There are many stories and folklore associated with the celebration of Mahalaya Amavasye. Largely, people believe that on this day, Goddess Durga begins her journey from Mount Kailash — where she resides with her husband Lord Shiva — to her maternal home on Earth.
Mahalaya marks the beginning of Devi Paksha and the end of the Pitri Paksha.
Pitru Paksha also spelt as Pitri paksha, Pitr Paksha (literally means “fortnight of the ancestors”) is a 16–lunar day period in Hindu calendar when Hindus pay homage to their ancestor, especially through food offerings. The period is also known as Pitru Pakshya, Pitri Pokkho, Sola Shraddha/ Sorha Shraddha in Nepali (“sixteen shraddhas”), Kanagat, Jitiya, Mahalaya Paksha and Apara paksha.
Pitru Paksha is considered by Hindus to be inauspicious, given the death rite performed during the ceremony, known as Shraddha or Tarpan.
In southern and western India, it falls in the 2nd paksha (fortnight) Hindu lunar month of Bhadrapada (September) and follows the fortnight immediately after Ganesh Utsav. It begins on the Pratipada (first day of the fortnight) ending with the no moon day known as Sarvapitri amavasya, Pitru Amavasya, Peddala Amavasya, Mahalaya amavasya or simply Mahalaya.
Most years, the autumnal equinox falls within this period, i.e. the Sun transitions from the northern to the southern hemisphere during this period.
In North India and Nepal, and cultures following the purnimanta calendar or the solar calendar, this period may correspond to the waning fortnight of the luni-solar month Ashvin, instead of Bhadrapada.
According to Hinduism, the souls of three preceding generations of one’s ancestor reside in Pitru–loka, a realm between heaven and earth.
This realm is governed by Yama, the god of death, who takes the soul of a dying man from earth to Pitru–loka. When a person of the next generation dies, the first generation shifts to heaven and unites with God, so Shraddha offerings are not given. Thus, only the three generations in Pitru–loka are given Shraddha rites, in which Yama plays a significant role.
According to the sacred Hindu epics, at the beginning of Pitru Paksha, the sun enters the zodiac sign of Virgo (Kanya). Coinciding with this moment, it is believed that the spirits leave Pitru–loka and reside in their descendants’ homes for a month until the sun enters the next zodiac—Scorpio (Vrichchhika)—and there is a full moon. Hindus are expected to propitiate the ancestors in the first half, during the dark fortnight.
Story related to Pitru Paksha:
When the Karna died in the epic Mahabharata war, his soul transcended to heaven, where he was offered gold and jewels as food.
However, Karna needed real food to eat and asked Indra, the lord of heaven, the reason for serving gold as food. Indra told Karna that he had donated gold all his life, but had never donated food to his ancestors in Shraddha.
Karna said that since he was unaware of his ancestors, he never donated anything in their memory.
To make amends, Karna was permitted to return to earth for a 15–day period, so that he could perform Shraddha and donate food and water in their memory. This period is now known as Pitru Paksha. In some legends, Yama replaces Indra.
The scripture Markandeya Purana says that if the ancestors are content with the shraddhas, they will bestow health, wealth, knowledge and longevity, and ultimately heaven and salvation (moksha) upon the performer.
The performance of Sarvapitri amavasya rites can also compensate a forgotten or neglected annual Shraddha ceremony, which should ideally coincide with the death anniversary of the deceased.
The ceremony is central to the concept of lineages. Shraddha involves oblations to three preceding generations—by reciting their names—as well as to the mythical lineage ancestor (gotra). A person thus gets to know the names of six generations (three preceding generation, his own and two succeeding generations—his sons and grandsons) in his life, reaffirming lineage ties.
Anthropologist Usha Menon of Drexel University presents a similar idea—that Pitru Paksha emphasises the fact that the ancestors and the current generation and their next unborn generation are connected by blood ties. The current generation repays their debt to the ancestors in the Pitru Paksha. This debt is considered of utmost importance along with a person’s debt to his gurus and his parents.
The festive season is celebration of Goddess Durga who vanquished the evil demon Mahishasura. And to remind us of this victory, we have the auspicious day of ‘Mahalaya’.
Not only does this annual event hold a religious and spiritual significance, it also reminds us of the power of truth, of courage and of the universal fact that in the end, good will always triumph over evil.
Bengalis celebrate it with much fervour.
It is believed Goddess Durga undertakes this week-long journey with her children — Ganesha, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati — on a vehicle of her choice. It could be a palanquin, or a boat, an elephant or a horse.
Mahalaya is celebrated roughly seven days before Durga Puja. Every Bengali household wakes up early in the morning — even before the sun — to customarily listen to a collection of songs and mantras called ‘Mahishasura Mardini’, in the sonorous voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra. These mantras invoke the Goddess; the most famous one being Jago Tumi Jago (meaning, ‘awaken, oh Goddess!’)
Some Hindu households also perform the ritual of pitritarpan on this day, wherein they offer prayers to the deceased in the form of ‘pind-daan‘ on the banks of River Ganga.
This festive season may goddess vanquish evil from within oneself. May there be prosperity and good thoughts and happiness fill our life.
Dr Sindhu Prashanth