The celebration of Maha Shivaratri begins with a night vigil leading up to the day of the festival, during which many Shiva devotees fast and offer special prayers. Shiva is worshipped in the form of alingam, a phallic symbol with a yoni that represents female creative energy. Together it represents the union of organs, and the totality of creation. Flowers, incense and other offerings are made, while prayers and bhajans are chanted. Bhang, an intoxicant made from the cannabis plant is commonly consumed by many on the occasion of Maha Shivaratri.
The celebration of Maha Shivaratri is attributed to several tales in Hindu mythology. One of the most popular tales traces its origins to samudra manthan, or churning of the ocean of milk. According to this belief, when the gods and demons were churning the ocean of milk to obtain amrita (drink of immorality), they came across many unusual substances including a deadly poison. Terrified, the gods approached Shiva for help, and out of compassion for all living beings, Shiva swallowed the poison. The poison was so potent that it turned his neck to blue.
One of the most famous prayers recited to lord Shiva on the occasion of Maha Shivaratri is theMahamrityunjaya Mantra, also known as the death-conquering mantra. Below are the words of the mantra in Sanskrit and a translation:
Om Tryambakam Yajamahe Sugandhim Pushtivardhanam Urvarukamiva Bandhanan Mrityor Mukshiya Maamritat
Translation: We meditate on the Three-eyed reality which permeates and nourishes all like a fragrance. May we be liberated from death for the sake of immortality, even as a cucumber is severed from bondage to the creeper.