra Pradesh, which together are called Pancharamas. There is a mythological story behind these temple towns which goes as follows.
Once there was a demon king named Tarakasura, a devotee of Shiva. Lord Indra after many years of fierce battle lost the fight with him. Knowing this the residents of heaven went to Vishnu to seek advice. Vishnu informed them that he was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and hence they should approach Shiva for protection. Vishnu also accompanied them to Lord Shiva's abode and explained their predicament.
Then Lord Shiva deputed his son Kumaraswamy to kill the demon king. With him as their chieftain they went to war. Even then, there was no sign of Tarakasura's defeat. Seeing this they went back to Lord Shiva again to find out the reason. He informed them that Tarakasura has a Prana Linga in his throat and till that was intact he could not be killed. He also said that the pieces would keep on growing when they contact the earth unless they are prayed. So, Kumaraswamy killed the demon king by cutting his throat and in the process, the Prana Linga was cut into five pieces and fell at the following five places:
As per the legend, immediately after falling, each piece started growing into a great Linga and then Indra came from heaven to offer prayers with golden flowers from heaven. Only then did they stopped growing in size. As per Lord Shiva's instruction prayers were being offered at these places. Later on, at these sacred places temples were constructed. In all these five places the festival of Maha Shiva Rathri is celebrated on a grand scale to this day.
Apart from the above places, there are twelve more places which are the most sacred places for the devotees of Lord Shiva. These places are called Dwadasa Jyothirlinga Kshetras. They are:
At all the above places Maha Shiva Rathri' is celebrated with great religious fervour. Apart from these Shiva temples, every temple in every small village over the country celebrates this festival.
Abhisheka is the worshipping ritual of the God in which substances like Cow's milk, Ghee (clarified butter), curds (Yogurt), honey, finely ground sugar, sugar cane juice, coconut water, water, rice and similar items, which are believed to be dearer to Shiva are poured on the Shiva Linga. It is believed that Lord Shiva will be pleased to have more and more of these items to be poured on the Shiva Linga. Lord Shiva will bless his devotees with wealth, health etc depending on the substances they offer him in the Abhisheka.
One kind of abhisheka is called Rudrabhisheka, which is considered to be the most important. By performing this abhisheka, it is believed that they will be spared from untimely death. More over, the mantra's (religious chant) for this abhisheka includes mantra's for being spared from Navagraha's (nine planets) wrath. Hence from this abhisheka, the wrath of the Navagraha's will dissipate. People suffering from seven-year animosity of Sani, or people having Sani dosham (ill effects) should perform this abhisheka. There is belief that women should not touch the Shiva Linga during the Abhisheka.
On the Maha ShivaRathri day all the devotees observe Upavas, which means fasting or staying away from food for the day. It is said that Shiva will be pleased if one observes Upavas on this day. Scholars say that the term Upavas has an inner and more profound meaning and that is staying near to or with the thoughts of God. So they say that God will be really pleased when the devotees observe Upavas in its real sense.
It is believed that Shiva is fond of Bilva (one kind of tree). This tree is also named SriVruksh and SriParli. As per the mythologies Vishnu created this tree, in order to perform puja to Shiva. It is believed that when the leaves of this tree are used to perform pooja, all the yearnings come true. So all the devotees on this day invariably place the leaves of the Bilva tree on the Shiva Linga.
It is said that who ever places these leaves on the Shiva Linga on this day, whether knowingly or unknowingly will be sent to heaven after death and all his earlier wrong doings will be pardoned by Lord Shiva.
It is said that he responds and gives boon for just calling him out and he is satisfied when one thinks about him. Hence, he is called Shiva is innocent, Bhola Shankar. There is a story for this.
Once a hunter went into the forest for hunting. However much he tried he could not hunt even one animal during the day. As he was returning empty handed, a tiger started to hunt him. Not knowing what to do he climbed a tree to save himself. The tree happened to be a Bilva tree. All through the night, the tiger waited beneath the tree to kill him. The hunter remained atop the tree without any sleep. As there was nothing better to do with his time, he spent the night plucking the leaves of the tree and dropped them on the ground. While he was on the tree, some water from his water can also fell below. Incidentally, there happened to be a Shiva Linga below the tree and all the leaves and water fell on it on that night, which happened to be ShivaRathri night.
Oblivious of all these things, the hunter returned home when the tiger went away at day break and lived his life full of evil doings and bad ways. On his death, the soldiers from hell had come to take him to hell as his life was full of evil deeds. But to their surprise the soldiers of Shiva also had came there, to take the hunter to heaven. When the men from hell objected to send the hunter to heaven, they were told that God pardoned all the wrong doings of the hunter because he placed Bilva leaves on the Shiva Linga and did Abhishekam with water and spent the festival night without sleeping.
Along the same lines, a man named Tinnadu had gargled some water to clean his mouth and spit it out. This happened to fall on a Linga. Shiva accepted this abhisheka and offered mukti (salvation) to him. Along with this, there are many such incidents. Hence, he became Bhola Shankar.
It is said that Shiva is a very magnanimous God who is easily accessible to his devotees and who fulfils any wish of his devotees. Lord Shiva is said to be a God who leads a Spartan life and who is always ready to help his devotees. He married Godess Parvathi for the well being of the people. Since he was told that the death of the demon king Tarakasura, who was causing many hardships to the people, was in the hands of the son born to Parvathi from him, he agreed for his marriage.
He also did the supreme sacrifice of the keeping the Halahala (the great poisonous flame capable of annihilating the universe as per the mythology), which emitted while churning the oceans, in his throat to save the world from destruction.
Lord Shiva is called Adi Bhikshuvu, the first beggar, as he begs with his body smeared in ash, with snakes around his neck and lives in the funeral grounds.
Young men from this time has some time to learn from him. He informed Parvati, before marriage about his profession and his dwelling.
Shiva is source of life. Every body fears death while death fears Shiva. Markandeya, son of Mrukanda, was to die at the age of 18 at the behest of Lord Brahma. However, Shiva saved him by driving away death, Lord Yama himself. Hence, Death did not dare to come near him.
It is believed that who ever worships Lord Shiva, the Maha Deva, with sincerity and devotion, they will be blessed with health, wealth and long life.