India is the land of festivals. In fact, there is a festival for almost every day. This is testimony to the spirit of celebration that underlies India's cultural ethos. Festivals in India aren't just about revelry. They are also a means for spiritual growth. Every festival has a profound basis to it. Thus, Diwali isn't about firecrackers alone. It is about bringing a new light into one's life, to dispel the darkness of ignorance. Similarly, Sankranti isn't just a harvest festival, it is an opportunity to express gratitude to nature for its bounty.
But a few festivals are explicitly spiritual in nature. Guru Poornima, which falls in the lunar month of Ashadha in June/July is one of these. The other famous one is Mahashivratri, which falls in the months of February/March every year. Mahashivratri literally means "the great night of Shiva". Celebrated in the lunar month of Magha, Mahashivratri falls one night before the new moon, also known as Amavasya in Sanskrit.
This festival is held in honor of Shiva, the Mahadeva or great god. It is very significant that Shiva is considered the Mahadeva in the Hindu way of life. Shiva is commonly referred to as the destroyer in Western literature, and this is frequently misunderstood to mean that he is the destroyer of the universe. That, however, is only one of his many roles. In a spiritual context, Shiva is seen as the one who destroys human limitations, allowing one to attain to their ultimate nature, known as mukti or liberation.
Thus, Mahashivratri is seen as a great opportunity to progress on the spiritual path. It is a common practice to stay awake throughout the night, sitting with an erect spine. The erect spine is considered an important part of the festival, as it is said that this allows for an upsurge of energies, aided by the planetary positions on Mahashivratri. It isn't unusual, even in cities, to come across groups awake at night, chanting the mantra Aum Namah Shivaya, which is sacred to Shiva.
Mahashivratri is seen as an opportunity to open up new dimensions of life. Shiva being Triambaka, or the three-eyed one, is seen as the embodiment of perception. His third eye is the eye of perception and true vision, which allows him access to those dimensions of existence beyond the grasp of most of humanity (who are restricted to using the two physical eyes!). However, Mahashivratri represents an opportunity for every human being to open up their third eye, and experience existence beyond the "maya" or illusionary nature we usually percieve.
This year, Mahashivratri falls on February 17. There are several major celebrations that take place across the country. In the north of the sub-continent, Varanasi or Kashi is a major center, with several celebrations taking place across the city. In the south of the country, the Velliangiri Mountains in Tamil Nadu are a major place of Shiva worship, and a massive Mahashivratri celebration takes place all night at the foothills. Shiva devotees also undertake the pilgrimage to the top of the 5000-foot peak, where there is a sacred Shiva shrine.
Whatever be your choice of place for the celebration, be sure you don't miss it! The night of the "dark one" is unique in its own way.