There are many myths that surround the festival of Mahashivrathri, but one in particular which is often repeated and remembered has to be the story of Samudra Manthan, or the ‘Churning of the Ocean’. Infact, this myth still bears a close resemblance to the way it is currently celebrated and has its origin from the ancient book of the Puranas, which when translated means ‘olden times’. This is also the story that lent Shiva the name Neelakanta which means ‘the one with the blue throat’.
The Quest for Amrit
It begins with a quest, The God’s and the demons find out about Amrit, the nectar of immortality that lies at the bottom of the Ocean. Consuming this nectar will free them from death and deem them immortal and with this simple wish, they team up as oppositions to churn the Ocean. While this activity was underway – there emerged from the churning plenty of good and also a lot of bad. A poison emerges and it is so powerful and potent that it would engulf the three worlds and destroy everything it touches. This terrified everyone and in a momentary dilemma they all cried out to Lord Shiva, to help prevent this unstoppable destruction. In all his glory, Lord Shiva saves the situation by consuming the poison. He holds it in his throat, while his consort Paravathy presses his throat to prevent the poison from moving to the rest of his body. This turns his throat blue and lends him the name – Neelakanta.
While Lord Shiva held the poison in his throat, it was also advised as a form of therapy for him to be awake the entire night. To ensure that he didn’t fall into slumber, his devotees sang, danced and worshipped him all through the night to keep him awake. Through this act, Lord Shiva, saved the world from destruction, and henceforth onwards this day is celebrated every year as Mahashivrathri.
Setting the date
According to the Hindu calendar, Mahashivrathri is usually the 13th or the 14th night of the new moon during the period of Phalghun – this is either during the month of February or March in the English calendar. The auspicious festival is celebrated by Hindus in India and worldwide. There are other myths that also point towards Mahashivrathri as the night Shiva married Paravathi, or the night where he performed the Tadava –the primordial dance of creation, preservation and destruction. This is where he depicts his true nature as the Lord of destruction.
Rituals on Mahashivrathri
There are many rituals devotees of Shiva partake in to celebrate the festival of Mahashivrathri. Statues of Shiva or Shivalingams are bathed in milk and honey, temples are decorated with much aplomb and plenty of devotees visit the temples during the day and night to offer their prayers and offerings. Many believers observe a day and night long fast, which they break the next morning. Few others stay up all night chanting – Om Namah Sivaya or meditate on the image of Shiva as the Adi Yogi (the first yogi). It is often believed that if Lord Shiva is worshipped with purest of devotion during Mahashivrathri, can not only free us from Karma, but also grant us Moksha. Any abstinence or austerity undertaken during Mahashivrathri is usually blessed and granted to the devotee.
Shiva, the Adi Yogi
Mahadeva, Nataraja, Neelakanta, Bhairava, Bhole Nath or any other avathar that he is known as, Lord Shiva is the most mysterious, powerful and also a fascinating God. For most Yogi’s Lord Shiva is the ultimate Yogi – the symbol of Prana and the one in perfect Samadhi. A great teacher who represents what it means to be detached from the illusions of this world and be perfectly at peace with oneself.
Om Namah Sivaya (I bow to Shiva)
Adithi Mathews is a writer and yoga practitioner currently living in Germany. A former Radio Jockey, TV Journalist and Web Editor, she was introduced to the practise of Yoga at the age of 13, and settled into a more serious practice after she moved to live in Germany. Her thirst to learn, led her to The Sivananda Vedanta Danwantri Ashram in Kerala where she completed her Teachers Training and Advanced Teachers Training Course. When she is not writing, practicing or teaching Yoga, she spends her time learning new languages or upgrading her digital marketing skills.
Photography by Coni Hörler