What is Mahashivaratri, “the great night of Shiva” for Hindus?



► What are the origins of Mahashivaratri, a major festival in Hinduism?

At sunrise, the banks of the Ganges and other sacred rivers are traditionally taken by storm, on the occasion of Mahashivaratri – the “great night of Shiva”, by millions of Hindus who have come to perform their ablutions. Each year, this solemn feast is a special time of fasting, prayer and meditation. Its date, calculated from the Hindu lunisolar calendar based on the day before the new moon, usually falls around February-March in the Gregorian calendar – this year March 1. On the Indian subcontinent, it gives rise to one of the largest annual religious festivals.

According to some Western Indologists, this festival is celebrated since the 5th century BC. “But it is still very difficult to date: we have very little historiography, and orality was very important in Indian civilization, explains Sarah Combe, specialist in Hinduism(1). Within this civilization, there is still a great interpenetration of myths, festivals, tribal stories. »

► From a mythological point of view, what does it symbolize?

Marking the memory of “victory over darkness and ignorance” around the world, this solemn festival celebrates several mythological events in the life of Shiva, considered the supreme god and the creator of the universe in Shaivism, one of the three great currents of Hinduism today. According to one of the accounts of Hindu cosmology, “gods and demons were churning the ocean of milk when a poison, capable of destroying the universe, appeared. To save the world, Shiva would have absorbed him, which would have had the particularity of turning his throat blue. continues the specialist.

The tradition also says that Shiva would have been born on this day, and that this date would commemorate his marriage with the goddess Parvati, reincarnation of Sati, his first wife. One of the representations of Shiva being Nataraja, the “king of the dance”, Mahashivaratri finally pays homage to the night during which he would have performed his cosmic dance, at the origin of the world.

► How is it celebrated around the world?

“The day preceding Mahashivaratri is marked by a fast, according to different degrees of gradation. The most devout observe it entirely, others choose to eat for example only fruits”, continues Sarah Combe. Fasting is particularly practiced by young women who hope to find a husband.

As soon as night falls, the faithful also have the habit of meeting at home, to sing mantras, pray while reciting the litany of Shiva’s names, or even meditate on virtues such as honesty, charity or forgiveness. .

“In the night, we venerate five aspects of Shiva, himself represented by five faces: creation, destruction, preservation, occultation – which means illusion – and liberation”, further indicates the specialist in Hinduism. That night, the faithful can also go to temples dedicated to the god Shiva, to attend various ceremonies. Offerings of all kinds, such as flowers or incense, are made throughout the night. A fire is also lit, the ashes of which are collected the next morning and considered sacred.

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