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.