The Story of King Chitrabhanu
In the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, Bhishma, whilst resting on a bed of arrows and discoursing on Dharma, refers to the observance of Maha Shivaratri by King Chitrabhanu. The story goes as follows.
Once, King Chitrabhanu was observing a fast with his wife, and it was the day of Maha Shivaratri. The sage Ashtavakra came on a visit to the king’s court. The sage asked, “ O king why are you observing a fast today?” King Chitrabhanu explained the reason, as he had the gift of remembering the incidents of his previous birth. The king said to the sage, “in my past birth I was a hunter in Varanasi (Kashi). My name was Suswara. My livelihood was to kill and sell birds and animals. One day, 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 did not have 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 time that night I engaged myself in plucking bael leaves and dropping them down onto the ground. “The day dawned and 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 take me to his abode. I then learnt for the first time of the great merit I had earned but the unconscious worship of Lord Shiva during the night of Shivaratri. They told me that there was a lingam under that tree and that I had dropped the leaves on that 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, I unconsciously worshipped Lord Shiva on that most auspicious day.” “I lived in the abode of the Lord and enjoyed divine bliss for long ages. And now I am reborn as Chitrabhanu.”
Lord Shiva’s assurance
When creation was completed Lord Shiva and Parvati Mata went to live on the top of Mount Kailash. Parvati asked, “O adorable lord, which of the many rituals observed in your honour pleases you the most.” The Lord replied, “the fourteenth night of the new moon in the dark fortnight during the month of Phalgun, is my favorite day. It is called Maha Shivaratri. My devotees give me great joy and happiness by mere fasting than by ceremonial baths and offerings of flower, 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 precious jewels and flowers. My devotee should bath me in milk in the first period, in yogurt in the second period, in ghee in the third, and in honey in the fourth and the last. In the morning he should feed Brahmins (that is if this is possible), and after doing that he/she breaks his/her fast. No ritual can compare with this simple routine in sanctity.”
Parvati was deeply impressed by the words of her husband. She repeated this to her friends, who in turn passed it on to everyone else. Thus the sanctity of Maha Shivaratri was broadcast all over the world.
The Shivaratri fast is aimed at controlling a persons two great vices (rajas – the quality of passionate activity) and (tamas - that of inertia).
The entire day is spent on worshipping Lord Shiva. Continuous worship of the Lord necessitates the devotee’s constant presence in the place of worship. Ones motion is controlled and evils like lust, anger and jealousy, born of Rajas, are ignored and subdued. The devotee observes virgil throughout the night and thus conquers tamas also. Constant control is exercised over the mind. Every three hours a round of worship of the Shiva lingam is conducted and thus Shivaratri is the perfect vrat.
At many ashrams around the world Shivaratri is celebrated in the following manner.
Aspirants fast the whole day, many of them without taking a single drop of water. Some ashrams perform a grand havan (fire yajnas) to Lord Shiva for peace and welfare of all. The whole day is spent in chantinge of the mantra “Om namah Shivaya” and in meditation upon the Lord. At night all assemble in the temple and chant this mantra and during the four quarters of the night the Shiva lingam is worshipped with intense devotion.