On February 23rd, we celebrated what is popularly called the Day of Shiva. There are many stories about what the significance of this day is to spiritual seekers. Whatever story they subscribe to, there is no disagreement among yogis and Shiva devotees that it is the holiest day of the year for them. Many will fast for twelve or twenty-four hours over the night with chanting and ritual worship of the shivalinga. A very few will meditate and perform their spiritual practice as an offering to the Lord.
From the cosmic perspective, it is the day marking symbolically when Lord Shiva acquired his blue throat. At the time of creation, the gods and demons were co-operating to churn the cosmic ocean of milk in order to produce the nectar of immortality. However, during this process, a pot of poison which could have unmade all of creation came out and the terrified gods went to Lord Vishnu, the preserver of creation for a solution. The Lord Vishnu advised them to seek the aid of Lord Shiva, who alone could save them. Out of compassion for creation, Lord Shiva drank the poison and by his power, held it in his throat (turning it blue) without letting it go into his stomach. The gods and demons chanted and danced His glory all day and night in celebration.
From a microcosmic perspective, there is the story of a hunter who got lost in the jungle and climbed a bael tree as evening approached so as to escape from the wild animals roaming in the night. In order to keep from falling asleep and falling off the tree, he plucked a leaf every now and then, intoning “Om Nama Shivaya.” At the same time, his water bottle was leaking water down the tree. In the morning he gave thanks to the Lord and went home to his family. Before he could eat his meal, a stranger came knocking on the door and as required by rules governing proper behavior, he gave food to the guest before eating himself. Throughout his life, he was blessed with ample supply of food and a happy family. At the time of his death, two messengers of the Lord came and took him to the abode of Lord Shiva where he dwelled in bliss for eons, before taking birth again on earth as a great king. All this came about because without his knowledge, there was a buried shivalinga under the tree where he had sought refuge and so he was actually giving worship to the Lord throughout the night as he dropped bael leaves and water on it. Also, he fed someone else before he broke his fast in the morning.
When Lady Parvati asked Lord Shiva which day was most auspicious to worship him to receive his blessings, the Lord responded that the 14th day of the new moon of the last lunar month of the year was dearest to him. This occurs around February or March of the solar calendar.
Do these stories have any significance for us personally?
The first story teaches us that with our spiritual practice, there will be produced lots of toxic emotional and mental poison that will need to be transformed before the nectar of immortality or Self-Realization can be achieved. Only by the grace of the Lord and the appropriate practices can the process be completed. The day or night of Mahashivaratri is particularly auspicious for the transforming of our negativities into the bliss of super-consciousness. One must remember this during the celebration and practice sessions.
The second story helps us to understand that any amount of practice even if we are distracted will be helpful for our spiritual growth. After all, even when the worship was done accidentally, the fruit and grace was granted! It is useful to remember that those who have not had the opportunity to receive a spiritual practice rely on external worship for betterment of their lives and to obtain better re-births. Those who are spiritual practitioners rely primarily on their practice instead of external worship, although they can also benefit from appropriate rituals. Knowing that we can not really mess up with our practices as long as we do them with sincerity and to the best of our abilities is indeed comforting and is worth celebrating on at least one special day a year.