Shiva (Lord Shiva) + ratri (night), so Shivaratri means the night of Lord Shiva.
Every lunar month on the 13th or 14th day of the dark half of the moon phase there is a Shivaratri but in the Vedic month of Phalgun (February-March) there is a Maha Shivaratri. The ceremony takes place mainly at night, which is observed in the honour of Lord Shiva, who was married to Parvati (Mother Durga) on this day.
Devotees of Lord Shiva generally observe a strict fast on this day and some go to the extent of a nirjal fast i.e. they do not even have a sip of water.
They stay awake the entire night. The Shiva lingam is worshipped throughout the night by washing it every three hours with milk, yogurt, ghee, honey and so forth, whilst chanting of the mantra “Om namah shivaya”, continues. Offering of bael leaves are made to the Lingam. Bael leaves are very sacred (as Tulsi to Lord Vishnu and dhar to Mother Durga are very pleasing to Them) and Lord Shiva becomes pleased with that offering. Many different hymns glorifying Lord Shiva are sung with intense fervour and devotion. Aspirants perform japa of the Panchakshara mantra “ Om namah Shivaya”
He who utters the names of Lord Shiva during Shivaratri with perfect devotion and concentration is freed from all sins that he/she have committed. He/she reaches the abode of Lord Shiva and resides very happily there.
NOTE: the Vaishnavas however worship Lord Shiva on this day in order to receive His blessings to become a better devotee of Lord Krishna (Vishnu) and not to attain residence in the abode of Shiva.
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 bymere 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 turnpassed 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 biggest vices (rajas – the quality of passionate activity) and (tamas – that of inertia).
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.
Srila Prabhupada says –
Demon Sankhacuda Killed – taken from Krsna Book (Chapter 34.)
“Once upon a time, the cowherd men of Vrindavana, headed by Nanda Maharaja, desired to go to Ambikavana to observe the Siva-ratri ceremony. The rasa-lila was performed during the autumn, and after that the next big ceremony is Holi, or the Dolayatra ceremony. Between the Dolayatra ceremony and the rasa-lila ceremony there is one important ceremony called Siva-ratri, which is especially observed by the Saivites, or devotees of Lord Siva. Sometimes the Vaishnavas also observe this ceremony because they accept Lord Siva as the foremost Vaishnava. But the function of Siva-ratri is not observed very regularly by the bhaktas, or devotees of Krishna.
Under the circumstances, it is stated in Srimad-Bhagavatam that Nanda Maharaja and the other cowherd men “once upon a time desired.” This means that they were not regularly observing the Siva-ratri function but that once upon a time they wanted to go to Ambikavana out of curiosity.”
“…observing Siva-ratri, Nanda Maharaja and all the cowherds men, they increased their attachment for Krishna. That is wanted.”
– ( Srila Prabhupada. 1st May 1974, Morning Walk excerpt, Bombay, India.)
“In this verse Lord Siva is described as midhushtama, the best of the benedictors. He is also known as Asutosha, which indicates that he is very quickly satisfied and very quickly angered. It is said in Bhagavad-gita that less intelligent persons go to the demigods for material benedictions.
In this connection, people generally go to Lord Siva, and because he is always quickly satisfied and gives benedictions to his devotees without consideration, he is called midhushtama, or the best of the benedictors. Materialistic persons are always anxious to get material profit, but they are not serious about spiritual profit.
Sometimes, of course, it so happens that Lord Siva becomes the best benedictor in spiritual life. It is said that once a poor brahmana worshiped Lord Siva for a benediction, and Lord Siva advised the devotee to go to see Sanatana Gosvami.
The devotee went to Sanatana Gosvami and informed him that Lord Siva had advised him to seek out the best benediction from him (Sanatana). Sanatana had a touchstone with him, which he kept with the garbage. On the request of the poor brahmana, Sanatana Gosvami gave him the touchstone, and the brahmana was very happy to have it. He now could get as much gold as he desired simply by touching the touchstone to iron. But after he left Sanatana, he thought, “If a touchstone is the best benediction, why has Sanatana Gosvami kept it with the garbage?” He therefore returned and asked Sanatana Gosvami, “Sir, if this is the best benediction, why did you keep it with the garbage?” Sanatana Gosvami then informed him, “Actually, this is not the best benediction. But are you prepared to take the best benediction from me?” The brahmana said, “Yes, sir. Lord Siva has sent me to you for the best benediction.” Then Sanatana Gosvami asked him to throw the touchstone in the water nearby and then come back. The poor brahmana did so, and when he returned, Sanatana Gosvami initiated him with the Hare Krishna mantra. Thus by the benediction of Lord Siva the brahmana got the association of the best devotee of Lord Krishna and was thus initiated in the maha-mantra, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.