Narakacatūrdaśī is also known in Hindi as Kālīcaudas. Naraka means “hell”, and it’s because on this day we honor the release from our inner and outer hell. In some traditions, we specifically honor the freedom of women from all forms of oppression, torture, and assault. It is a day of deep purging and liberating of anything which is not in alignment with Śrī, with dharma.
There’s a powerful story behind this day:
Once upon a time, there was a demon named Bhaumāsura, who was also called Narakāsura because he created hell everywhere he went. He had acquired a boon that no man could ever kill him. He was a monster in every sense of the term – in particular, he liked to kidnap, rape, and torture women, especially those of noble birth. Over the years, he had imprisoned 16,000 women in a special jail he had built, where he was able to inflict unspeakable horrors upon them everyday. Their families had tried to rescue them in vain – he destroyed anyone who attacked him. In time, the families gave up, reconciling them to the fact that they were as good as dead, forgotten to the world.
The women, however, were brave, and dharmic, and each one prayed to the Lord for rescue and salvation. So intense and deep were their prayers, that they penetrated the heart of Śrī Kṛṣṇa himself. At the time, he was relaxing with His wife Satyabhāmā. When she saw the sadness in His eyes, she asked Him what was wrong. He shared the situation with her – that these women were suffering, but only a woman could free them. As soon as she heard this, she jumped up and said, “Well, let’s go free them!”
So they gathered the army and headed towards Narakāsura’s castle. Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s army fought with great might, and were just barely able to hold Narakāsura and his equally mighty army at bay through the day and night.
At the right moment, around 3 am, Satyabhāmā – who was not a trained warrior, but had a courageous and just heart – suddenly charged towards the demon, and managed to kill him. They then set about freeing the women, who were weeping with gratitude and relief.
As the Lord and Satyabhāmā prepared to leave, however, the women begged them to stay. After all that they had been through, they knew that none of the nobility or their old society would accept them again. After so much suffering, the additional tragedy was that they had nowhere to return to.
Satyabhāmā, who knew the vastness and depth of divine love and protection, suggested to Śrī Kṛṣṇā that he marry them, so they would be honored and received as divine queens. By marrying the Lord, each woman would not only have a new home and life, but a much more magnificent one than she had before.
Lord Kṛṣṇa, who IS dharma, sought to fulfill the dharma of a husband by giving each woman his undivided attention and love. In order to do so, He replicated himself 16,000 times. He then married each woman according to Vedic rites, built her a beautiful palace, and lived there happily with her until the end of her mortal life.
In another version of this story, Naraka Caturdaśī is the day Mahākālī took form, and She is the one who slays the demon. Depending on the region and lineage, either Śrī Kṛṣṇa or Mahākālī is worshipped on this day (and interestingly enough, in some regions of Bengal, they are often worshipped interchangeably in spiritual practice!). However, in both versions of the myth, it is important to note that it is the feminine embodiment which slays the demon.
This story has so many layers to reflect upon. One thing to keep in mind is that myths are not history – they are not stories of things that happened long ago to other people. Myths describe existing dynamics and processes; all the characters within a myth can be found both inside of us and in our world.
The most obvious place the myth directs our attention to is the fact that around the world, women are still being kidnapped, assaulted, raped, and tortured. The pain of that inevitably reaches those who love them, including men. The only way to defeat this demon is when men and women join forces – and resources to fight this. However, even then, it will be women who gather up their strength to deliver the final blow and end it once and for all.
Another more subtle and yogic interpretation of this myth is that we each have our own personal traumas (saṃskāra is a more accurate term) – some sort of deep wound that perpetually puts us in a hellish space and traps us. We are powerless against it, and we might feel shame and disconnected from our world because of the pain or suffering we have endured, or are still enduring. We feel ashamed, abandoned, and afraid – feeling that we can’t go back to our old carefree life – to our old habits and “friends”.
This myth shows us a way forward. By turning to divine love, we are ultimately protected and redeemed. The myth also prepares us for the fact that grace may come in the form of a fierce and exhausting battle – a battle where our heart (Lord Kṛṣṇa) and our spirit (Satyabhāma or Devī) is fighting tooth and nail against our oppressive beliefs and habitual tendencies that perpetuate suffering for us and others.
We learn from this myth that if we can trust, and surrender, we WILL be free. And arguably the best part of the story is that the same love we called upon to free us from suffering now remains with us as our eternal companion. Think about this for a moment.
The same love that we call upon to free us from suffering remains with us forever as our eternal companion. What could be more beautiful, auspicious, or nourishing than that? As you can see, each day of the holiday celebration contains teachings and wisdom about how to invoke and align with Śrī, both inside ourselves and in our outer world.
Reflecting on this story, what else stands out for you?
The tradition for the day is (for both men and women) to wake up early, well before dawn (generally around 3 am, because that was the moment of liberation), and bathe. As you bathe, imagine that you are washing away any trace of pain, misery, shame, or unworthiness. Like the women in the myth, you are about to be freed from your personal hell and become the beloved of the Lord himself. When you emerge, anoint your entire body with fragrant essential oils, massaging them into your body. Feel your beauty, your purity, your goodness, and your majesty.
People also use this day to clean and decorate the entire house (holding the intention that they are freeing it of anything that is dark, ugly, broken, or painful), and also fill their space with fresh fragrance and beauty. It might be flowers, fabric garlands, incense, or any number of other ways to create a beautiful space. Many people also start arranging and lighting oil lamps on this day. We also get rid of anything old or broken – clothes, dishes, etc. This is all preparation to step into a life of Śrī, a life imbued with truth, beauty, and love.
There is also a more esoteric practice of facing west and pouring water, making offerings to Lord Yama, the power of Death. We do this with the prayer that we can die gracefully, and at the right time in a peaceful way, rather than by accident. This ritual also helps remind us that even as we celebrate life that death is also part of our journey. By doing this ritual, we hold awareness of our mortality with respect and steady wisdom.
Throughout the day, people worship and sing to Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the living embodiment of dharma, or to Mā Kālī, the Divine Mother. It is a powerful day to invoke grace and blessings to fight against any form of abuse or oppression. It is also traditional to do Kālī-pūjā, praying for protection, liberation, and release from every form of darkness and bondage.
Traditional belief holds that if you are a woman in need of protection and liberation, this is one of the most powerful days of the year where those prayers are heard. Śrī Kṛṣṇa has a special role as a protector of women, and the heightened energy on this day means prayers and longing for liberation carry extra potency. Of course, it is very auspicious and profound to pray not just for yourself, but on behalf of others who might be suffering and need blessing.
As you can probably tell, unlike Dhanteras and Diwali, this middle day has a heavier, more somber quality because it involves directly facing our “stuff” and cleaning it out. Whether we do it physically, by removing dirt and clutter, or internally by cleansing our thoughts and beliefs, or through yogic practice in our karmic bodies – whether we clean up the violence and harm within our societies and our communities, this is a day to purge and purify whatever does not align with Śrī.
For all of us, no matter what we have suffered, or where we feel irreparably broken, today is a day to know that the divine accepts us and loves us completely. We always have a cherished place in the sacred heart of the Supreme Presence. With that knowing, we can reclaim our life from the shadow of darkness and once again fully enter the light.