Maha Shivaratri is celebrated in honor of Shiva, one of the trinities of Hindus. Shiva occupies the highest level in importance in most of the Hindu texts, and is also acknowledged in many cultures beyond India and Hindus. Although there are more than one legend associated with Maha Shivaratri, such as the marriage of Shiva to Parvati on this occasion, worshipping of Shiva on this night to get rid of sins, or get enlightenment, the most common legend connects this night to the cosmic dance or tandav of Shiva that initiates creation, preservation, and destruction of the cosmos.
Attributes of Shiva in his representation (damaru, trishul, moon on his head, serpent around neck, etc.), sitting bare body in yogic posture, tandav dance, opening of third eye, and focus of worship by all, including devas and other members of trinities, particularly prominent incarnations of Vishnu, all indicate to the symbolism in gross, thoughts, and action (GTA).
GTA are all the features of the physical world, which gets created, remains sustained for a fixed period, and then ends. This phenomenon is entirely attributed to Shiva to initiate through the sound of damaru and movements of the dance. Shiva is fully part of the physical world, thus has a place of abode (Himalaya), marries to the daughter (Parbati) of Himalaya or Parbatraj (meaning mountain), and has children, just like any other mortal being on the Earth.
Among the trinities, Shiva is thus the lord or swami of the physical world. Brahma is the lord of the subtle world where his thoughts are all that are needed to create the cosmos. Brahma does not have any physical possessions, although he has manasputra (created through thoughts of mind) like Indra, Narada, etc. Vishnu on the other hand does not have even mental creation, as He is the lord of the causal world, where cause of everything exists. As per the common practice each of these trinities respect and differ to the lord of the world they enter. For example, Vishnu incarnation Ram and Krishna both worship Shiva when on Earth to signify the supremacy of the Shiva element in the physical world.
With the above understanding, one should approach the Shiva and Maha Shivaratri to rationally and practically understand their importance and practice. Many times Shiva is considered the destroyer, even though the literal meaning of Shiva is auspicious. Shiva is a yogi par excellence sitting bare body in the coldest place on Earth to indicate that He has mastered the physical world, thus proving his lordship beyond any doubt.
On a related note, Om symbol is used with many chants and rituals of worship, but is most commonly associated with Shiva, like in Om Namah Shivay! Linguistically, Om or more appropriately Aum is expressive meaning of Shiva. It starts with the ‘a’ sound as the open vowel with only aspiration of air, passes through the closed vowel ‘u’, still using the air but changing the shape of mouth in the middle, and finally the last letter ‘m’ of the last of the five classes (guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental, and labial) of the consonants of the Devanagari-aksharmala (alphabets) arranged in two dimensions. The Aum thus represents the sutra or formula with capacity to express the entire visible world (i.e., the expressed physical world). Therefore, this linguistic expression is also consistent with Shiva being the lord of the physically expressed world.
Why is then Shiva considered as the destroyer of the world? He is not the destroyer of the world, he presides over the physical world that is by nature destroyed. Anything that is created is destroyed by nature. However, people mistakenly attribute Shiva to be the destroyer. Similarly, people attribute Shiva with intoxication, such as cannabis and bhang, even though Shiva is yogi, totally away from all these vices. People considered him to be the epitome of purity who can live without even food, and thus started giving up their vices by surrendering those items at his alter, which others thought was an offering to Shiva. And, this was taken to justify their vices citing Shiva associated with those habits.
On the occasion of the Maha Shivaratri, traditions have provision for fasting, chanting, night vigil to give up even sleep, to indicate sacrifice rather than indulgence. Maha Shivaratri is to remind us of the nature of our existence and its ultimate disappearance. It is a celebration of this understanding which makes us free from the fear of even death.
-Prof. Bal Ram Singh, School of Indic Studies, Institute of Advanced Sciences, Dartmouth, MA, USA