Maha Shivaratri, or the great night of Shiva, is a night of prayers and worship of Lord Shiva.
According to various traditions, the night commemorates significant events in Lord Shiva’s life, such as his marriage with Goddess Parvati, the night he performed the Tandava Nritya (the cosmic dance), and the night he drank poison and saved the entire universe during the churning of the milk ocean.
The Garuda Purana says that when creation was completed, Shiva and Parvati were living on the top of Mount Kailash. Parvati asked Shiva: “O venerable God, which of the many rituals observed in your honor pleases you most?” Lord Shiva replied: “The thirteenth night of the new moon, Krishna Paksha, in the month of Magha(February–March) is known as Maha Shivaratri, My most favorable Tithi. My devotees give Me greater happiness by mere fasting than by ceremonial baths and offerings of flowers, sweets, and incense.”
Shiva devotees celebrate this night by staying awake during the night, offering puja to Lord Shiva, meditating and repeating his mantra “Om Namah Shivaya.”
Shiva, the Greatest Devotee of Lord Krishna
Vaishnava devotees also celebrate this holy night, as Lord Shiva is considered one of the greatest devotees of Lord Krishna. He is called Gopishware, or “the Lord of the Gopis.” In Shrimad Bhagavatam 12.13.16, Lord Shiva is described as the best devotee of Krishna:
nimna-gānāṁ yathā gaṅgā
devānām acyuto yathā
vaiṣṇavānāṁ yathā śambhuḥ
purāṇānām idam tathā
“Just as the Gaṅgā is the greatest of all rivers, Lord Acyuta the supreme among deities and Lord Śambhu [Śiva] the greatest of Vaiṣṇavas, so Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is the greatest of all Purāṇas.”
The devotees of Krishna look up to Lord Shiva as the gatekeeper of the rasa dance and pray to him in order to attain pure love to Krishna and the mood (bhava) of a devoted gopi.
Shiva, the Gatekeeper of the Rasa Dance
The following is the story how Lord Shiva became the gatekeeper of the rasa dance. Once while in deep meditation on the top of Mount Kailash, Lord Shiva heard the sweet vibration of Lord Krishna’s divine flute. Immediately he entered samadhi. Eager to go to the source of this transcendental vibration, he followed the sound until he came to Vrindavan, where Lord Krishna was getting ready to start the maha rasa (the great rasa dance) with his beloved gopis.
Desiring strongly to join the maha-rasa, Lord Shiva came to the entrance of the rasa area, but was stopped by Yogamaya, who told him: "No males except Krishna are allowed here. First you must obtain gopi-rupa, the form of a gopi, only then can you enter." Lord Shiva asked: "How can I get gopi-rupa?" Yogamaya replied: "Seek the refuge of Vrinda Devi. She will grant you the form of a gopi."
Vrinda Devi instructed Lord Shiva to take a dip in the waters of the Manasarovar lake. After bathing there, Lord Shiva emerged from the lake in the beautiful form of a gopi. Vrinda Devi then took Lord Shiva in his gopi form to one corner of the rasa dance area. Lord Shiva stood there and prayed to Sri Sri Radha Krishna for prema-bhakti, pure love to the divine couple.
Then the rasa dance started. Lord Krishna danced with all the gopis, including Lord Shiva in his disguise.
After some time, when they stopped to rest, the Lord said to the gopis: “I am not getting the usual pleasure from our dance today. Something is not right. I think there might be another man in our midst." He asked Lalita Devi to check all the gopis and make sure there was no man among them dressed as a gopi.
Lalita Devi went around and lifted the veils of all the gopis but could not find any man. She came back to Krishna and reported: “I have not found any man, but there is one gopi with three eyes.”
Lord Krishna asked Lalita Devi to bring this mysterious gopi to him. When the Lord saw Shiva transformed into a milkmaid, He laughed heartily and addressed him as follows: “O Gopeshwar, I am very pleased to see you in the form of a gopi. But you know that this rasa is not for grihasthas (householders). Therefore, since you have already participated and fulfilled your desire, I offer you the post of raas-dwaar-paal (gatekeeper of the rasa). I also give you my blessing: henceforth, all the gopis will offer respect to you and seek your blessing to get gopi bhava.”
One of the greatest Vaishnava saints, Srila Vishvanath Chakravarti, composed this beautiful verse in praise of Lord Shiva:
vrindavanvani-pate jaya soma soma
prema prayaccha nirupadhi namo namas te
“O Shiva, O gatekeeper of Vrindavan! O you who are accompanied by Uma (Parvati)! O you who carry the moon in your hair! O lord worshiped by Sananda-Kumar, Sanat-Kumar and Narada Muni! O Gopishwar, the worshipable deity of the gopis! Desiring that you bestow upon me love for the divine couple, Sri Sri Radha Madhava, who perform joyous pastimes in Vraja, I offer my obeisances unto you again and again.” (Srila Vishwanatha Chakravarti's Sri Sankalpa-Kalpadrum)