Mahalaya is the day that marks the beginning of Devi Paksha and Pitri Paksha or Pitru Paksha ends on the day. According to the Hindu calendar, there are 24 Paksha, among which only one is Matri Paksha or Devi Paksha.
It is believed that Devi Durga, along with her family starts her journey to martya (earth) on the day of Mahalaya. So, Mahalaya is believed to be a very happy day, especially for the Bengalis, as the festive spirit begins from this day.
In the last few years, a debate is going on. Should we say “Shubho Mahalaya”? Is it really a happy day? This question is rising because, early morning on Mahalaya, people go to river Ganga to pay homage to their dead ancestors. So, according to some people, this is a day to mourn. There is nothing happy or lucky about the day. Another group of people still believe the day to be pious and a day of celebration as Devi Paksha begins on this day.
This is indeed a happy day, a day to celebrate and begin the festivities.
Paying homage to a dead ancestor means paying homage to their Atma (soul). As the soul is believed to be an energy, and energy can never be destroyed, so the soul never dies. Hindu mythology says, when a person dies, the soul gets anothother body to take a new birth. Hindu mythology also says that every Atma is a part of the Paramatma (the Supreme Power). Then, how can paying homage to the Supreme Power be inauspicious?
Pita or father symbolises ‘hard-work’, while Mata or mother symbolises ‘affection and adoration’. After the whole year of working hard, Devi Durga’s homecoming showers us with the motherly affection and provides enjoyment. The comfort which mother’s lap provides, is enjoyed during Durga Puja, when the Mother Goddess arrives on earth. Mahalaya initiates that relaxation phase.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 2, verse 23:
नैनं छिन्दन्ति शस्त्राणि नैनं दहति पावक: |
न चैनं क्लेदयन्त्यापो न शोषयति मारुत: ||
nainaṁ chhindanti śhastrāṇi nainaṁ dahati pāvakaḥ
na chainaṁ kledayantyāpo na śhoṣhayati mārutaḥ
na—not; enam—this soul; chhindanti—shred; śhastrāṇi—weapons; na—nor; enam—this soul; dahati—burns; pāvakaḥ—fire; na—not; cha—and; enam—this soul; kledayanti—moisten; āpaḥ—water; na—nor; śhoṣhayati—dry; mārutaḥ—wind
“The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.”
This yet again proves that the soul never dies. So, paying homage to an ancestor means paying homage to the soul, which is still alive.
Now a question may arise that the soul never dies but the body does. Than can be a reason to mourn.
Bhagavad Gita has the answer to this question too. As per chapter 2, verse 22:
वासांसि जीर्णानि यथा विहाय
नवानि गृह्णाति नरोऽपराणि |
तथा शरीराणि विहाय जीर्णा
न्यन्यानि संयाति नवानि देही ||
vāsānsi jīrṇāni yathā vihāya
navāni gṛihṇāti naro ’parāṇi
tathā śharīrāṇi vihāya jīrṇānya
nyāni sanyāti navāni dehī
vāsānsi—garments; jīrṇāni—worn-out; yathā—as; vihāya—sheds; navāni—new; gṛihṇāti—accepts; naraḥ—a person; aparāṇi—others; tathā—likewise; śharīrāṇi—bodies; vihāya—casting off; jirṇāni—worn-out; anyāni—other; sanyāti—enters; navāni—new; dehī—the embodied soul
“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”
A person’s body dies when its purpose on the earth is served. The soul takes up another body. So, there is nothing to lament.
The argument can be concluded by Bhagavad Gita’s verse 30 of chapter 2, which says:
देही नित्यमवध्योऽयं देहे सर्वस्य भारत |
तस्मात्सर्वाणि भूतानि न त्वं शोचितुमर्हसि ||
dehī nityam avadhyo ’yaṁ dehe sarvasya bhārata
tasmāt sarvāṇi bhūtāni na tvaṁ śhochitum arhasi
dehī—the soul that dwells within the body; nityam—always; avadhyaḥ—immortal; ayam—this soul; dehe—in the body; sarvasya—of everyone; bhārata—descendant of Bharat, Arjun; tasmāt—therefore; sarvāṇi—for all; bhūtāni—living entities; na—not; tvam—you; śhochitum—mourn; arhasi—should
“O descendant of Bharata, he who dwells in the body can never be slain. Therefore you need not grieve for any living being.”
The person who dies, remains forever in the hearts of the near ones. Hence, paying homage to the dead ancestors is not a thing to mourn but an act of reverence.