Mahashivaratri is a night festival: Ratri means night. The night of Mahashivaratri is divided into 4 sections each lasting 3 hours. Each 3-hour section is called Parhara. In each of the praharas, puja is performed and the Shiva Lingam is bathed with auspicious items such as milk, dahie, ghee and honey. A devotee usually spends all night in prayer, worship and meditation to Lord Shiva. The day before the festival is spent fasting as a form of preparation for ceremonies.
These two aspects of the Mahashivaratri, fasting during the day and prayer all night, make it one of the most sacred feasts. Fasting involves the control of all the senses and the consecration of all work and activity to the Lord, so it is a way of transcending the rajasic tendencies of the mind. Staying awake in prayer throughout the night goes beyond the tamasic nature of the personality. Therefore, when the natures of Tamas and Rajas are overcome, then Satwic dominates, which makes it easier to focus on the Lord.
In most official ceremonies in the temples, the Mahashivaratri night starts at 18:00. with puja, kirtan, jaap and abishekam from Shiva Lingam. Abishekam is the ritual bath of Lingam with the right items (milk, dahie, ghee, honey, coconut water, sugar cane juice, etc.), as well as water, accompanied by the chanting of the mantras. This procedure is repeated at 21:00, 12:00, 03:00. with ceremonies that end at 6:00. or at dawn. The time between pujas and abishekam is devoted to bhajans or reading scriptures, etc.
The following is a simplified procedure that can be followed at home with basic preparation and materials. A Shiva Lingam is installed in a thali or tray and the puja and abishekam are made in the lingam with the thali or plateau avoiding spills, etc. Auctions can be as simple as offering the 5 basic items: gandh or perfume, pusph or flowers, dhoop or incense, deep or arti and naivedya or prasad. This is called panch upchar puja or puja with 5 steps or offers. The mantras that accompany each offer can also be a simple simple line mantra.
1ST PRAHARA 6:00 PM
Puja to Lord Shiva
Offer perfume to the Lingam with the prayer:
Om Namaha Shivaaya Gandham Samarpayaami.
Offer flowers with the prayer:
Om Namaha Shivaaya Pushpam Samarpayaami.
Offer incense with the prayer:
Om Namaha Shivaaya Dhoopam Samarpayaami.
Offer arti with the prayer:
Om Namaha Shivaaya Deepam Samarpayaami.
Offer prasad with the prayer:
Om Namaha Shivaaya Naivedyam Samarpayaami
After this 5-step puja process, the abishekam of the Lingam with milk is done by pouring a lota of milk in a slow continuous stream over the Lingam with the recitation of: OM HOUM ISHAANAAYA NAMAHA. Then the Lingam is bathed with pure water using the mantra: OM SHIVARATRI VRATAM DEVA PUJA JAPA PARAAYANA, KAROMI VIDHIWAT DATAM GRIHAAN ARGYAM MAHESHWARA. OM NAMAHA SHIVAAYA.
After the abishekam, using a japa mala 108 recitations of the Panchashri mantra, Om Namaha Shivaaya, can be done.
2nd PRAHARA 9:00 PM
Panch upchar puja is repeated as before.
Abishekam with dahie using the mantra: OM HOUM AGHORAAYA NAMAHA.
Then the Lingam is bathed with water using the mantra as above.
Jaap of Panchaashari mantra is done again.
3rd PRAHARA – 12:00 AM
Panch upchar puja
Abishekam with ghee using the mantra: OM HOUM VAAMADEVAAYA NAMAHA.
The Lingam is bathed with water using the above mantra.
Jaap of Panchaashari mantra is done.
4th PRAHARA – 3:00 AM
Panch upchar puja.
Abishekam using honey with the mantra:OM HOUM SADHYO JAATAAYA NAMAHA.
The Lingam is bathed with water as before.
Jaap of Panchaashari is done.
The ceremony can be concluded at sunrise or 6:00 am with a simple havan and final arti for the murtis and Lingam.
The abishekam using the 4 articles described here is done in a specific order: milk, dahie, ghee then honey as the last offering. The symbolism here is that milk is the least purified of the three articles and so is first. Dahie is formed by a little preparation and purification of the milk but the ghee is made by an even greater degree of purification. Hence the order of milk, dahie then ghee represents the gradual but increasing purification of the devotee as the night progresses. Finally honey is offered representing the Amrit of immortality.
The greatness of the worship during Mahashivaratri is given in several kathas of the Puranas. One of the most popular describes Parvati Devi asking Lord Shiva which of the many ceremonies in His honor does he cherish the most. Lord Shiva replied: the 14th. night of the dark half of the month of Phalgun (Feb/March), is my most favorite time. The devotee pleases more by mere fasting than by ceremonial baths and rituals, etc.
Once upon a time, a hunter named Suswara lived in the town of Varanasi. He was returning home one evening from the forest with the birds he had killed but nightfall came before he arrived home. He tied his dead birds in a bundle at the base of a tree and fearing for his safety, climbed up the tree to spend the night. Unknown to the hunter the tree happened to be Lord Shiva’s favorite tree, the Bilva tree, and there was a Lingam at the base of the tree. To keep from falling asleep the hunter passed the time by plucking leaves off the tree and absent-mindedly dropping them to the Lingam below. The dew trickled down his body and also fell on the Lingam. Therefore the hunter spent the entire night involuntarily and unconsciously worshiping Lord Shiva. The day dawned and the hunter returned home.
At the time of the hunter’s death, the messengers of Yama came to take his soul to hell for the sins of his lifetime. They found that Lord Shiva’s messengers had already arrived to escort the soul of the hunter to Shiva Loka due to the benefit of his worship of the Shiva Lingam, involuntary though it may have been.
Parvati Devi was greatly impressed with this narration of Lord Shiva and she related it to her friends and so the greatness of the worship of God on this night is known to all mankind.
The philosopical basis of this story has been explored in several scriptures. The name of the hunter is Suswara which is indicative of good qualities or virtues. He works in the forest – i.e., the world. He kills wild animals which is symbolic of the destruction of evil tendencies of the mind. He climbs the bilwa tree which represents spiritual progress. His unconscious and involuntary worship shows the state of development where every act is an offering to God. He lives in Varanasi – the spiritual centre not only of the country but in the human body it represents the spiritual eye of wisdom. Therefore the description by Lord Shiva of a hunter in the forest really represents the life of a yogi in the world.
May we enjoy the blessing of Lord Shiva on this auspicious day.