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Maha literally means 'Great', and Ratri is 'night' and jayanti means 'born date/time'. The word “Shiva" or "Shiv" has a Sanskrit origin, which translated to "benefactor". Therefore, “Shivaratri” implies that the incorporeal God (Shiva) incarnates in our world at such a time when the night of utter darkness prevails. The word “ratri” here does not recognise the darkness that falls after sunset, rather, it signifies the darkness of extreme ignorance (lack of spiritual knowledge) and unrighteousness in the world. Shiv-ratri or Shiv Jayanti is celebrated in Bharat (ancient India) since the copper age.
✱Why is it 'Ratri'?
Ratri is associated with Shiva because he incarnates at a time during the world cycle when it is a night of total darkness or ignorance of the self, and of the supreme soul, the father. When we human souls become impure under the influence of 5 vices (lust, anger, greed, ego, material attachment), and when the true religion of purity and peace and the spiritual self-identity is forgotten, he comes to restore the humanity in its highest stage, which is the original religion of deities (Devi-devta Dharma, as we say in Hindi).
➥In such night only, god has to come to awaken us, to re-establish the Satya Dharma (true religion) of peace, purity and universal love and brotherhood. He comes to uplift the entire humanity and thereby free us all from the sorrow and . This is remembered in Shrimat Bhagavad Gita in this sloka: Yada Yada hi Dharmasya... which says: "Whenever the original religion of soul is forgotten and defeated, I incarnate in the world to re-establish dharma, the golden age (heaven), to uplift the goodness and annihilate the evil. I come so in every kalpa (cycle)..."