Why do people fast on the day of Maha Shivarathri?

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by Jayaram V

Question: Why do people observe fasting and remain awake until midnight on Maha Shivaratri?

Fasting has been a common practice in Hinduism since the earliest times. It is a form of penance and sacrifice, which has been practiced by both men and women of all classes not only in Hinduism but also in other major religions of India namely Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. It has been practiced either as an austerity in itself or in conjunction with religious rituals, spiritual vows, sacraments and festivals. Sometimes it is done for superstitious reasons and sometimes for valid reasons. However, in both cases there are definite health advantages, as long as one does not resort to extremities and fast for days without taking food and water. It is practiced in some traditions to give up the body as an ultimate sacrifice.

In ancient India, students and householders regularly engaged in fasting as a part of their obligatory duties. The belief is that fasting purifies our minds and bodies and helps us physically, mentally and spiritually to progress on the path of liberation. Through fasting we declare our willingness and commitment to give up worldly enjoyments and attachments to achieve liberation. The Hindu law books recommend fasting to invoke gods and obtain their favors or for expiatory and atonement purposes. In some cases, it is prescribed as a punishment for minor and major offenses.

Even today, both men and women and people of all ages observe fasting on important occasions. They may do it as a penance (vratam) to propitiate gods and obtain their favors or to neutralize adverse planetary influences and ill omens or to ward off evil forces and adversity. Fasting is thus a very common practice in Hinduism. It is a purification ritual as well as a form of sacrifice and one of the popular ways to please the gods and obtain their grace. In the past, people used to observe fasting on several occasions. Sometimes, they fasted for days together as prescribed in the law books.

In Shaivism, fasting is traditionally associated with Shiva worship. It is customary for the devotees of Shiva not to eat anything until they worship him and make him offerings. On most of the days, they do not have to fast for a whole day because the worship is performed in the early morning. However, on the day of Shivaratri, they have to wait because the worship continues late into the night. According to Shiva Purana, until his last breath a devotee of Shiva shall never eat food without worshipping him. Those who do so verily eat sin.

A similar sentiment is expressed in the Bhagavadgita, in which Lord Krishna states that those who eat food, without making an offering to God, verily eat sin. According to the Vedas, human beings have an obligatory duty to make offerings of sacrificial food to gods and nourish them, because being selfless, gods do not care to make their own food and enjoy it. They need to be fed and taken care of. Hindu rituals are essentially meant to facilitate this process. The scriptures warn people not to cook food for themselves and live selfishly. Instead, they have to engage selflessly in daily sacrifices (nitya karmas) and make offerings of food to gods and other beings to avoid incurring sin and the displeasure of gods.

Therefore, there is nothing unusual about the fasting observed on the day of Maha Shivaratri or the great night of Shiva. Devotees of Shiva worship him every day and nourish him with offerings of milk, curd, etc., before they nourish their own bodies. On the day of Shivaratri, they do it with even greater devotion because on this day (or night) Shiva remains active on the earthly plane and easily approachable. The belief is, by worshipping Shiva one can get rid of even the gravest sins. However, mere worship is not that helpful. One has to lead a very austere life. The Shiva Purana affirms that those who worship Shiva in a proper manner become Shiva themselves. They become free from the ocean of suffering and attain all the riches and pleasures while on earth. Upon departing from here, they will never return again.

The worship of Shiva on the day of Maha Shivaratri, has been a continuing tradition, which probably dates back to the beginnings of the origin of Shaivism. On this day, devotees of Shiva worship him until late in the night by keeping themselves awake. According to the Hindu calendar, the night of Shiva comes every month, not just once in a year. Hence, we have 12 Shivaratris in a year instead of one.

According to the tradition, the fourteenth lunar day (Chaturdasi), which falls before the new moon day is considered Shivaratri. Devotees of Shiva customarily observe fasting on all the 12 days, and on all other days, until they conclude the worship. The Chaturdasi, which comes in the month of Magha (January – February) falls entirely into the night. Hence, it is considered very auspicious (maha) for the worship of Shiva. On this day, people fast and remain awake until late midnight as a penance to awaken the Shiva (soul) who resides in them.

Now, the question is why do we have to worship Shiva in the night instead of day? Shivaratri means the night of Shiva. Night is associated with Shiva because he is the destroyer and concealer and represents tamas. According to the Vedic tradition, the early morning before dawn belongs to Brahma (Brahma muhurtam). The day belongs to Vishnu, and the night to Shiva. Although Shiva represents night and tamas, he is neither night nor darkness nor tamas. He is rather their source and destroyer. He uses tamas to cast his net of Maya. When the time comes, he destroys tamas or the darkness that accumulates in our minds and bodies and helps us become liberated.

The triple gunas namely sattva, rajas and tamas are responsible for the impurities such as egoism (anava), attachments (pasas) and delusion (moha). Because of them, we engage in desire-ridden actions and become bound to the cycle of births and deaths. Shiva destroys these impurities and facilitates our purification and liberation. He neutralizes the triple gunas and the triple impurities (egoism, attachment and delusion), so that we become free forever from the triple worlds namely the earth, mid-region and the ancestral heaven.

According to several schools of Shaivism, neither karma yoga nor jnana yoga nor bhakti yoga is as effective as the grace of Shiva to attain liberation. Perfection in them however is necessary to qualify for it. Besides selfless actions, knowledge, virtue, devotion, etc., one needs the grace and blessings of Shiva to overcome obstacles and merge into the pure consciousness of Shiva. Maha Shivaratri offers us a great opportunity to connect with Shiva and earn his appreciation and blessings. Hence on that auspicious day, devotees engage in austerities and keep a vigil (jagaranam) until late midnight or whole night, chanting his name, praying and worshipping. By that, it is believed that they earn the right to enter the immortal heaven.

Maha Shivaratri is not a usual kind of festival or austerity. It offers a shortcut to attain liberation. Just as people are cleansed of their sins by taking a dip in the River Ganga, devotees are purified by fasting, remaining awake and chanting the names of Shiva. The texts allude to the fact that even doing them by chance, one can enter the abode of Shiva and become liberated.

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