Observed on the 14th night in the month of Magha per the Hindu calendar, Mahashivratri marks the convergence of Shiva and Shakti, in essence, the masculine and feminine energies that balance the world. Fun fact—did you know that there are actually 12 monthly or Masik Shivratris celebrated throughout the year, falling during Krishna Paksha (the waning moon half) of each month? The most auspicious and important of these is celebrated as Mahashivratri, a date that usually falls in February or March per the Gregorian calendar.
A popular and ancient festival that traces its roots beyond recorded history, Mahashivratri is observed widely across the Indian subcontinent. Celebrations occur throughout the day with devotees offering milk, durva grass, bhang and other prasad. And through the dark moonless night, holding ‘jagrans’ in which the faithful gather to sing hymns and bhajans. Many devotees observe a 24-hour fast or consume special foods to honor the day, which has multiple stories associated with it.
Among the most popular, is the belief that this festival marks the marriage of Bhagwan Shiva and Devi Parvati. Temples are decked with flowers, and in the evening, worshipers participate in a parade known as ‘Bhole ki baraat’— Shiva’s wedding procession.
According to a legend in the Puranas, the Devas and Asuras once participated in a huge tug of war (samudra manthan) to extract amrit (an elixir for immortality) from the ocean. But, a pot of lethal poison emerged along with the amrit and other valuables. The Devas and Asuras began to faint after inhaling its fumes. Amid the panic, Shiva chose to drink the poison himself. He emptied the pot in a breath, but held it in his throat which turned blue, thus earning the name Neelkantha—or the one with a blue throat. He was helped by Parvati in this task of saving the earth, which is celebrated as Mahashivratri.
Other legends describe Shiva appearing as a Shivalinga, during a confrontation between Brahma and Vishnu, about whose power was superior. The intensity of the battle warranted intervention, so Shiva appeared between the two in the form of a huge column of fire, in what is believed to be the first manifestation of Shivalinga, the omnipotent formless expression of the supreme being.
Mahashivratri is a national holiday in Nepal, where thousands of devotees visit famous temples like Pashupatinath and Shiva Shakti Peetham. It used to be a major celebration in cities like Karachi, in British India, with popular picture postcards from a 100 years ago, showing thousands gathered in celebration. It still remains an important spot for the Pakistani Hindu community who continue to worship at the historic Shree Ratneshwar Mahadev temple, close to the beach.
In India, celebrations span the breadth of the land, with huge celebrations at ancient temples such as Annamalaiyar in Tamil Nadu, the Mahakaleshwar Mandir in Madhya Pradesh, Umananda Temple in Assam, Bhavnath Talethi in Gujarat, Mallikarjuna Temple in Andhra Pradesh and more. In Kashmir, the historic seat of Shaivism, MahaShivratri is known locally as “Herath” from a story that showcases the power of devotion to overcome persecution. Local tradition was to worship a Shivalinga carved from snow, but in the 18th century, the then Afghan Governor banned celebrations during the month of Magha and ordered it postponed to summer. Miraculously that year, it snowed in the summer, leading to much “hairat”— the Persian word for shock.
As a diasporic community, festivals are an occasion for Hindu Americans to reminisce about our childhood rituals and traditions back in the Indian subcontinent. Celebrations at temples like the Shiva Durga Mandir in Santa Clara, Fremont Hindu Temple, Shiv-Vishnu Temple in Livermore, the Sanatan Mandir in San Bruno and many more play a key role in carrying forward these old traditions.
But occasions like Mahashivratri are also an opportunity to recreate new celebrations tailored to life in the U.S., updated to reflect the tastes and preferences of a generation growing up in a new world. Startups like EnthuZiastic help create opportunities for American kids to know more about their culture with celebrations that enable kids to experience it through stories, music, art, and games.
Jai Bholenath! Greetings to all who celebrate.
Pushpita Prasad is a Contributing Editor at India Currents, with a background in media, technology, and history.