Maha Shivratri is celebrated on Maha Vad 14, commemorating the day Shiva Bhagwan manifested as Shivaling, or cylindrical murti form. On this day, Hindus observe a fast all day and perform a special Shiva puja at night. Devotees offer bili leaves (aegle marmelos) and perform an abhishek of the Shivaling. Shivites apply three horizontal stripes of holy bhubhuti on their foreheads. This tilak symbolizes the three eyes of Shiva and signifies purity. At BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha mandirs around the world, devotees come together and participate in Shiva puja. At BAPS shikharbaddha mandirs around the world ,special Shivalings are made of ice for devotees to perform abhishek.
- In ancient times, a Bheel (forest inhabitant) named Gurudruha traveled through the forest hunting for deer. After a whole day of hunting without success, he climbed up a bili tree on the banks of a lake. Later that night, a doe came to drink water. Immediately, Gurudruha aimed his bow and arrow at the deer. He unknowingly dropped some bili leaves and water below on a Shivaling. The deer begged Gurudruha to hold off on killing her because she wanted to ensure her fawns were safe by bringing them to her husband. Even though he was hesitant, Gurudruha agreed. While waiting for her to return, he stayed awake aimlessly plucking the leaves and dropping them below nonchalantly. The leaves landed on the Shivaling below, and Gurudruha had unknowingly performed Shivaji’s puja all night.
Eventually, the doe returned with her family. She told Gurudruha that if he killed her, he would have to kill her family as well. He aimed the bow and arrow at the deer and more leaves fell down on the Shivaling. The punya accumulated from unknowingly performing Shiva’s puja washed away all his sins. Gurudruha’s heart became pure as he repented for his sins and set the deer free. Shiva manifested in front of him and granted him a boon, “You will be born as a man named Gruha in a town called Shrungver. Bhagwan Vishnu will grace your home as Shri Rama and redeem you.” Shiva also blessed the deer.
- The Garud and Skand Puranas cite similar versions about a king named Sundersenak and a hunter named Chand.
- Devotees fast on Maha Shivratri only eating farali food as prescribed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan in the Shikshapatri.
- Devotees offer abhishek on Shivalings with bili leaves, milk, water, and panchamrut.
- Devotees do jagran, or stay awake the entire night singing bhajans.
- Special melas, or spiritual fairs, are held to celebrate Maha Shivratri throughout India.
- A common misconception is that Shivites drink bhang and intoxicate themselves on the night of Maha Shivratri. There is no such tradition or ritual mentioned in the Puranas.