Sivaratri, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is celebrated on the
moonless night of the month of Phalguna, which is the fourteenth
day in the krishnapaksha or dark half. Owing to a special
planetary conjunction, spiritual practices done on this day
are considered to be especially auspicious and beneficial.
There is a reference to this in one of the Puranas, where
Shiva himself tells Parvati Devi [the Divine Mother] that
this day is particularly dear to him, and that those who
perform the prescribed austerities on this day will be freed
from all sins.
One popular story from the Puranas goes like this: There was once
a poor hunter from Varanasi. His name was Suswara. He lived with
his wife and child in a small hut. Theirs was a hand-to-mouth existence.
Suswara would go to the forest and hunt whatever game came his way,
and thus feed his family. One particular day, he caught many small
animals and birds, which he put into a sack. Encouraged by the catch,
he wandered deeper into the forest in search of more game. Soon
darkness set in and he turned to go home. He was a little worried
as the forest was infested with dangerous animals. He did not like
the idea of spending the night there. Soon it became very dark.
Unable to find his way back, Suswara climbed a tree to be safe from
the wild animals.
Attracted by his scent, animals came lurking under the tree. Hoping
to scare them away, Suswara plucked some twigs from the tree and
threw them at the animals, but to no avail. Throughout the night
the animals kept prowling beneath the tree.
Suswara was unable to get even a wink of sleep. He kept vigil throughout
the night. He plucked leaves from the tree, which happened to be
a bilva tree, and dropped them on the ground. Unknown to Suswara,
there was a Shivalinga at the foot of the tree; and so, although
he was unaware of it, by dropping the sacred bilva leaves, Suswara
was making a sacred offering to the Shivalinga. That night happened
to be Shivaratri. So the hunter had unknowingly kept a night-long
vigil and worshipped Shiva.
According to the Shiva Purana, the Mahashivaratri worship should
incorporate six items: offering bilva leaves to the deity after
giving it a ceremonial bath, which represents purification of the
soul; applying vermilion paste on the linga after bathing it, which
represents virtue; offering food, which is conducive to longevity
and the gratification of desires; lighting incense, which yields
wealth; lighting an oil lamp, which signifies the attainment of
knowledge; and offering betel leaves, which marks satisfaction with
worldly pleasures. These six items form an indispensable part of
the Mahashivaratri worship, be it a simple ceremony at home or grand
Significance of the Rituals
The story above is an allegory. Just as the hunter sought
to kill wild animals, the spiritual seeker tries to overcome
lust, anger, greed, infatuation, jealousy and hatred. The
jungle is the mind where all these negativities roam about.
A spiritual aspirant must kill these "animals" to
The name of the hunter was Suswara, which means "one
of melodious voice." This indicates the purity of intent
and speech, which, in turn, imply a level of mental purity.
The hunter was born in Varanasi. Vara refers to the forehead while
nasi is the nose. The point where both meet is Varanasi, in other
words, the point midway between the eyebrows. This point is also
called the ajna chakra and is regarded as a nexus of the three nadis:
ida, pingala and sushumna. A spiritual aspirant who concentrates
his or her mind on this point gains concentration and gradual control
over his senses. The killing of the animals thus indicates control
over one's vasanas [latent tendencies].
The bilva tree corresponds to the spinal column. The tree's leaves
are special: each stalk has three leaflets. The three leaflets represent
the three nadis mentioned above. The climbing of the tree represents
the ascent of the kundalini shakti from the muladhara to the ajna
Keeping awake is symbolic of the kind of awareness and oneness
of purpose that a spiritual aspirant needs to reach the goal.
He cannot afford to be slack even for a moment.
Shiva is the Supreme Consciousness that illuminates the three
states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep. Offering the threefold
bilva leaves to the Shivalinga heralds the return to a level
of consciousness beyond the three states, which is the fourth
state, turiya. The dawning of that state is consonant with
the awakening of the individual.