India's more flashy festivals - Diwali, Holi, even Makar Sankranti and its regional variants - are quite well known the world over, but there are others that are more spiritual, more mystical in flavour. Once such festival is Mahashivratri, an occasion to celebrate Shiva, the Mahadev or "Great God" of the Hindu pantheon.
This year, Mahashivratri falls on February 17, and considering the resurgence of Shiva's popularity in the last few years, the festival has become more prominent in the calendar. In keeping with the wild and uncontainable nature of Shiva, the festival is celebrated through the night. Every one relates to Shiva in their own way. The yogis see Shiva as the Adiyogi or first yogi, or the Adi Guru or first Guru. Householders may relate to him in his form of Shambo, or Bholenath, or Rudra or even the fearsome Kalabhairava. Irrespective of what aspect of Shiva draws you, Mahashivratri has something to offer for everyone.
Why is this night so important? Shiva is sometimes called the destroyer in today's literature. This oft-misunderstood appellation is thought to refer to his role as the destroyer of the universe. He is that too, but for a spiritual seeker, Shiva is the destroyer of all one's limitations and bondages. And Mahashivratri is the best time to call upon the destroyer. The festival is seen as a great opportunity to progress on the spiritual path.
For those uninitiated into specific practices, it is recommended that one stay awake and seated with an erect spine throughout the night. The planetary positions on this day are said to create a natural upsurge of energies, which can be properly directed and utilised if one's spine is kept erect.
Where to Celebrate?
It has been the tradition in India over thousands of years, for temples, ashrams and other sacred places to organise sathsangs or spiritual gatherings on this night, to help everyone stay awake and aware.
This practice continues even today. Though almost every town and city will likely have its own celebration, there are a few major centres that stand out in the country.
In South India, the Isha Yoga Centre hosts what is possibly the largest Mahashivratri celebration [pdf] in the country. The centre's founder, Sadhguru, leads the round-the-clock celebrations, and for those looking for a multifaceted atmosphere, this is the place to go. Conducted at the base of the sacred Velliangiri Mountains near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, this year's observance of the festival feature meditations and discourses by Sadhguru, interspersed with music by Zila Khan and Parthiv Gohil. The centre also webstreams the whole night's proceeding live, at no cost.
In North India, Varanasi or Kashi, is a major centre of celebration. The ceremonies revolve around the Kashi Vishwanath temple, and include a mela, all-night yagnas and a yatra around the city. The padh yatra or pilgrimage by foot, begins at the Manikarnika Ghat, and involves a parikrama or circumambulation of the city precincts at night.
Either way, wherever you observe the festival, be sure to see it as fantastic opportunity to take one step towards higher perception.