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Finally, the festive season is around the corner; Goddess Durga is about to arrive with her descents (Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesha), after having vanquished the evil demon Mahishasura - to remind us about this victory, we have this auspicious day ‘Mahalaya’. Not only does this annual event hold a religious and spiritual significance; it also reminds us about the power of truth, of courage and of the universal fact that ‘good’ will always triumph over the ‘evil’. The beginning of the day of Mahalaya marks the beginning of ‘Devi Paksha’ and the end of ‘Pitri Paksha’; the latter of which is a period of mourning. It is a 16 day lunar period during which people remember and pay homage to their ancestors by offering food and water – thus gratitude is expressed for our ancestors who have contributions for our life. On the day of Mahalaya, ‘Devi paksha’ begins – this means that the time for Devi Durga to arrive to her maternal home. The time of the year is here again, when Bengalis from all over the world feel the happiness and warmth and those away from home, go through deep nostalgia. Mahalaya is the first day of the 10 days celebration and we all know that Maa Durga has arrived, on listening to the sound of the conch shells. Mahalaya marks the beginning of the celebration of Durga puja, when every Bengali wakes up early in the morning to listen to the chants of ‘Mahishashura Mardini’ by Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Mahalaya is the occasion, observed 7 days before Durga Puja. On this day, Devi Durga is invited by the people to descend on earth by chanting mantras.

In early 1930’s, Mahalaya was associated with ‘Mahishasura Mardini’, which was broadcasted as a live programme on All India radio. The broadcast played an audio of Bengali devotional songs and mantras. The programme was organised by Pankaj Kumar Mallick, Premankur Aatorthi, Birendra Krishna Bhadra, Nripendra Krishna Mukherjee and Raichand Boral. Birendra Krishna Bhadra is known as the man with a magical voice behind the ‘Mahishasura Mardini’. He narrated the advent of Maa Durga through the radio-programme. Today even after his demise, every Bengali wakes up early in the morning on the day of Mahalaya, to tune into the recorded version of his recital, which goes for around two long hours. ‘Mahishasura Mardini’, also known as ‘Annihilation of the Demon’ speaks about the cruel nature of the demon king Mahishasura against the gods. The gods are unable to bear the cruelty of the demons. Then Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara – ‘the trinity’ came together in the form of a female figure with ten arms – Goddess Durga. Devi Durga rides on a lion, fought with Mahishasura and slays the demon-king. Once Devi Durga slays the demon; heaven and earth rejoice at Her victory. “Ya devi sarbavuteshu, shakti rupena sanksthita, Namasteswai Namasteswai Namasteswai namo namaha” – this mantra marks the victory of Devi Durga.

Mahalaya is a very happy occasion. While there are many stories and folklores associated with the day, universally, people believe that on this day, Devi Durga officially beautifies the heart of mother earth with her ‘pabitra sree choron’ after the journey from Mount Kailash, where She resides with Her husband Lord Shiva to her maternal home on the earth. Bengalis celebrate it with much fervour and remark intermittently about the festive autumn weather and the ‘pujo-pujo’ feeling. Hindu households perform the ritual of ‘pitritarpan’ on this day, wherein they offer prayers to the deceased in the form of ‘pinda daan’ on the banks of any holy river. Hindus consider ‘Pitri Paksha’ to be inauspicious because ‘shradhha’ or death-rites are performed during this period.

Concerned History : 200 years after Gautam Buddha died, there was a surge in the practice owing to Emperor Ashoka. Alongside, Jainism flourished too; and Hinduism was not to be left very far behind. During the rule of Guptas, at a time when the Hindus were trying to create that personal relationship with their Gods, the ‘Devi Mahatyam’ was composed and written by rishi Markandeya. He basically summed up elements of all Goddesses (matrikas) in the subcontinent in one narrative, terming it to be ‘Mahadevi’, the great goddess who was greater than the sum of all her avatars. When one hears the story, it comes across as a simple tale of the battles between the goddess and the demons. But there are also many layers of philosophy and hidden messages – that two lifetimes probably would not be enough to decode. The story was narrated by sage Markandya to his disciples, about the time when a merchant and a king visited sage Medhas at his ashrama.

The great king Suratha, beaten by enemies, robbed by ministers and dispossessed of his kingdom seeks refuge at the peaceful ashram of sage Medhas but is unable to let of the thoughts of his kingdom. He continues to wonder if it is being governed properly. Again; Samadhi, a merchant has been ruined by his wife and sons who have seized his wealth and cast him out. However, he still worries about their well-being and is consumed by thoughts of them, wanting to go back. In despair and anguish, both of them turned to the ashrama of sage Medhas for solace and answers. They asked about the reason behind their attachments to the people who harmed them and why they could not seem to find the strength to cut the bonds that cause such unhappiness. The sage replied, “It is not your fault; men, birds and beasts alike are hurled into a whirlpool of attachment by the great goddess Mahamaya. It is She who pulls a veil of delusion on all that lives; so the cycle of life and death may continue”.

The curious merchant and the king enquired about Devi Mahamaya – they express their wish to know about Devi Mahamaya. The sage obliges by recounting three different epic battles between the devi and various demonic adversaries. The three tales are governed by the ‘Tridevi’ : 1) Mahakali (Chapter 1) – the destroyer, 2) Mahalakshmi (Chapter 2-4) – the sustainer, 3) Mahasaraswati (Chapters 5-13) – the creator. The most famous being the story of ‘Mahishasura Mardini’ - Devi Durga as ‘the slayer of the buffalo demon’, which is the most commonly found images in Hindu art and sculpture and a tale known almost universally. At the end of the narration, sage Medhas told the merchant and the king that it is the goddess who is the cause of their illusion to attachment and they must worship her to free themselves of the cycle. After three years of meditation, Goddess finally appeared, granting them both their wishes. While the king asked for an imperishable kingdom again and victory over his enemies; the merchant who grew wiser asked for the knowledge which removes attachments. Thus, it can be concluded that it is only the meditation which can return back all that we have lost in our life and to achieve the blessing of the almighty, the true respect is required for a long time – the history gives us the proper lesson in the practical world.

Mythological story on Mahalaya : The story starts with a demon character Rambha. Rambha, the king of asuras, took a liking to a lady-buffalo and decided to marry her. After sometime, a son was born to them. He was named Mahishasura, since ‘Mahisha’ means buffalo and an asura. As an asura or demon, he was born with super-human powers. At that time the devas or gods and the asuras or demons were the bitter enemies. They were always fighting with each other and it was the gods who usually won. When Mahishasura grew older, he did not like this one bit. “Father, why do we always lose to the gods? They have begun to think that they were too great”, he would say to Rambha. “We have to change this around. If only I could grow so strong, even these snooty gods could not touch me. If only I could being the most powerful being in all creation!” “You have many blessings son....May one day you shall achieve what you are dreaming now”, said his father. So, day and night, all that Mahishasura could think of was about, how to become more powerful than the gods. Finally Mahishasura got an idea. “Tapasya!”, he cried. “Why did not I think of it earlier? Everyone knows that strict fasting and prayers can make a person very strong”. Mahishasura immediately began a long penance. He stopped eating and began to pray to Brahma, the creator, standing on one foot under a tree. Many years passed and Mahishasura continued to stand there, praying and praying. The longer he stood, the more strength he gained. Soon the time came, when the power he had built up through his penance spread through all the three worlds. Even Brahma the creator felt its presence. “Mahishasura has been praying to me with great devotion for such a long time. Thus Mahishasura deserves to be rewarded”- Brahma said to himself. Lord Brahma set off for the place where the Mahishasura was fasting. Mahishasura sensed his presence and opened his eyes. When he saw Brahma standing there, he fell at his feet and cried, “Lord, you have honoured me greatly by coming here. It means you have recognised my devotion and answered my prayers”. Brahma raised his hand in blessing – “I am indeed very impressed by your long and devoted tapasya. You have fasted for years and prayed to me. I want to grant you a boon. Ask for anything that you desire”.. In no time, the heart of Mahishasura leaped in joy. “Lord, I thank you for your kindness. All I ask is that I want to become immortal”, he replied at once. Brahma smiled and shook his head – “My son what you ask for is not possible”, said gently. Then Brahma exclaimed, “Every creature that is born has to die. Think of something else. I will be happy to grant you a boon”. Mahishasura was disappointed at first, but he thought quickly. “There has to be a way. May be I can ask for a boon that will make me as good as immortal”, he said to himself. After sometime, he asked Brahma, “Lord, if you cannot make me immortal, can you grant me the boon that I cannot be killed by either a man or a god? If I have to die, it should only be at the hands of woman”. Being a gigantic demon, Mahishasura was confident enough that no woman would be strong enough to kill him. “It shall be as you ask, you will meet your death only at the hands of a woman”. Mahishasura folded his hands and bowed low before Brahma. “I thank you for this great boon, Lord”, he said.

The moment Brahma departed, Mahishasura bellowed with triumph and waved his trident in the air. “Now I will show these weakling gods who the true ruler of the three worlds is! No one can harm even a hair on my head, ha ha!” Mahishasura yelled. His terrible laughter rang through the earth and Mahishasura lost no time in unleashing a reign of terror. He gathered a huge army of fellow asuras and began to torment the inhabitants of the earth. They beat up travellers and robbed them of their belongings. The news spread everywhere that Mahishasura was invincible and no one could harm him. After suppressing all the mortals, Mahishasura decided to challenge the gods. He called all his generals for a meeting. “The gods have always tried to keep us down. But it is a different story now. I have Brahma’s boon. No man or god can harm me”, Mahishasura thundered. Mahishasura then bellowed, “Get ready for a battle, tomorrow we will attack Amaravati, capital of Indra”. True to the command, the group of asuras stormed Amaravati, confident that they would win definitely. The gods had heard about the coming attack and were quite worried. The devatas then consulted Brahma. “There is little I can do. I was the one who granted the boon of invincibility to Mahishasura. If only I had guessed his intentions!” Brahma said gravely. All the same, he came to the battlefield along with Vishnu and Shiva. Mahishasura had taken the form of a huge buffalo and was leading the demons. To their horror, all the divine weapons of the gods proved useless before his strength. Vishnu hit him with his powerful mace. The demon was stunned but rose again, taking the form of a lion. Then Vishnu threw his chakra to cut off his head but it bounced back, unable to make even a slight cut on him. In revenge, Mahishasura butted the god and knocked Vishnu down. As a last hope, Devaraj Indra hurled his thunderbolt vajra at the demon. But He was shocked to see that Mahishasura still stood there, laughing! Indra’s mighty thunderbolt passed over him like a gentle breeze. Mahishasura now took the form of a giant buffalo again and redoubled his attack. The gods began to flee in despair now. With shouts and whoops of delight, the asuras drove the gods out of heaven. They occupied Indra’s palace and poured into the streets of Amaravati, singing their frightful songs of victory. “Now I am lord of the three worlds!” yelled Mahishasura as he sat down on throne of Indra.

No one is left to check Mahishasura’s oppression now. He did what he wanted and the people of the earth suffered terribly. The gods were in pathetic state. For years they wandered over fields and mountains. Then tired of being in exile, they decided to consult the ‘trinity’ (Shiva-Vishnu-Brahma) to come up with a way to destroy the demon so they could return to heaven. Lord Vishnu said, “Not a single woman living in all three worlds is strong enough to destroy this evil creature. Let us use our combined powers to create one”. The desperate gods closed their eyes and began to concentrate all their thoughts on creating this invincible woman. Their divine powers and deep concentration worked and soon a fiery pillar of light appeared in the sky. It was so bright that even the gods found it impossible to look at it. It was a mass of pure energy produced from their combined power. From it, the devatas created a goddess, who would be strong enough to vanquish Mahishasura.

Lord Shiva created the face of the goddess, Lord Vishnu gave Her arms, Brahma provided Her with legs. The god of the oceans of milk gave Her red saree and a diamond necklace. Vishwakarma presented her with ear-rings, bracelets and other jewellery items He had made Himself. Thus all the gods presented Devi with various ornaments. Once Devi Durga was beautifully dressed, Lord Vishnu said, “Let us arm Her with our special strengths along with invincible weapons”. Vishnu began by handling Her a chakra like his own. Lord Shiva gave her a trident and Brahma a kamandulu full of the holy river Ganga. Lord Varun gave Devi a gift of ever-blooming lotus flower and a mighty conch. Agni presented a sadagni (a weapon that could kill thousands). Vayu provided Devi a bow and a quiver holding an endless supply of arrows. Indra gave Her a thunderbolt similar of His own. Lord Vishwakarma armed Her with a axe, Yama with a staff and Kuber gave Her a cup of wine. Surya presented Her with blinding rays. Tvashta gave Her the kaumodoki (divine mace). In this way, all the gods gifted Her different weapons. Finally, Himalaya, the god of the mountains, gave a tiger to Devi and She was named Mahadevi or Devi Durga. With their blessings, Devi Durga mounted the tiger and set out to destroy demon Mahishasura.

Devi Durga, then, approached to Amaravati, She let out a mighty roar that shook the mountains and created huge waves in the sea. Mahishasura asked his soldiers to find out what was happening. When he heard that a woman was challenging him, he laughed and said, “Tell her that I will be happy to marry Her”. When his messengers brought the proposal, Devi Durga replied, “Tell your king that I am not any woman who would be eager to marry him. I am Mahadevi and my husband is Lord Mahadeva. I have come to ask him to leave Amaravati and return to his place below the world. If he does not go, I will destroy him”. Hearing this reply, Mahishasura flew in rage. His leading warriors said arrogantly, “Your Majesty, we will go and set this silly woman right. She is not worth your attention”. The asuras went out to fight with Mahadevi. To their astonishment and horror, one after the other, the boastful warriors were finished off. The demon king Mahishasura got the news and became even more furious – “Cowards and weaklings! They could not stand upto a mere woman. I will settle this wretched female once and for all!” thundered Mahishasura. Cunningly Mahishasura assumed the form of a handsome man to woo Mahadevi – “Lovely lady, why do you want to fight like a rough man? Why not marry me, the king of heaven?” asked Mahishasura in sweetest tones as possible. He then replied himself, “Throw these weapons aside and come with me to live like a queen”. When Devi Durga rejected this offer firmly, Mahishasura attacked goddess Durga along with his army. Devi Durga immediately created a huge troop of soldiers from Her breath to fight back. Mahishasura tried all the tricks he knew, he kept changing shape to confuse the goddess. From a man he became a lion, then an elephant. But each time, Mahadevi wounded him severely with her weapons. The battle raged for nine days. Finally, the goddess killed the asura, who had taken the form of a huge buffalo again. She beheaded him with the chakra which Vishnu had given Her.

Thus the world became free from the tyranny of Mahishasura. Indra and the other gods returned to the heavens again, and all was well. Since then Devi Durga is worshipped is worshipped as ‘Mahishasura Mardini’. Thus, the mythological story of vicious battle where Mahishasura, the buffalo demon, met his fate at the hands of goddess Durga. The story gives a message about the divine power of the universe.

‘Mahalaya Amavasya’ – the ultimate time for removing negativity : The Mahalaya Amavasya is the ultimate time to eradicate the negativity from the entire humanity for unstoppable peace, success and happiness. “The planet earth is the only birth-place for the human race”. As per Shastras, our present life in the continuation of our past life as well as the preparation for the next life. It is believed that people die and reborn on the same earth. The only reason why we are enjoying this beautiful life is because of our ancestors. ‘Maha’ means highest or greatest. This ‘Mahalaya Amavasya’ is the perfect time to respect every elder who has contributed to our present life. This comfortable and sophisticated life that we are enjoying is the work of our deceased ancestors. There is ‘good karma’ and ‘bad karma’ in our ancestors. So, on this auspicious day, we as human beings spiritually help them to raise their energy to remove their ‘bad karma’ and experience a good life when they are born again on this earth.

Mahalaya is the highest time for one to experience the divine power to remove obstacles in the present life and to create a prosperous future. This day was created by our ancient ancestors and does not pertain to any particular region or god. It is a great time to celebrate our lives which is possible only for our ancestors. It directly involves removing negative energy and to create a great life, thereby, bringing peace to the entire human society, not only for people who have born and gone but also for the people who have not yet born. This is the reason why Vedas termed it as ‘Sarva Pitri Amavasya’.

Sitting in silence and blessing our elders having their image in our minds is the most essential part of the day of Mahalaya. Every human being should consider this as the greatest opportunity to fulfil their highest responsibility, not just by performing puja or prayers but by blessing their elders. ‘Mahalaya Amavasya’ is the time to find oneness with the ‘ultimate-power’ which provides us the energy to remove all the obstacles of our life. Thus this day is observed as Durga Puja. The significance goes back to Goddess Durga who descended on earth to reinstall the goodness in human beings by eliminating the existing evil.

The day Mahalaya remind ourselves that taking care and loving our parents (and elders) is as important as paying respects to our deceased ones. Respecting our elders when they are alive is more important than the mechanical ‘tarpana’. It is one of the highest ‘punnya karma’ that we can do for us and for our family. No one can stop the blessings that we receive from God when we take care of our parents and elders. This ‘Mahalya Amavasya’ is the celebration of the entire humanity, crossing all religions and gods.

‘Mahalaya’, in light of Theology : The ‘Pitri Paksha’, the fortnight named after the forefathers, ‘pitris’ and known for two weeks of ‘stop business phase’ ends on the day of Mahalaya. Interestingly, ‘Pitri Paksha’ (the male segment) is followed by ‘Debi Paksha’ (the female segment) which also includes nine days of Navaratri. Mahalaya is the conjunction of ‘pitri’ and ‘matri’ paksha.

Mahalaya is the concentration-point of ‘Ardhanareeshwar’ energy (half male and half female). In fact more female than male, because it is mother Parvati who took on Shiva’s half and She as Devi Durga emerges on the nine days that follow to vanquish varieties of demons including the famous Mahishasura.

On Mahalya, the ‘pitris’ (departed mens) leave their abode in the world of Yama and come down to the ground of mortals to reach to the houses of their descendants. A contact can be established with them on Mahalaya. There is also a powerful conjunction between the sun and the moon. It has been established for provable personal evidences that if you wish to those you loved and who are no more, if truly wish to feel their presence or receive their blessings – all you got to do is to meditate around ‘pitri paksha’(especially on the day of Mahalaya) and it definitely works. The presence of the ancestors is also felt. One can feel their loved ones. Mahalaya is about using this subtle energy to work out our karmas around our ancestors.

Scientific analysis on the concept of Mahalaya : According to the scientists, human beings and their ancestors have existed on this planet for 20 million years. That is a lot of time. All these hundreds of thousands of generations that lived on this planet before us have given us something or the other. The language that we speak, the way we sit, our clothes, our buildings – almost everything that we know today has come to us from generations before us. When only animals existed on this planet it was all about survival, eating, sleeping, reproduction and dying one day. Then slowly, this animal which knew only survival, started evolving. From being horizontal; it started standing up, the brain started growing and this animal’s ability to do things suddenly started multiplying. The significant thing about being human is that we can use tools. This simple ability of using tools, we multiplied or made it grow into technologies. The day an ape picked up a thighbone of an animal and started fighting with that bone instead of with just his hands; when apart from his own body, he had the necessary intelligence to start using tools to make his life, in some way that was the beginning of human life on the planet.

Now human beings started structuring life, so that we could live a little better than animals. Shelters came up, buildings came up and clothes came – so many things happened on this planet because of the human beings. From simple things like making fire to discovering the wheel and innumerable other things, this legacy has been passed on from generation to generation. We are actually who we are today, only because of all the things that have been given to us. So, it can be said that that we have taken all the things ‘as taken for granted’ that we have today. But without the generation that came before us, firstly we would not exist here; secondly, without the contribution of our ancestors we would not have all the things that we have today. So, instead of taking all our ancestors just for granted, Mahalaya is the day when we express our gratitude to all our ancestors. This gratitude on the morning of Mahalaya is done as a ritual to pay homage to one’s dead parents, but is actually an expression of gratitude for all those generations of ancestors, who lived before us.

Also, during Mahalaya, on the ground of Indian subcontinent, new crops would have just begun to bear yield. So, the first produce is offered to the ancestors as a mark of respect and thankfulness by the way of ‘pinda’, before the whole population breaks into celebration in the form of other festivals like Navaratri, Vijayadashami and Diwali.

According to scientists, Devi Durga is the ‘cosmic mother’ (mother of all creations), full of love and compassion. Devi Durga represents all the three times of past, present and future. Devi represents the three worlds : ‘gross physical world’, ‘mental world’ and ‘transcendental cosmic world’. She resides in every atom in this universe in the form of material, energy and consciousness. At the highest state, She is one with the primordial vibration ‘Om’. Devi Durga is also one with Lord Shiva, the essence of all auspiciousness. Goddess Durga is a multi-dimensional deity, signifies ‘Shakti’ (power), courage, fearlessness, feminine energy, desire and the strength of transformation. The embodiment and tale of the goddess exemplifies the female power with the message like - “A mother is considered to be the symbol of the pure creative force”, “She is fierce”, “Signifies feminine energy”, “the power of the universe lies within a woman” and “power to give birth not only to a child but also to so many creative manifestations”.

Mahalaya is a reminder to prepare oneself for the subjugation of the ego (ahamkara) during Durga puja. It instills the spirit of surrender (to offer oneself to Devi Durga for the final destruction of the ego). Devi Durga simply strikes the ego of the surrendered soul to bless with the bounty of eternal bliss of self-realization. May Goddess Durga destroy all evils around you and fill your life with prosperity and happiness in this ‘Devi Paksha’. May Goddess Durga eliminate all the vices and brings happiness to the life of everybody.