Apart from the “Samudra Manthan ” ( the churning of the milky ocean from which both poison and nectar emerged – read article ” The Night of MahaShivaratri” MArch 2011) there are other popular stories that inspire the festival of the night dedicated to Lord Shiva.
One of the most popular legends of Maha Shivratri is that of the marriage of Shiva and Shakti. The day Lord Shiva got married to Parvati is celebrated as Shivratri – the Night of Lord Shiva. It tells us how Lord Shiva got married a second time to Shakti, his divine consort. There is another version of the legend, according to which Goddess Parvati performed austerities and prayers on the auspicious moonless night of Shivratri, for the well being of her husband. Believing in this legend, married women began the custom of praying for the well being of their husbands and sons on Maha Shivratri, while, unmarried women pray for a husband like Shiva, who is considered to be the ideal partner.
The legend of Shiva Linga Lingodbhavamurthy is also deeply related to Maha Shivratri. The legend narrates the story of vain search by Brahma and Vishnu to discover the Aadi (beginning) and the Antha (end) of Lord Shiva. The legend thus proves the supremacy of Lord Mahadeva over other two Hindu Gods and explains why the lingam is believed to be one of the most potent emblems in Hindu ideals. The story is stated in the Purana. Brahma and Vishnu were fighting over each other’s power . The other gods asked Shiva to intervene. To make them realize the futility of their fight, Lord Shiva on the 14th day in the dark fortnight of the month of february/MArch manifested himself in the form of a flaming Lingam, an endless pillar of light in between Brahma and Vishnu and challenged both of them by asking them to measure the gigantic Linga. Brahma and Vishnu decided to find one end each to establish supremacy over the other. They travelled in opposite directions only to discover that the Lingam was endless! When they reconvened the central part of the pillar split open and Shiva revealed himself in his full glory. Hence bot Brahma and Vishnu bowed before him accepted lord Shiva’s supremacy.
The legend of Ganga ( the river Gange) is another popular legend which is related to Shivratri. Ganga’s descent from the heavens to the earth has been narrated in the Hindu mythological epic of Ramayana. This legend explains the popular custom of giving bath to Shiv Linga on Shivratri festival. According to this legend, Lord Shiva held out his thick matted hair to catch the river ganga, as she descended from heaven. The meandering through Shiva’s lock softened Ganga’s journey to the earth and the holy waters washed away the ashes of Bhagirath’s ancestors. The Ganga, thus, became an attribute of Shiva and therefore Shiva is also known as Gangadhara (“bearer of the river Ganga”) . The flow of the Ganges also represents the nectar of immortality. Believing in this legend, Shiva is given a bath with gangajal ( water from the holy water Ganga) and devotees take a dip in the holy water of river Ganga, on Shivratri.