Story – The unknown fast
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.”