What Is Maha Shivaratri, the Hindu Celebration of Destruction?

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Maha Shivaratri is an annual celebration in Hindu culture that honors Shiva, one of the primary deities worshipped by people who practice Hinduism. This god, known as the destroyer and rebuilder of the universe, is a key figure in Hindu faith, and his role in the religion is commemorated in a variety of ways during Maha Shivaratri.

Although Maha Shivaratri is an important holiday across India, it’s not the joyous celebration many of us might imagine when we think about festivals. It’s actually a time of quiet reflection and prayer and a solemn day when people ask for forgiveness. To honor the holiday, we’re exploring the mythology behind the Hindu god Shiva and the celebration of Maha Shivaratri. 

Who Is Shiva, and Why Does He Destroy the World?

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To understand Maha Shivaratri, it’s also important to understand the Hindu god who’s the focus of the holiday. In the Hindu faith, Shiva is one of the three gods of the Hindu triumvirate, along with Brahma (the creator of the universe) and Vishnu (the preserver). These deities are responsible for maintaining, ending and recreating the world. They’re also regarded as the most divine gods in the Hindu religion.

Though Shiva is known as the god of destruction, his role is an important one. Practitioners of Hinduism believe that existence is cyclical — that the universe must be dismantled and recreated periodically to achieve a newer, better form. Shiva’s work as a god is ultimately to rid the world of imperfections and make constructive changes. He is said to abstain from all forms of indulgence and pleasure. Instead, he focuses on meditation as a way to find inner peace. However, he is also said to have a darker side as the leader of evil spirits or ghosts and as the master of thieves, villains and beggars. 

In physical representations, Shiva is depicted with a blue face and throat. Another important feature is his third eye, which is said to represent his wisdom and untamed energy. He is also often seen wearing a cobra necklace that represents his power over dangerous creatures and his powers of destruction. In the same way that a snake sheds its skin to make room for its new skin, Shiva also destroys the universe to bring in the new. 

Shiva has three lines, called “vibhuti,” drawn horizontally across his forehead in white ash. The vibhuti represent his power, wealth, and ability to know and see all things. He also has a three-pronged trident that represents the Hindu triumvirate. 

What Does Maha Shivaratri Honor?

A woman whispers wishes into the ear of a statue of Nandi bull, the symbolic vehicle of the Hindu god Shiva. Photo Courtesy: Pradeep Gaur/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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The name “Maha Shivaratri” has a specific meaning in Hinduism. Shivratri combines two words: “Shiva,” referring to the god Shiva, and “ratri,” meaning “night.” The word “maha” means “grand.” Together, they mean “the grand night of Shiva.” Beyond being a time for Hinduism practitioners to celebrate Shiva’s work as the destructor and recreator of the universe, it also marks the holy marriage of Shiva and the goddess Parvati, who represents fertility, love and beauty.

Maha Shivaratri is celebrated on the 14th day of the Hindu calendar’s 12th and final month, Phalguna. Depending on where the planets are in the night sky, this month typically falls in February or March According to the Hindu faith, on Maha Shivaratri, Shiva performs a heavenly dance called the Tandava. It’s seen as the cosmic dance of death and recreation, which Shiva performs to destroy the universe and signify the end of an era. For Hindus, it’s a time to work on overcoming and letting go of their own sins while becoming renewed and more righteous. Though he does have his darker side, Shiva is an example to Hindus that all things and people can turn away from harmful old ways and enjoy a new start in life.

How Do People Celebrate Maha Shivaratri? 

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Though many different Hindu festivals are joyous and fun, Maha Shivratri is much quieter. It’s set apart as a time of reflection, prayer and fasting — a time for individuals to reflect on their growth over the year and to work on leaving behind anything that keeps them from a life of righteousness. 

In some areas, artists dance in honor of Shiva and his heavenly Tandava to recreate the universe. Towns also host Maha Shivaratri festivals filled with street performances, colorful masks and lights to represent Shiva. Other dance festivals and fairs are held at major Hindu temples throughout India, but the holiday isn’t so much about these bright displays.

While people in India usually celebrate the event at night, some celebrate in the morning by heading to temples to pray, sing hymns and chant prayers. All of this is done in the hopes that Shiva will also bring them good luck in the days to come. These temples to Shiva are open throughout the day, welcoming people whenever they’re able to show up. Those who observe Maha Shivaratri often fast for a full day to attain the blessings of Shiva and also test their commitment and sacrifice. 

Key Traditions Bring Maha Shivaratri Alive

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People who practice Hinduism may engage in quite a few other traditions during Maha Shivaratri. Many Hindu people observe the holiday by staying awake all night, holding vigils and prayers. While some may visit a Shiva temple to pray and meditate, others may travel to a Jyotirlinga, which is a traditional shrine to Shiva.

While fasting is a typical activity, others may participate in meditative yoga. Worshipers also provide offerings of fruits, sweets and milk made in temples and shrines in honor of Shiva. At the end of Maha Shivaratri, many people donate food, clothes and other items to those in need. This holiday is sacred and a time to commit to a more holy life, so Hindu people spend their time in spiritual activities and abstain from indulgences and vices like drinking, gossiping and fighting. But they also look towards the future, making a commitment to shed old habits and work towards being the best versions of themselves they can be.

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