Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ganesh Chaturthi

Today is “Submersion Day,” the closing of Ganesh Chaturthi, the ten-day festival of Ganesha. To cries of “Ganpati Bappa! Morya!,” statues of Ganesh were paraded to the Mutha River for immersion in the fast flowing water, dissolving the earthly form temporarily inhabited by the Divine and releasing Him back into the Infinite. Many came as families lovingly carrying their small household idols to the ghats where fathers performed puja before submerging it into the water. Larger groups loaded more elaborate Ganeshas onto trucks, trailers or wedding chariots accompanied by bands and drummers while dance music blasted from huge speakers, loud enough to lift you off the ground or stop your heart. If one 6' x 8' speaker is good, two or three are even better. Imagine hundreds and hundreds of these making their way from all directions to the river ghats, each led by crowds of men dancing to a thumping disco beat. Firecrackers, loud music, horns, and cries of “Ganapati Bappa!” followed by the crowd responding, “Morya! Morya!”

Ganesha (Ganapati in Maharasthra) is the god of success, wisdom, learning and prosperity. He is the destroyer of obstacles, vanity and evil. Each year families install an image of Ganesh in their home, offering it special worship for up to ten days. During this period, families, neighbors, and groups gather for cultural events, reunions and special ceremonies. It’s a time of goodwill crossing sectarian boundaries and when religious and social groups sponsor the construction of mandals (temporary pavilions) where larger statues of Ganesh are installed and decorated. Some of these can be huge and very lavish, especially in Mumbai where the idols sometimes exceed 25 feet in height. You’ll see the mandals 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 mandals to see which is the nicest. Banners are everywhere and at night the beating of drums, loud music and processions come from all directions. On Submersion Day, Ganesha is taken to the river. In Mumbai, the idols are paraded to the Arabian Sea.

From what I’ve seen, Ganesh Chaturthi is the biggest yearly festival in Pune, more widely celebrated than Diwali, though with fewer fireworks. Ganapati is honored by all sects throughout India but he is particularly loved here, probably because it was in Pune where Lokmanya Tilak used Ganesh Chaturthi as a rallying festival for Indian culture, national pride and self-rule from the British. Tilak, an Indian nationalist of the early twentieth century, 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, Ganesh Chaturthi did too.

Ganesha is the also the God of Beginnings. This is why you often see him by the entryway of homes and temples, even in those dedicated to other gods. One gives to Ganesha first offerings in a traditional puja and he clears the way for all that follows. Because of his large ears, he hears all prayers and is the easiest god to please and the most benign. He accepts anything offered to him with love as evidenced by his big belly and he gives blessings in return. Laddoos, an Indian sweet, are a special favorite of his as you often see them in the bowl before his image. As the keeper of the entry, he is associated with the muladhar chakra 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 pranayam. One should pray to Ganesha for spiritual strength and success in meditation. Within his big belly are contained all universes and he is master of the ego, represented by his vahana (vehicle), the rat or mouse.

If you know the Mahabharata, you’ll remember that it was Ganesha who acted as Vyasa’s scribe when he recited the epic tale of India. It is said he was reluctant to take on such a big task but consented on condition that Vyasa recite continuously and never make him wait. Vyasa 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 Vyasa to keep ahead of him. Finding himself without a proper implement for writing, Ganesha broke off one of his tusks for a pen. 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.

One could go on and on about the symbolic iconography associated with Ganesha and relate tales of how he came to have his elephant’s head. It’s endless. 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 it’s own traditions of worship and every village it’s own legends. The Western mind finds this hard to grasp. “How in the world can people worship a god with an elephant’s head? It doesn’t make sense.” On a surface, maybe it doesn’t, but is “making rational sense” the point? 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. Does he need to be more? 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, is a symbol of cultural identity and a force for unity in a land of disparities. Meditate upon his picture and you’ll feel a projection of goodwill and acceptance, two qualities I love about India.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


(The Photos are of Pashan Gaon, where we live in Pune.)
Jugaad is a word that characterizes an approach to life in India. Roughly translated, it means “improvisation” or “an ability to make do” in the midst of challenging circumstances. It can be thought of as the spirit that says, “No problem” when the lights go out, the water tap is dry and the roads are flooded again. It’s the village entrepreneur hooking up a lawnmower engine to his bicycle rickshaw. It’s getting home alive in your space capsule using odds, ends and duct tape like they did in the Apollo 13 movie.

With a little bit of creativity, enterprise and hustle, the average Indian gets by and prospers. I think this is why you see Indian immigrants around the world rising to the top of their fields in all countries. The hassle of life has trained them to find solutions and novel approaches because you can’t rely on things to work the way they do in the West. Some even see jugaad as India’s secret weapon for economic success in the world of international competition. This is in spite of an educational system that stifles creative thinking. As the old saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and in a country where “doing the needful” is a daily requirement, jugaad comes in mighty handy.

When I was working at our community in Watunde Village, I’d regularly encounter mechanical problems that baffled me. Something would break or we didn’t have the proper tools (by my Western standards) or some complication would arise. “No problem,” Hari, our labor foreman, would say. First he’d try one thing, then another and another until finally we’d find a solution and get the job done. If not, we'd sometimes take our problem to Pirangut and go from shop to shop seeking a solution. Locals would always offer help, taking what we brought as a personal challenge. Passers-by would join in with opinions of their own and sooner or later, an answer would come or we’d be sent to Mr. So-and-So’s shop down the road who would help. If you visit India and ever find yourself lost, you’ll experience the same thing. Just ask for help from anyone on the street and a crowd will gather to give you half a dozen opinions on how to get where you want to go.

There is another side to jugaad that bears noting. When the British ruled India, the colonial economy was organized to give maximum benefit to the home country. India provided raw materials for manufacturing and a large market to consume goods made in Great Britain. Local industry was discouraged or effectively prohibited so as to eliminate any competition to English factories and workers. As a result, at the time of independence India was practically a pre-industrial society with a meager tradition of manufacturing beyond artistic craftsmen. This has had a lasting impact. To this day, India lacks civil engineers and skilled industrial tradesmen but has plenty of young people who can write computer code. On the other hand, the British did create an extensive colonial administration and staffed it with an army of Indian civil servants who became very adept at keeping accounts and filing records.

When independence came in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru set about fulfilling India’s “tryst with destiny.” For India’s political elite, this meant rapid industrialization, five-year plans and the creation of a socialistic economy. “The people” would own the resources and means of production while profits would go to the benefit of all. Or so the theory went. Confiscatory tax rates were imposed on the wealthy (97% in some cases); resources, manufacturing and industry were nationalized; the government assumed control of industrial management; political appointees became corporate decision makers; committees multiplied; and the Indian bureaucracy did what the British had trained it to do so very well—keep records and accounts by the boatload. In such an environment, money was driven underground and private enterprise was suffocated. But not totally, because there was always jugaad. The Indian penchant for finding creative waya to meet challenges asserted itself in another way.

India created the “License Raj,” a system whereby a government license was needed to do just about anything in the way of commerce beyond a family market. Power resided with those who could grant such licenses and enormous profits were possible for those who gained them. This was a system ripe for corruption. Someone with a little “creativity” could flourish with a bribe here and a payoff there. You could hire creative accountants and those tax rates weren’t such a problem anymore. You could creatively organize the “liberated” villagers into voting blocs to insure the election of political allies to stock those license committees with friendly faces. Government inspectors could be persuaded to look the other way if creatively induced. Just as in every country with a heavy-handed government bureaucracy or too many rules and regulations, jugaad found a way to circumvent the system and ended up nurturing a culture of corruption whose roots extend to every level of society.

Fortunately, much of the License Raj was dismantled in the 1990’s but its legacy lives on. It’s not without reason that India is sometimes called “The Land of the Scam.” The uncovering of governmental shenanigans by the press is constant and I sense an unspoken admiration for the audacity shown by some of the perpetrators. Their schemes can be brazenly over the top. I could write pages and pages describing them. Even the small scams are sometimes hilarious. I remember Tim Clark and I once having a good chuckle when he bought a box of “chikki,” a local peanut-brittle. It was in a nicely labeled box, properly wrapped and, on inspection, filled to the top with solid layers of the candy. Tim passed the chikki around to share but when the first thin layer was gone, lo and behold, there was no more chikki underneath. The top layer of solid candy had been supported by a few broken chunks below to make it appear as if the box was full. Scammed again! We laughed and laughed. This too is jugaad.

I suppose you have to take the good with the bad, but if India could weed out half the scams and corruption, it would have a dramatic impact. It’ll happen, but maybe not in my lifetime.