Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is the god of success, wisdom, learning and prosperity. He is the destroyer of obstacles, vanity and evil.

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Ganesh Chaturthi

From what I’ve seen, Ganesh Chaturthi”is the biggest yearly festival in Pune. Each year families install an image of Ganesha in their home, offering it special worship for up to ten days.

During Ganesh Chaturthi, families, neighbors, and groups gather for cultural events, reunions and special ceremonies. It’s a time of goodwill across sectarian boundaries; religious and social groups sponsor the construction of temporary pavilions where larger statues of Ganesha are installed and decorated. Some of these statues can be huge and very lavish, especially in Mumbai where they sometimes exceed 25 feet in height.

You’ll see the pavilions all along the roadways, curtained during the day to give Ganesha rest and opened in the evening, festooned with colored lights and beautiful decorations. There is a lively competition between pavilions to see which is the nicest. Banners are everywhere and, at night, the beating of drums, loud music and processions come from all directions.

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A force for Indian unity

Ganesha is honored by all sects throughout India but he is particularly loved here in Pune, probably because it was in Pune that Lokmanya Tilak, an Indian nationalist of the early twentieth century, used the Ganesh Chaturthi festival as a rallying event for Indian culture, national pride, and independence from the British. Tilak used the festival to unite Hindus across caste boundaries and was instrumental in the transformation of  Ganesh Chaturthi from a purely religious occasion into a cultural celebration of Hindu values and culture. As the freedom movement grew and spread, so did Ganesh Chaturthi.

Ganesha is the god of “beginnings.” This is why he is often seen in temples, even in those dedicated to other gods. As the keeper of the entry, he is associated with the muladhar chakra, or coccyx center, and is said to be a great yogi. You can tell by his long elephant trunk, indicating the long breath, that he is adept at pranayama (energy control). He is master of the ego, represented by the mouse, vahana (his vehicle), and his big belly is said to contain all universes.

If you know the Mahabharata, you’ll remember that it was Ganesha who acted as Byasa’s scribe when he recited the epic tale of India. It is said that Ganesha was reluctant to take on such a big task but consented on condition that Byasa recite continuously and never make him wait. Byasa agreed but extracted a condition in return from Ganesha, that he not transcribe anything until he first understood its deeper meaning completely. Thus, Ganesha was forced to pause from time to time, allowing Byasa to keep ahead of him. Naturally enough, by the end of the book, Ganesha had earned his sobriquet as the god of knowledge. Elephants, so it is said, have a long memory and never forget.

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A transient image of the Infinite

Submersion Day marks the official closing of the ten-day Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Statues of Ganesha are paraded to the Mutha River near Pune for immersion in the fast flowing water, dissolving the earthly form temporarily inhabited by the Divine and releasing Him back into the Infinite. Swami Kriyananda writes that after the great seasons of worship in India such as Ganesh Chaturthi, the various images are immersed in rivers to keep devotees aware that the forms they worship are only transient images of the Infinite, and to help people to direct their ultimate devotion to God alone.

Many come as families lovingly carrying their small household statues to the river ghats where fathers perform a puja (ceremony) before submerging it into the water. Larger groups load more elaborate Ganeshas onto trucks, trailers or wedding chariots accompanied by bands and drummers while music blasts from huge speakers. Imagine hundreds and hundreds of these trucks, trailers or wedding chariots making their way from all directions to the river ghats, each led by crowds of dancing men amidst firecrackers, loud music, and horns.

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Good will and acceptance

Throughout India you’ll see Ganesha in multiple forms, holding varying objects in his many hands, usually numbering four but sometimes more. Sometimes he dances and at other times he reclines. Each family can have its own traditions of worship and every village its own legends. The symbolic iconography associated with Ganesha and tales of how he came to have his elephant’s head are endless.

The Western mind may sometimes find Ganesha hard to grasp. But I’ve found the tendency to be overly rational and the making of too many rigid categorizations unhelpful in India and best avoided. Ganesha is lovable.  He is what you choose him to be, a personification of an abstract ideal or a wise, loving, benevolent protector.

Ganesha has come to be one of the most universally recognized images of Hinduism, a symbol of cultural identity and a force for unity in a land of disparities. Swami Kriyananda writes that even a symbol can be imbued with a certain power if, through that symbol, one invokes God, and views the symbol as a reminder of the Infinite Lord.When I meditate upon Ganesha’s picture, I feel a projection of goodwill and acceptance, two qualities I love about India.

3 Comments

  1. Very very interesting. I have several little Ganesha representations all over my house and love to retell his story. Thanks!

    1. Paramhansa Yogananda taught that God can manifest Himself in many different forms, in whatever way we worship Him. He taught that stories in scriptures are symbolic, and that some of them are true but not all.

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