Ganesha Chaturthi – A symbol of Unmatched Devotion, Celebration and Immersion

Article of the Month - Sep 2021

This article by Manisha Sarade, National Law University, Mumbai

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“Shree Vakratunda Mahakaya Suryakoti Samaprabha
Nirvighnam Kuru Me Deva Sarva-karyeshu Sarvada”
O Lord Ganesha, one with a massive body, a curved elephant trunk and whose brilliance is alike billions of Suns,
May you always eliminate all hindrances from my endeavours.

Ganesha, revered and regarded all across the country as the “Lord of Beginnings” and the “Remover of Obstacles” – he is the facet of the Supreme Being, the ultimate in-command for the elimination of obstacles and impediments – both in a practical sense and in a spiritual capacity. On the spiritual route, our obstacles might be our foibles, weaknesses, arrogance or our ego. When we worship Lord Ganesha, we pray to him to help us eradicate those obstacles within the self.

As beautifully captured by Adi Shankara, although Ganesha is widely regarded as the elephant-headed God, the Swaroop (embodiment or manifestation) is merely to denote the attributes of the Parabrahma Roopa (in Hindu philosophy, it is the divine deity that which is beyond all descriptions and perceptions.) The deity is 'Ajam Nirvikalpam Niraakaaramekam.'

This implies that Ganesha is Ajam (unborn), he is Nirvikalpa (incomparable), he is Niraakaar (formless) and he represents the mindfulness which is omnipresent. Ganapati is also fondly known by the names "Surpakarna" and "Ekadanta" . The meaning of Surpa is " winnowing basket," and Ekadanta signifies the one who is "one-toothed.

Superfine Dancing Ganesha

Ganesha is the oomph which is the very motive for this universe. It is the energy from which everything expresses itself and into which everything will eventually dissolve.

Our ancient Rishis were deeply intellectual in the sense that they preferred to express Divinity in the form of symbols instead of words, since words transformed and modified over time, but symbols continued to remain pristine and unchanged. It is this profound symbolism in mind that we feel omnipresence in the form of the elephant God, yet be totally conscious that Ganesha is very much engrained within us. This is the knowledge, insight and perception we should hold and sustain as we celebrate Ganesha Chaturthee. The festival is around the corner and fervour is in the air.

Also known as Vinayaka Chaturthi, or Vinayaka Chaviti, the occasion marks the birth of Lord Ganesha. For centuries, the reverence for Lord Ganesha has, evidently, permeated the thoughts, beliefs and aesthetic values of the people who observe this festivity. Ganesh Chaturthi preparations, arrangements and planning begin almost a month before the festival. This auspicious festivity is observed in the month of Bhadra (beginning on 23 August and ending on 22 September), according to the Hindu calendar. The festival is observed from the 4-10 Bhadrapada in the bright fortnight. This year (2021), it will be celebrated on September 10 in some places, and on 12 September in others. Though largely a Hindu Festival, the pious occasion is also marked by celebrations in Nepal and by the Hindu diaspora elsewhere, for instance in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, other parts of the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, United States, and Europe. In the Gregorian calendar, the festival occurs between 22 August and 20 September every year.

Large Wooden Dancing ganesha deity

The multi-fold appeal of the festival holds different significance in different parts of the world in different ways. The festival not only comprises of prayers but also indulges in numerous cultural activities like dancing, singing, and theatre performances. It is a common sight to witness roads jam-packed with ardent devotees of Ganesha, marching and dancing on the traditional beats of the dhol and tasha. Dhol and Tasha are instruments which are fundamental to the enthusiasm and energy of the devotees.

Enthroned Ganesha (Jaipur School)

Ganesh Chaturthi encompasses four separate rituals –

  • Pranapratishhtha,
  • Shhodashopachara,
  • Uttarpuja
  • Ganpati Visarjan

Pranaprathishhtha is marked by formation of the idol of Ganesha. Followed by this, the devotees then place the idol on a pandal (stage) or in their home. Devotees pray and sing worshipful songs to the idol. During Shhodashopachara, 16 types of prayers are executed, together with embellishing the Ganpati idol with flowers and offering sweets. The third phase, that is the Uttarpuja, is conducted right before the immersion. The idol is taken from the home of the devotee or pandal and is equipped for the waters. The concluding ritual is Visarjan, where the idol is immersed in the sea. It is believed that Ganesha wrote the Mahabharata (one of India’s greatest epics) as Sage Vyasa narrated it to him. When he exhausted the limited writing material he had, he broke off his tusk and continued to write with it. The writing progressed and continued for 10 days, which also signifies the length of the festival. Once that was accomplished, clay was applied all over Ganesha’s body, and he was taken for a bath in the river. On the 11th day, Ganesha is, therefore, immersed in water.

Superfine Ganesha Granting Abhaya

This ritual is an aide-memoire of Ganesha’s magnificent intelligence – one that is infinite, ceaseless and formless just like the water. It also indicates that nothing is permanent or everlasting. Energetic slogans like ‘Ganapati Bappa Morya’ are hailed by devotees to pay regards to Ganesha and keep up with the spirit of celebrations as they bid an admired farewell to their lord. The day witnesses a colossal number of devotees expressing their happiness and offering their prayers to their Ganesha, and yearn for the lord to return early the next year. For them, Bappa is not just an idol, but rather an emotion.

With each legend attributed to the highly revered Ganpati, there are manifold interpretations, elucidations, understandings, different layers and meanings to unload. Each has a meaning, an implication which one can see in the diverse ways in which people celebrate the festival. There are many stories and folklores that do the rounds when it comes to sketching the history of this festival but the most pertinent one goes back to the time when Parvati, Lord Shiva’s wife, created Ganesha.

In Hindu philosophy, Ganesha finds its relevance in a myriad of places. The various names such as Ekadanta, Surpakana, Gauriputra, Gajanana, Vakratunda, Lambakarna, Dhumravarna and Akhuratha were attributed to him to depict his dignity. Since he is the supreme head of disciples of Shiva or the otherworldly servants of Lord Shiva, he is also known as Gananayaka.

14" Majestic Crowned Pot-Bellied Ganesha

The story of Ganesha’s birth and origin is soaked in legend after legend. Each of these legends bring out a different feature of his godly nature. In widespread Hindu mythology, Ganesha is considered to be the son of Shiva and Parvati, and brother of Skanda. However, the Puranic myths recount a different chronicle. Some say he was created by Shiva, others by Parvati. Yet, one of the most popular iterations of his birth is from Parvati. The goddess wished to bathe and wanted to be left undisturbed. Given that Nandi was not present on the spot to provide guard, Parvati took the turmeric/sandalwood paste that she used for cleansing and shaped a young boy from it. She breathed life into it, and consequently Ganesha was given birth. Though, when Shiva wanted to see his wife, Ganesha would not let him pass until Parvati was done with her bathing.

Rajasthani Turbaned Ganesha

Lord Shiva did not see Ganesha as a commonplace guard, and as a consequence, decapitated the boy’s head. When Parvati came to know of this, she was infuriated. She would only be calmed if the boy was brought back to life and if he was worshipped as a God. Shiva approved to her terms and sent his Shiva-dutas out to bring the head of the closest deceased creature, with its head pointing north. They came back with the head of the mighty elephant Gajasura, which was positioned on the boy’s body. Brahma breathed a novel life into him and acknowledged him a God before all others.

46" Shiva Gaja Samhara Murthy

There are many accounts of this birth story. Some only make a reference Shiva, while others talk about Parvati’s desire for a son in depth. Each is distinctive and enthralling, augmenting the legend of Ganesha and his faculties.

Not many people know of this, but the ardent devotees of Ganpati have their own philosophical system, called Ganapati Upanishad, which is the eighty-ninth among the one hundred eight Upanishads. The Ganapati Upanishad begins with a mantra in admiration of Ganesha and a prayer seeking protection, and after illuminating his All-Atmic character, the eight-syllabled Ganesi Vidya, the Ganapati Gayatri and the Mala-mantra, it reaches its terminus with a chronicle of the numerous fruits attainable through the unique practice of the mantra (prayer), eventually leading to the utmost sentience alone, bereft of all things apart from it. The notion of Maha-Ganapati (Great Ganapati) advanced in consort with these philosophical arrangements.

Maha-Ganapati was a glorious, illustrious and celebrated God-head-with the armaments of defence and offence; offering benefits of sanctification and safety: Means of nourishment and delightful delicacies, prosperity, wisdom and eventually godlike brilliance. His qualities, characteristics, arms and positions represent his distinguished nature and also the varied all-comprehending charisma. Mahaganapati is supposed to have been there even before the making of the universe and it is considered that it will exist after its Pralaya (dissolution). He forms the god Brahma, who facilitates in formation of the universe and all other beings. One who meditates on this form of Ganesha is believed to attain Supreme Bliss.

Blessing Ganesha Carved in Jade Gemstone

Once the Ganapatyas (a denomination of Hinduism that worships Ganesha as the Saguna Brahman) expanded in count they started to apply on their forehead a distinctive mark of a red circle, or the brands of an elephant face and tusk on the shoulders. They viewed Ganesha as a highest divinity, greater in standing to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. With passage of time, Ganesha was acknowledged as the God of good luck and fortune. It is believed that a certain Ganapatya faction perhaps commenced between the sixth and ninth centuries: six sects are cited in the Sankara Digvijaya (Life of Adi Shankara) by Anandigiri. It reached its pinnacle in around the tenth century, and erected temples devoted to Ganesha, the largest of which is the Ucchi Pillayar Koil (the Columns Hall of a Thousand Pillars), on the Rock Fort of Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu. Ganesha is adulated as the Supreme Being (Para Brahman) primarily in this faction. Being the principal divinity in this sect of Hinduism, he is known by the nickname Parameshwara (Supreme God), which is generally set aside for Lord Shiva.

After sometime, the faction was propagated and disseminated by Morya Gosavi. According to popular folklore, he discovered an idol of Ganesha not formed by human effort, and built the Moragao temple nearby Pune in the 14th century.

It is also said that he experienced visualizations of Ganapati at the Morgaon shrine, and was given Jeeva Samadhi (buried alive) in 1651, in a Ganpati temple at his homeland in Chinchwad. Succeeding him, the Ganapatya clique became popular between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in south-western India, particularly in Maharashtra, more so in Chinchwad region. It still holds significance among Hindus and it is of vital importance to the rest of South India as well. Devotees organize an annual pilgrimage between Chinchwad and Moragao to observe this. It is also held by some that the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi finds its origin in the Maratha reign, with Chhatrapati Shivaji initiating the festival. Moreover, Ganesh festival became a private celebration among families during the British Raj.

There are some stimulating legends that explain the whys-and-wherefores of the practices observed during Ganesha Chaturthi. An interesting aspect about Lord Ganesha is his vehicle, the tiny mouse. There are multiple stories about how such a creature came be the elephant god's mount. One such account speaks that many people came to Lord Shiva and Parvati's house to see their new-born child. While everybody gave some gifts, the Earth gave a mouse as Ganapati's vehicle. Then, on the occasion of one of his birthdays, he was visiting households to receive offerings of sweet delicacies.

Super Large White Marble Ganesha

Having eaten a large number of these, he travelled on his mouse at night. While in transit, the mouse panicked at the sight of a snake, and stumbled abruptly. As a result, Ganesha fell down. His stomach burst open and all the sweet delicacies came out. Yet, Ganesh put them back into his stomach. Then he grabbed the snake and knotted it round his belly in the form of a belt. The moon, overseeing the whole incident, had a wholehearted laugh at the incident. Ganesha, fuming at the laughter, pulled out one of his tusks and flung it at the moon. He also spewed a curse, that no one should gaze at the moon on Ganesha Chaturthi. Further, he made a declaration – If anyone did look at the moon, they would be cursed with ill character and poor reputation.

However, an exception was made to this rule. If someone gazed at the moon by mistake, the only way they can be freed from the curse is by retelling or listening to the story of how Lord Krishna clarified the image of his character concerning the Syamantaka Jewel. This story is cited in a holy book, the Shrimad Bhagwatwam.

Another adorable tale, which finds manifestations in a lot of popular culture, revolves around Ganesha and his brother Kartikeya. They once had a fight about who was the older sibling among them. The tussle was then taken to Lord Shiva for the final verdict. Shiva concluded that whoever would make a tour of the whole world and come back first to the starting point had the right to be the older brother. Karitkeya set off instantly on his vehicle, the peacock, to take a trip around the world. But the wise Ganesha simply walked around his godly parents and asked for the prize to be allotted to him. Lord Shiva, puzzled, asked him, 'How can I give you the prize if you did not go around the world?' Ganesha replied, 'But I have taken a round around my parents. My parents embody the entire universe.' Amazed by his wisdom and touched with the gesture, Lord Shiva settled the matter in favour of Lord Ganesha, who was subsequently recognized as the older of the two siblings.

Kartikeya- The Warrior God

Another central element that comes into the picture when discussing Ganesha Chaturthi celebrations, is ‘Modak’ – also known as Kozhakattai in Tamil, Modhaka or Kadubu in Kannada, and Kudumu in Telugu. It is one of the most prevalent sweets in Maharashtra, prepared and consumed exclusively during Ganpati Festival. According to Hindu mythology, Ganpati Bappa, as he fondly addressed by his devotees, was fond of consuming sweets. Modaks became his favourite sweets, so much that he came to be known as Modakpriya, which means the one who adores Modak. Lord Ganesha is offered 21 Modaks as bhog (sacred offering in the form of food) and served as prasad. The legend that goes behind this ritual, is that Lord Shiva once visited Anusuya, the wife of an ancient Rishi (sage) named Atri, at their home in the forest. Lord Shiva was famished and asked to be served food at the earliest. Anusuya, though, said that she would serve Lord Shiva only once Bal Ganesha’s hunger had been satisfied.

Lord Shiva, peeved by this, held back and waited to eat while Bal Ganesha was served a huge range of delicacies. Lord Ganpati consumed all that he was served but he still didn’t feel satiated. His mother, Goddess Parvati, too was astonished to witness this. When Anusuya came to realise that Lord Shiva would not have anything left to eat due to Ganpati’s unquenchable hunger, she offered the little lord a single piece of sweet. Ganpati let out a loud burp right after he ate this, thus signifying that he was finally full and that his hunger had been satiated. Astoundingly, Lord Ganesha’s burp was followed by Lord Shiva’s 21 burps. Goddess Parvati was inquisitive to know what this delicacy actually was that promptly satiated Bal Ganpati’s stomach. When she learnt that it was a modak, Goddess Parvati articulated her wish that Lord Ganpati’s devotees must offer Modaks to him, which has continued over generations ever since.

Lord Ganesha Seated on Royal Throne

Apart from Modaks, Lord Ganesha is also frequently portrayed holding laddoos in his hands. That implies his immense love for Motichoor Laddoos. The bright orange sweet is one of the most preferred prasad offered after the pooja. A selection of fresh seasonal fruits is also offered to Ganpati during the celebrations, but his liking for bananas exceeds them all. This is why it’s a common ritual to offer garlands of bananas to Ganpati. Then there is puffed rice for ‘Prathmesh’ – According to a popular folklore, the Hindu God of wealth, Kuber invited Ganesha over for a meal. However, he failed to satisfy Ganesha. In spite of the various expensive meals offered, Ganpati was not content. Lord Shiva, coming up with a solution, recommended serving a handful of roasted rice with complete and utmost devotion. Hence, it was only after consuming this offering that Ganesha’s hunger was curbed.

On dual occasions of welcoming Goddess Gauri & Lord Ganesha to the homes of devotees, a different set of savouries and sweets are prepared in southern part of India. Delicacies such as Bajjis, Chitranna, Payasam, Obattu etc. are made and also served as ‘prasadam’. However, primarily, the preparations are offered to the lord during the puja and only then are offered to others.

During the Chaturthi, besides the idol of Lord Ganpati, a mouse which sits on Ganpati’s feet, is also worshipped. The mouse is called Mooshak and is considered to be Lord Ganesha’s vaahan or vehicle. It is indicative of his humility, signifying an imperative moral of life: Simple living, high thinking. About the Mooshak’s background, legend has it that a demon by the name of Mooshikasura was inflicting havoc in the world and the gods had sent Lord Ganesha to fight him. Before Lord Ganesha could attack the demon, he went down on his knees and prayed to the Lord for forgiveness. Lord Ganesha resolved to forgive him, provided the condition that he has to serve him incessantly. The demon accepted the condition and Lord Ganesha transformed him into a mouse. So, this is how ‘Mooshikasura the demon’ became ‘Mooshak the vahana’.

References and Further Readings:

Barnet, L. D. (1964), Antiquities of India. Calcutta: Sunkar Bhattacharya.

Bhandarkar, R. G. (1965), Vaisnavism Saivism and minor religious systems. Varanasi: Indological Book House.

Danielou, Alain (1954), The meaning of Ganapati. The Adyar library bulletin XVIII. Madras: The Adyar Library.

Renou, Louis (1972), Religions of ancient India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

S. M. Michael (1983), The Origin of the Ganapati Cult. Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 91-116.

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