Shivaratri | The Divine Life Society
By Swami Sivananda
THIS FALLS on the 13th (or 14th) day of the dark half of Phalgun (February-March). The name
means “the night of Shiva”. The ceremonies take place chiefly at night. This is a festival observed
in honour of Lord Shiva. Shiva was married to Parvati on this day.
People observe a strict fast on this day. Some devotees do not even take a drop of water. They keep
vigil all night. The Shiva Lingam is worshipped throughout the night by washing it every three
hours with milk, curd, honey, rose water, etc., whilst the chanting of the Mantra Om Namah
Shivaya continues. Offerings of bael leaves are made to the Lingam. Bael leaves are very sacred as,
it is said, Lakshmi resides in them.
Hymns in praise of Lord Shiva, such as the Shiva Mahimna Stotra of Pushpadanta or Ravana’s
Shiva Tandava Stotra are sung with great fervour and devotion. People repeat the Panchakshara
Mantra, Om Namah Shivaya. He who utters the Names of Shiva during Shivaratri, with perfect
devotion and concentration, is freed from all sins. He reaches the abode of Shiva and lives there
happily. He is liberated from the wheel of births and deaths. Many pilgrims flock to the places
where there are Shiva temples.
The Story Of King Chitrabhanu
In the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, Bhishma, whilst resting on the bed of arrows and
discoursing on Dharma, refers to the observance of Maha Shivaratri by King Chitrabhanu. The story
goes as follows.
Once upon a time King Chitrabhanu of the Ikshvaku dynasty, who ruled over the whole of
Jambudvipa, was observing a fast with his wife, it being the day of Maha Shivaratri. The sage
Ashtavakra came on a visit to the court of the king.
The sage asked, “O king! why are you observing a fast today?”
King Chitrabhanu explained why. He had the gift of remembering the incidents of his previous
The king said to the sage: “In my past birth I was a hunter in Varanasi. My name was Suswara. My
livelihood was to kill and sell birds and animals. One day I was roaming the forests in search of
animals. I was overtaken by the darkness of night. Unable to return home, I climbed a tree for
shelter. It happened to be a bael tree. I had shot a deer that day but I had no time to take it home. I
bundled it up and tied it to a branch on the tree. As I was tormented by hunger and thirst, I kept
awake throughout the night. I shed profuse tears when I thought of my poor wife and children who
were starving and anxiously awaiting my return. To pass away the time that night I engaged myself
in plucking the bael leaves and dropping them down onto the ground.
“The day dawned. I returned home and sold the deer. I bought some food for myself and for my
family. I was about to break my fast when a stranger came to me, begging for food. I served him
first and then took my food.
“At the time of death, I saw two messengers of Lord Shiva. They were sent down to conduct my
soul to the abode of Lord Shiva. I learnt then for the first time of the great merit I had earned by the
unconscious worship of Lord Shiva during the night of Shivaratri. They told me that there was a
Lingam at the bottom of the tree. The leaves I dropped fell on the Lingam. My tears which I had
shed out of pure sorrow for my family fell onto the Lingam and washed it. And I had fasted all day
and all night. Thus did I unconsciously worship the Lord.
“I lived in the abode of the Lord and enjoyed divine bliss for long ages. I am now reborn as
Spiritual Significance of the Ritual
The Scriptures record the following dialogue between Sastri and Atmanathan, giving the inner
meaning of the above story.
Sastri: It is an allegory. The wild animals that the hunter fought with are lust, anger, greed,
infatuation, jealousy and hatred. The jungle is the fourfold mind, consisting of the subconscious
mind, the intellect, the ego and the conscious mind. It is in the mind that these “wild animals” roam
about freely. They must be killed. Our hunter was pursuing them because he was a Yogi. If you
want to be a real Yogi you have to conquer these evil tendencies. Do you remember the name of the
hunter in the story?
Atmanathan: Yes, he was called Suswara.
Sastri: That’s right. It means “melodious”. The hunter had a pleasant melodious voice. If a person
practices Yama and Niyama and is ever conquering his evil tendencies, he will develop certain
external marks of a Yogi. The first marks are lightness of the body, health, steadiness, clearness of
countenance and a pleasant voice. This stage has been spoken of in detail in the Swetaswatara
Upanishad. The hunter or the Yogi had for many years practised Yoga and had reached the first
stage. So he is given the name Suswara. Do you remember where he was born?
Atmanathan: Yes, his birthplace is Varanasi.
Sastri: Now, the Yogis call the Ajna Chakra by the name Varanasi. This is the point midway
between the eyebrows. It is regarded as the meeting place of the three nerve currents (Nadis),
namely, the Ida, Pingala and the Sushumna. An aspirant is instructed to concentrate on that point.
That helps him to conquer his desires and evil qualities like anger and so on. It is there that he gets a
vision of the Divine Light within.
Atmanathan: Very interesting! But how do you explain his climbing up the bael tree and all the
other details of the worship?
Sastri: Have you ever seen a bael leaf?
Atmanathan: It has three leaves on one stalk.
Sastri: True. The tree represents the spinal column. The leaves are threefold. They represent the Ida,
Pingala and Sushumna Nadis, which are the regions for the activity of the moon, the sun and fire
respectively, or which may be thought of as the three eyes of Shiva. The climbing of the tree is
meant to represent the ascension of the Kundalini Shakti, the serpentine power, from the lowest
nerve centre called the Muladhara to the Ajna Chakra. That is the work of the Yogi.
Atmanathan: Yes, I have heard of the Kundalini and the various psychic centres in the body. Please
go on further; I am very interested to know more.
Sastri: Good. The Yogi was in the waking state when he began his meditation. He bundled up the
birds and the animals he had slain and, tying them on a branch of the tree, he rested there. That
means he had fully conquered his thoughts and rendered them inactive. He had gone through the
steps of Yama, Niyama, Pratyahara, etc. On the tree he was practising concentration and meditation.
When he felt sleepy, it means that he was about to lose consciousness and go into deep sleep. So he
determined to keep awake.
Atmanathan: That is now clear to me; you certainly do explain it very well. But why did he weep
for his wife and children?
Sastri: His wife and children are none other than the world. One who seeks the Grace of God must
become an embodiment of love. He must have an all-embracing sympathy. His shedding of tears is
symbolical of his universal love. In Yoga also, one cannot have illumination without Divine Grace.
Without practising universal love, one cannot win that Grace. One must perceive one’s own Self
everywhere. The preliminary stage is to identify one’s own mind with the minds of all created
beings. That is fellow-feeling or sympathy. Then one must rise above the limitations of the mind
and merge it in the Self. That happens only in the stage of Samadhi, not earlier.
Atmanathan: Why did he pluck and drop the bael leaves?
Sastri: That is mentioned in the story only to show that he had no extraneous thoughts. He was not
even conscious of what he was doing. All his activity was confined to the three Nadis. The leaves, I
have said before, represent the three Nadis. He was in fact in the second state, namely, the dream
state, before he passed into the deep sleep state.
Atmanathan: He kept vigil the whole night, it is said.
Sastri: Yes, that means that he passed through the deep sleep state successfully. The dawning of day
symbolises the entrance into the Fourth state called Turiya or superconsciousness.
Atmanathan: It is said that he came down and saw the Lingam. What does that mean?
Sastri: That means that in the Turiya state he saw the Shiva Lingam or the mark of Shiva in the form
of the inner lights. In other words, he had the vision of the Lord. That was an indication to him that
he would realise the supreme, eternal abode of Lord Shiva in course of time.
Atmanathan: So it appears from what you say that the sight of the lights is not the final stage?
Sastri: Oh no! That is only one step, albeit a difficult one. Now think of how the story continues. He
goes home and feeds a stranger. A stranger is one whom you have not seen before. The stranger is
no other than the hunter himself, transformed into a new person. The food was the likes and dislikes
which he had killed the previous night. But he did not consume the whole of it. A little still
remained. That was why he had to be reborn as King Chitrabhanu. Going to the world of Shiva
(Salokya) is not enough to prevent this. There are other stages besides Salokya. These are Samipya,
Sarupya and finally Sayujya. Have you not heard of Jaya and Vijaya returning from Vaikunta?
Atmanathan: Yes, I have understood now.
Lord Shiva’s Assurance
When creation had been completed, Shiva and Parvati went out to live on the top of Mount Kailas.
Parvati asked, “O venerable Lord! which of the many rituals observed in Thy honour doth please
The Lord replied, “The 14th night of the new moon, in the dark fortnight during the month of
Phalgun, is my most favourite day. It is known as Shivaratri. My devotees give me greater
happiness by mere fasting than by ceremonial baths and offerings of flowers, sweets and incense.
“The devotee observes strict spiritual discipline in the day and worships Me in four different forms
during each of the four successive three-hour periods of the night. The offering of a few bael leaves
is more precious to Me than the precious jewels and flowers. My devotee should bathe Me in milk
at the first period, in curd at the second, in clarified butter at the third, and in honey at the fourth and
last. Next morning, he should feed the Brahmins first and, after performing the prescribed
ceremonies, he can break his fast. O Parvati! there is no ritual which can compare with this simple
routine in sanctity.”
Parvati was deeply impressed by the speech of Loid Shiva. She repeated it to Her friends who in
their turn passed it on to the ruling princes on earth. Thus was the sanctity of Shivaratri broadcast
all over the world.
The two great natural forces that afflict man are Rajas (the quality of passionate activity) and Tamas
(that of inertia). The Shivaratri Vrata aims at the perfect control of these two. The entire day is spent
at the Feet of the Lord. Continuous worship of the Lord necessitates the devotee’s constant presence
in the place of worship. Motion is controlled. Evils like lust, anger, and jealousy, born of Rajas are
ignored and subdued. The devotee observes vigil throughout the night and thus conquers Tamas
also. Constant vigilance is imposed on the mind. Every three hours a round of worship of the Shiva
Lingam is conducted. Shivaratri is a perfect Vrata.
The formal worship consists of bathing the Lord. Lord Shiva is considered to be the Form of Light
(which the Shiva Lingam represents). He is burning with the fire of austerity. He is therefore best
propitiated with cool bathing. While bathing the Lingam the devotee prays: “O Lord! I will bathe
Thee with water, milk, etc. Do Thou kindly bathe me with the milk of wisdom. Do Thou kindly
wash me of all my sins, so that the fire of worldliness which is scorching me may be put out once
for all, so that I may be one with Thee—the One alone without a second.”
At the Sivananda Ashram, Rishikesh, the Shivaratri festival is celebrated in the following manner.
All spiritual aspirants fast the whole day, many of them without taking even a single drop of water.
A grand havan is performed for the peace and welfare of all.
The whole day is spent in doing the Japa of Om Namah Shivaya and in meditation upon the Lord.
At night all assemble in the temple and chant Om Namah Shivaya the whole night.
During the four quarters of the night the Shiva Lingam is worshipped with intense devotion.
Sannyas Diksha is also given on this day to sincere seekers on the path.
Offer this inner worship to Lord Shiva daily: “I worship the jewel of my Self, the Shiva residing in
the Lotus of my heart. I bathe Him with the water of my pure mind brought from the river of faith
and devotion. I worship Him with the fragrant flowers of Samadhi—all this so that I may not be
born again in this world.”
Here is another formula for the supreme worship of the Lord: “O Shiva! you are my Self. My mind
is Parvati. My Pranas are your servants. My body is your house. My actions in this world are your
worship. My sleep is Samadhi. My walk is circumambulation of you. My speech is your prayer.
Thus do I offer all that I am to you.