Significance of Mahalaya
Let’s discuss what exactly Mahalaya is and what the significance of the same is. It is the last day during the pitru paksha which is considered to be an inauspicious time. We have already studied pitru paksha in a separate article but in brief this starts immediately after the Ganesha festival is over and consists of sixteen days. This is the time when respect is paid to the ancestors. Food and other offerings are made to the ancestors in this time.
Mahalaya is one of these pakshas or phases of the pitru paksha. The Mahalaya falls on a no moon day and is also called the Mahalaya Amavasya. It is a tradition in India to offer food to their ancestors in this time. It is believed that if this is not done, then soul of the person will remain unsatisfied after death.
There is also a story about King Karna who did not offer any food to his ancestors while he was alive so when he died and was transported to heaven, despite his other good karmas he was not offered any food.
Karna died in the epic Mahabharata, his soul transcended to heaven. There he was offered jewelry as food. Bemused, Karna asked Indra for the reason of this bizarre happening. Indra told him that because of the fact that he has never donated food to his ancestors in Shraddhas, during his lifetime, he was getting such treatment. Karna said that he was unaware of his ancestors and hence he had no chance of donating food to them.
He was given a chance then to make amends. He returned to earth for a 16 day period and performed Shraddha and donated food in memory of his ancestors. This period is henceforth known as Pitru-Paksha. Goddess Durga starts her journey towards earth on the day of Mahalaya, i.e. on the first day of the Devi-Paksha.
There is another story which relates the mahalaya festival to Goddess Durga. The mahalaya is said to be the time period when the Goddess Durga killed the asuras. The Bengalis consider this day very important and it is still celebrated in many parts of Bengal. Plays are performed where the Goddess Parvati in the form of Durga where She kills the asuras and brings peace in the world.
Story Of How Lord Shiva Made Parvati Destroy Asuras
The story goes like this that the asuras were becoming very strong. They got blessed by the Gods and were almost immortal. Lord Shiva had given them a blessing that only a woman could kill them. This made them fearless as they thought that no women would even dare fight them, let alone destroying them. Lord Shiva was requested by the gods that these asuras were creating havoc and someone had to stop them. Lord Shiva got married to Parvati who was the daughter of Himalaya. She was Shakti meaning power that runs the universe. She was a part of Lord Shiva himself was once.
After the marriage Lord Shiva made Parvati do deep meditation. This went on for years. After the meditation she was bestowed will all the powers that she needed to protect the world from evil and the asuras. After the lesson was complete lord Shiva and goddess parvati took the form of ardh nareshwar. This is the form of half man and half woman. In this form lord Shiva wanted to convey that man and woman are equally important in the world. Man stands for the physical strength and a woman stands for the inner strength that is Shakti.
Goddess Parvati was given different forms. One form was that of Goddess Durga. This is the form that would destroy the evil and ensure that justice is done. This is the form she took on the day of the Mahalaya. All the Gods gave their celestial weapons to Goddess Durga. These were so powerful that they would destroy the asuras.
Goddess Parvati sat on a lion and went to meet the asuras. Goddess Parvati was wondering why she should attack the asuras. Did they do any harm to her? This is exactly why she wanted to give the asuras a chance. She went to the place where the asuras stayed. The king of the asura Mahisasura had a weakness for women. His eyes fell on Goddess Parvati. He was taken aback by her immense beauty. He sent his assistants to Goddess Parvati with the proposal of marriage.
Goddess Parvati said she cannot marry as she was already married. Moreover if the king of asuras wanted to marry her then he should come himself and not send his servants. This message was taken to the king of the asuras. The king sent back a message saying that he would give her all the money and power that she needed. Her present husband Lord Shiva was a hermit and lives under the open sky. She definitely deserves better. The king of the asuras also ordered his assistants that if Parvati refuses to come this time they should apply force on Her. They did exactly what was told. Goddess Parvati was already furious at the insult of Her husband and when the asuras tried to use power on Her, She took the form of Durga and killed them all. All this happened on the day of Mahalaya.
The king of the asuras was informed of this incident. On hearing that his powerful soldiers were killed by a woman he decided to visit the Goddess Parvati himself. There was a furious war between the Goddess Parvati and asuras. This war went on for nine days. These days are still celebrated in the form of the Navratri. Finally Goddess Durga killed them all and ensured that the Gods got back the heaven.
So Mahalaya basically is still celebrated to remember how Goddess got all Her powers and She was sent to fight the asuras by her husband Lord Shiva and by all the other Gods. The Mahalaya is more popular in West Bengal as it paves way to the five day long Durga Puja that happens to be the biggest festival of the Bengalis.