Shivaratri is the day on which Maheswara takes up the Linga form for the benefit of spiritual seekers. What they have to seek from Maheswar is Jnana! â€˜Janam Maheswaraardichchedâ€™. It is Jnana that makes manifest the divinity latent in man. It is the final achievement of all tapas, all Yajna and Yoga â€
It is the name of a Hindu Festival observed in honour of Shiva, one of the gods of the Hindu Trinity. This falls generally in the month of Magha and the festival is called the Mahashivaratri as it is observed on the night preceding the new moon. Not only the night but also the day preceding the new moon in that month is devoted by the Smarta sect of the Hindus to Shiva’s worship. On this day the orthodox Hindu rises early in the morning, bathes and attends most devoutly to his prayers. He attends a temple if there is one nearby. Fasting, as a general rule, is observed throughout the day and the night. Sitting up in wakefulness throughout the night entirely absorbed in worshipping Shiva is considered most meritorious. There are special prayers for each of the four watches (Jamas – three hours’ duration) of the night, and the devotee who goes through these prayers on the night sacred to Shiva is considered to be working his way up to oneness with Shiva after his death.
The origin of the sacredness of the Shivaratri is related in the following Puranic legend. In a forest, on the Himalaya mountains there once lived a hunter with his wife and an only child in a humble cottage. He was in the habit of going out daily in the morning with his bow and arrows and returning home in the evening with some game or other which furnished the food for the whole family. As usual he went out in search of game on a certain morning. he wandered throughout the forest, but was not able to secure any game. Darkness had almost set in. Thinking it was no use lingering longer in the dense forest he turned his course towards his cottage with a melancholy countenance, for, what could his wife and child do for their supper that night ? This was his sole thought. Sometimes he would stop on the way and say to himself that there was no use in going home without any flesh to cook. He saw a big tank on the way, “Ah ! to be sure some animal or other must come to this tank to drink water. I shall hide myself behind some thick bush and wait for the occasion.” On second thoughts, he considered it safer to climb a tree to be beyond the reach of any beast to prey. To attract beasts to the side of the tree on which he was resting he kept dropping tender leaves from the tree. He was not disappointed in his maneuvers. During the first watch of the night a doe antelope, after drinking water in the tank, approached the tree to feed of the tempting leaves without any idea of danger that hung overhead. The hunter, glad at heart, hastily prepared to take aim at the poor beast. The antelope perceived the danger and instead of running away, most piteously addressed the hunter in a human voice, “O ! Hunter dear ! Do not kill me now.” The hunter, thought startled to hear the animal speak in a human voice, said, mustering up his courage : “My charming antelope ! I cannot but kill you at once. My wife and child are dying at home in hunger. You must be their food tonight.” “Even so, hunter, I have a dear husband and an affectionate child at home. I must take leave of them before I fall
down dead by your shaft. For their sake save me for a few hours. You are not a hard – hearted bachelor. As you feel for your wife and child, surely you must realise what my misery will be if I do not take leave of my Lord and child before I lay down my life.” The hunter, moved at the piteous words of the beast, thought within himself how hard – hearted he was to resolve to kill a beast so that he may feed on its carcass. But kill he must, if he should eke out his livelihood in that forest. The antelope promised to return after taking leave of her husband and her child. He permitted her to do so and she promised to be back in the fourth watch of the night.
The first watch of the night was almost over. Our hero was wide awake. Having lost his first opportunity that night, he waited for another beast to approach his tree. And his heart leapt with joy at the sight of another beast approaching the tree during the second watch. He again prepared himself to aim his shift at it. He was again astonished when he heard that antelope also begging him in human voice. Again there was a conversation, in the course of which the hunter learnt that the second antelope was the husband of the first one. It also requested the hunter to spare it till the fourth watch of the night, as it wanted to see its wife and child. The hunter gladly granted the request; for he was sure of carrying away both these beasts at the fourth watch. He thought that beasts which argued in such an honest fashion would never prove untrue.
During the third watch appeared the child of the first two antelopes. This beast also astonished the hunter by a similar request, which of course was readily granted, to be spared till the fourth watch of the night.Thus the three watches of the night were spent by the hunter in strict wakefulness. He had no had even a wink of sleep. The tree on which he lodged for the night happened to be the Bilva tree (crataeva religiosa) the leaves of which are held to be sacred to Shiva ; and in dropping the leaves he was unwittingly offering worship to Shiva through out the night, for the leaves happened to fall on a ruined image of Shiva which lay under the branches of that tree. To add to the hunter’s fortune, the night on which all these things took place happened to be a Shivaratri night, though the hunter was ignorant of it. The three watches were over. The hunter was anxiously waiting for the return of the three antelopes as promised. The fourth watch also was running out fast. Still the beasts never came back. The hunter had almost set himself down for a fool for having let the animals go in the first instance. The morning twilight had almost appeared; he returned his face towards east and a most heart – rending sight met his eyes. There he saw on the dawn of the early morning the three honest animals each weeping at the fate of the other two, unmindful of its own. Even the hunter’s hard heart melted away at what he saw. He turned to the other side to hide his tears; but he saw there his wife and child, who after spending the whole night in the forest in his search came running towards him in joy when they saw him. He turned his eyes again towards the east with something in his mind more noble and elevated than he had ever had. He had almost resolved to excuse the beasts and give back their lives though they had not returned to him yet. But just as the lord of the day was making his appearance on the horizon, there stood before the hunter a divine vimana which carried away all the six – the three antelopes, the hunter, his wife and child – to heavens, to the realm of Shiva. In connection with this marvelous passing away to heaven of the beasts, the hunter and his family, is held the popular belief that Mrgasira – the fifth lunar mansion containing three stars in Orion and figured by an antelope’s head, which appear in the heavens is a symbolic representation of this Puranic story.