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Maha Sivarathri - the great night

Maha Sivarathri Day is devoted to the Hindu God Siva, the third god in the trimurthi , who is believed to have a third eye and is regarded as the destroyer and reproducer, with his abode in the Himalayas.

Maha Sivarathri or great night means the night most auspicious for worship and a great religious night consecrated to God Siva.

The night is emphasized to signify the darkness of the world of senses in which man finds himself, while the endeavour is to pass from darkness to light, from night to day, and from the night to the day of deliverance.

Unlike other Hindu festivals, Mahasivarathri Day is not celebrated with pomp and gaiety but is dedicated to meditation and solitude, with rituals in Sivan Kovils being adhered to strictly, and fasting the whole day and keeping awake for twenty four hours occupying the centre stage.

Devotees engage in singing devotional songs and offering poojas throughout the night to spend Sivarathri night as a night-watch vigil and it is the poojas which are held in almost every kovil as part of the rituals throughout the night, that form the most important feature. The offering of flowers as well as leaves of the Vilva (Belli) tree as part of the pooja, in addition to the fasting and praying is a specialty on this day of which the night is all important.

The significance of Mahasivarathri is given in detail in the Puranic stories.

The main story which is most popularly imparted to devotees relates to how the supremacy of Lord Siva was established, indicating the origin and development of Sivalingam worship, and specifying that the final release of the human soul is attained only through love, compassion and devotion, stressing that book learning and display of wealth through charitable deeds are of no benefit. Observance of religious rights on this day are believed to procure absolution for the sins committed and release from the suffering of Karma and rebirth in the cycle of birth and death.

The origin of Mahasivarathri is explained in many mythological stories - the most common which are found in the Puranas.

One story relates to a hunter who bagged a number of animals but had to spend the night in the dense forest. In order not to lose the game, he climbed a Vilva tree to spend the night in it.

This happened to be the night of the new moon in March when the nights are chilly and the dew falls heavily. To keep himself from falling asleep and shipping off the tree, the man began picking leaves and flowers of the tree and dropping them one by one.

At the foot of the tree was a lingam onto which these fell and Lord Siva was gratified at the homage paid to his symbol and though the consecration was not pre-meditated, he decreed that the hunter should be rewarded.

When the hunter died shortly after, Yama the Lord of Hell claimed his soul as he had committed many sins by taking away the lives of creatures but Lord Siva intervened and insisted that even though the hunter had sinned, since before his death he had fasted, kept vigil and offered pooja to the lingam during the night consecrated to Lord Siva, he had obtained absolution from his sins and deserved an honourable place in Kailasa (heaven).

All stories have as the central and common theme, a sleepless and hungry hunter consecrating a holy night.

The ancient and historical temple at Thiruketheeswaran in the Mannar district becomes a centre of high activity on Mahasivarathri day.

Pilgrims from all parts of the country, men and women, young and old visit this kovil to participate in the religious observances on that night.

The 'Madams' accommodate the crowds but on the eve of Sivarathri night, the number of pilgrims is so formidable that it becomes a herculean task to provide shelter to all.

Volunteers from all walks of life from the YMHA branches in Colombo, Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trinco and Matale work round the clock from dawn to dusk assisting the devotees, cooking and serving meals as well as performing other tasks. Throughout the night, poojas are held and devotional songs are sung.

In the morning the images of Siva and Parvathi are taken in procession to the Palavi tank nearby, for the water cutting ceremony. On reaching the Palavi tank, to the beating of drums, pealing of bells and blowing of conch shells, and amidst cries of 'Haro Hara', all men and women dip themselves in the holy water and show their religious devotion by prostrating on the ground. A dip in the holy waters is believed to wash away the sins and purify the souls of the devotees.

Sivarathri night is divided into four Yamas (quarters) and four poojas are customarily performed during the four yamas which signify the Mind, Intelligence, Heart and Ego.

In each quarter the ceremonies of Abishekam Pooja and Siva Archanam are performed. In the first quarter, the lingam is bathed in milk, in the second quarter in curd, in butter in the third quarter and in honey in the fourth.

Next morning the feet of the Brahmins are bathed first in butter then in ghee and rose water. Hindus believe that if one observes the Mahasivarathri rituals for a minimum of twelve years consecutively, it would bring the absolution of one's sins and karma, a reunion with the god himself in Kailasa, and further spiritually benefit man's progeny.

Lord Siva is represented as wearing the crescent moon on his head and is also depicted in the pose of a 'Panchakritaya' dancer with five rhythms.

The first rhythm of his dance is said to represent creation, the second maintenance, and the third destruction and involution.

On one Mahasivarathri, night Siva and hisconsort Parvathi assuming the form of an old couple were moving around watching devotees absorbed in meditation.

Moved by the sight of the devotees Parvathi asked Lord Siva, "who among these are most devoted to you ?" with an enigmatic smile Lord Siva replied. "It is an interesting question. Let's hold a test and see who is the most devoted". Saying so he waded into the river, and when neck-deep in water signalled Parvathi to shout for help.

Her call had no favourable response from the crowd of devotees present at the scene. They sympathized with the old lady but none would jump into the river to save the old man from drowning.

At this time, a half-drunk came on the scene. Seeing the old man struggling for life, he jumped into the water with his clothes on and rescued him from the surging waves and brought him back to safety.

This man who dissipated the whole night in fun and merriment, proved to be a true devotees of Siva, for he had a love for humanity. Irrespective of his other weaknesses he had courage and compassion and fellow feeling.

 

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