The Tree of Knowledge
Ganesh Chaturthi also known as Vinayaka Chaturthi – or Vinayagar as in Tamil Nadu — is the Hindu festival celebrated on the occasion of the birthday of Lord Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati, who is believed to bestow his presence on earth for all his devotees in the duration of this festival. It is the day Shiva declared his son Ganesha as superior to all the gods. Ganesha is widely worshipped as the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune and traditionally invoked at the beginning of any new venture or at the start of travel. The festival, also known as Ganeshotsav (Festival of Ganesha) is observed in the Hindu calendar month of Bhaadrapada, starting on the Shukla Chaturthi (fourth day of the waxing moon period). The date usually falls between 19 August and 20 September. The festival lasts for 10 days, ending on Anant Chaturdashi (fourteenth day of the waxing moon period).
The Grand Celebration: Two to three months before Ganesh Chaturthi, artistic plaster of Paris (originally clay) models of Lord Ganesha are made for sale by specially skilled artisans. They are beautifully decorated and depict Lord Ganesh in different poses. The size of these statues may vary from three quarters of an inch to over 70 feet. Ganesh Chaturthi starts with the installation of these Ganesh statues in colourfully decorated homes and specially erected temporary structures mandapas (pandals) in every locality. The pandals are erected by the people or a specific society or locality or group by collecting monetary contributions. The pandals are decorated specially for the festival with such using decorative items like flower garlands, lights, etc., or are theme based decorations, which depict religious themes or current events.
The priest then symbolically invokes life into the statue by chanting mantras. This ritual is known as the Pranapratishhtha. Thereafter the ritual called as Shhodashopachara (16 ways of paying tribute) follows. Coconut, jaggery, 21 modakas, 21 durva (trefoil) blades of grass and red flowers are offered. The statue is anointed with red unguent, typically made of kumkum and sandalwood paste. Throughout the ceremony, Vedic hymns from the Rig Veda, the Ganapati Atharva Shirsha Upanishad, and the Ganesha stotra from the Narada Purana are chanted. Ganesha is worshiped for 10 days from Bhadrapada Shudha Chaturthi to the Ananta Chaturdashi.
On the 11th day, the statue is taken through the streets in a procession accompanied with dancing, singing, and fanfare to be immersed in a river or the sea symbolizing a ritual see-off of the Lord on his journey towards his abode in Kailash while taking away with him the misfortunes of his devotees. All join in this final procession, chanting “Ganapati Bappa Morya, Pudhachya Varshi Laukar Ya” (O Lord Ganesha, come again early next year) in Maharastra and “Ganesh Maha Raj Ki Jai” (Lord Ganesha, victory is yours) in Andhra Pradesh. After the final offering of coconuts, flowers and camphor is made, people carry the idols to the river to immerse it. The whole community come to worship Ganesha in beautifully done tents. These also serve as the venue for free medical checkup, blood donation camps, charity for the poor, dramatic performances, films, devotional songs, etc., during the days of the festival.
The Symbolic Representation: There are numerous names given to Ganesh according to different attributes attached to the symbolic representation of a “perfect being”. Ganesh or Ganpati means the Lord of the multitudes. “Vighneshwara” means the God who removes all obstacles and “Vinayaka” means the supreme leader. Ganesh is also a symbolic representation of a man of perfection. Various Ganesh symbols, when put together, have many times been made a target of criticism by those who are ignorant of the meaning behind the “odd mixture” of human and animal parts in a divine form. The worship of Ganesh does not mean the worship of an idol but a constant reminder of the value to be inculcated in the worshiper if he wants to attain the state of perfection. This may confuse ignorant people, but the elephant-headed Lord of auspiciousness represents some of the highest and best ideas in our scriptures.
Let me go through the main Ganesh symbols:
Elephant Head: The elephant head of Lord Ganesh is the over-seeing, all-seeing, eternal witness, the unmanifest supreme. Ganesh is the lord of all, manifest and unmanifest. The memory of an elephant is, of course, proverbial. A leader must possess wide understanding. He should have a discriminating intellect. Both quantitatively and qualitatively an elephant’s head was found to represent this aspect.
Elephant Ears: The elephant ears are like winnows that separate the wheat from the chaff. All experience must be subjected to scrutiny to determine what is essential and what is nonessential. This is a critical aspect of judgment. The discerning and the wise do what they must and let the rest be.
Elephant Trunk: It has a peculiar efficiency. Here is a tool strong enough to uproot a tree yet delicate enough to pick up a pin from the ground. This range of adaptability is not known to any single man-made instrument. This perfect discriminating adaptability in a perfect man can be used in the outer world for solving problems.
Elephant Tusks: Discrimination implies a choice, say, between wisdom and folly, good and evil, right and wrong. This choice is expressed in two tusks. The broken tusk symbolizes the man of discrimination, whose choice in the field of action is always the right one. It is well known that left side (the side of our heart) is emotion dominated and right side is intellect dominated. The broken tusk is the left one. This symbolizes the dominance of rationale over emotions.
Potbelly: Ganesha’s endearing potbelly is equated with space; it is vast enough to hold all wisdom and all life. Gentle and harmless, he uses his great strength only when provoked. Ganesha, a man of perfection, must have the capacity to stomach peacefully all the experiences of life –pleasant or unpleasant. Such a man is always depicted in every culture as a jovial man with Big Belly like Santa Claus and Happy Buddha.
Four Arms: Ganesha’s four arms represent the four main divisions of human consciousness: mind, intellect, ego and the emotional reactive process (Chitta in Sanskrit). Four arms also convey the idea of four directions symbolizing omnipresence and omnipotence of Lord Ganesh. There is a definite meaning behind the order of hands and the objects shown in them. Evolutionary movement is always clockwise. First in the order is the cutter in the upper right hand, then rope in the upper left hand, then the sweet ball (modak) in the lower left hand and then the hand in the blessing pose. In the subjective process of evolution, first the doubts are removed (cutter), then a goal is fixed (rope), then soul-joy is experienced (modak), and finally the blessings of protection and deliverance.
The Mouse: The mouse is Ganesha’s carrier, and seems laughably disproportionate to his great size. But we are dealing here with symbols, not with literal representations of reality. As a symbol, this familiar household nuisance is peculiarly appropriate. The mouse is a creature that can quietly enter a structure through a small hole and nibble everything it finds inside. There is no purpose behind this activity, except gluttony. This is exactly the role that egoistical desire plays in our life. Ego can enter into the personality absolutely unnoticed, and then eats up all the good we have in us. In placing the mouse at Ganesha’s feet, our seers depicted the subservience of egoistical desire to the will of the wise man. The mouse’s alert pose suggests ego active in its obedience to the enlightened will of Lord Ganesh.
Swami Sivananda Recommends: On the Ganesh Chaturthi day, meditate on the stories connected with Lord Ganesha early in the morning, during the Brahmamuhurta period. Then, after taking a bath, go to the temple and do the prayers of Lord Ganesha. Offer Him some coconut and sweet pudding. Pray with faith and devotion that He may remove all the obstacles that you experience on the spiritual path. Worship Him at home, too. You can get the assistance of a pundit. Have an image of Lord Ganesha in your house. Feel His Presence in it. Take fresh spiritual resolves and pray to Lord Ganesha for inner spiritual strength to attain success in all your undertakings.
Excerpts from an article by Subhamoy Das and discourses by Gyan Rajhans at www.bhajanawali.com