Amavasyas by themselves are considered important for the Hindus and Mahalaya Amavasya is the mother of all Amavasyas. It is on this day that sacred offerings and obsequies are paid to departed souls. But why is the fortnight of Mahalaya Paksha so important to Hindus?
The dark fortnight between September and October or the Aswayuja is also called the Mahalaya Paksha (paksha is the waxing or waning of the moon). It is said that when the great hero of Mahabharata, Karna died and went to the heavens he was rewarded with gold and silver for all the charity and good work that he had done when he was alive. But he was never ever given food for he had never ever served food to anyone. So he prayed to the God of Death, Lord Yama, and owing to his good work, Yama sent him back to earth to cover up this one defect. And Karna served food to everyone – Brahmins and the poor and offered oblations of water.
On his return to the heavens he was given a lot of food. The Mahalaya paksha are these fourteen days that Karna spent on earth and because of the God of Death, it was ordained that the offerings that he made on the last fourteen days would not only benefit him but all the departed souls immaterial of them being related to you or not. And the most important day is the last day or the fourteenth day, which is Mahalaya Amavasya and this is the day when Hindus offer food, obsequies and oblations for the departed souls. It is the Pitr paksha and is important for all the Hindus living in India and abroad.
Since Amavasyas are usually the days when Hindus offer obsequies and food for departed souls, these days are considered inauspicious. Whereas Mahalaya amavasya is the day when Hindus offer Shraddha, which is considered auspicious and gratifying. On this day there is a conjunction of the sun and the moon and the Sun enters the Kanya rashi (Virgo). And it is said that the ancestors descend on earth to accept the rites from their descendents and this is the significance of this day. On these days down South, Hindus do not eat non-veg, onions or garlic and spend the day reciting hymns and prayers. Other Amavasya days are also sombre days and there are no festivities attached to it. Since these days are usually meant for remembering our ancestors or elders who are no more, there is a certain amount of mourning attached to it.
But it is not the case of Diwali celebrated on Amavasya in the north. Diwali is celebrated for five continuous days. The first day is the Dhanteras, This day is considered auspicious for buying gold and silver. The second day is Narakachaturdasi or the day when Lord Krishna killed the demon Narakasura and to celebrate the event people burst crackers and this continues even to this day. This is also the symbolic reason why we light diyas or lamps. The third day is the day of prayers to Lord Ganesh and the goddess Lakshmi. Even though this falls on Amavasya or the darkest night, this is considered one of the most auspicious days when the sun passes through the Libra constellation and this is the day when people balance their accounts.
Thus even though the Amavasyas are considered inauspicious, they are most important in the Hindu calendar thanks to the Hindu belief in life after death. But then there is the Mahalaya amavasya, which is considered auspicious and gratifying and so also the Diwali, which is celebrated on an Amavasya. Does your family mark these occasions with offerings? How have you kept up these traditions now that you live outside India?