*Ivo da C.Souza

Ganesha Chaturthi (गणेश चतुर्थी) is the Hindu festival of Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati. It is the “birthday” of Lord Ganesha who is widely worshiped as the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune. While celebrated all over India, it is most elaborate in Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Outside India, it is celebrated widely in Nepal and Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka. It falls on the fourth day of the bright half of the Hindu calendar month of Bhadrapavada, starting on the shukla chaturthi (fourth day of the waxing moon period). The date usually falls between August 20 and September 15. The festival lasts for 10 days, ending on Anant Chaturdashi (fourteenth day of the waxing moon period). It is considered to be Ganapati’s “birthday”. The Ganesh festival coincides with the harvest season. By the fifth or sixth century CE., it was celebrated, in some places, in thanksgiving for the early crops, and in propitiation for the later ones. That is why in the Ganesh puja agricultural products are used, like durvas (grass), flowers, panchamrit (five cow products), laddus and neureos. The rat is depicted under his belly as his vahan (vehicle). This has reference to kal, the destructive god, whom Ganesha had conquered. Thus, the rat has been subjugated and the harvest protected. Ganesha was not only god of prosperity and auspiciousness, but also god of wisdom and knowledge. The scholar and great patriot, Lokmanya Tilak, stimulated the national spirit of the masses of India, by organizing an annual festival in honour of Ganesh, beside celebrating the Shivaji Jayanti (birthday). He popularized these festivals through the columns of his paper, Kesari. The festival is preceded by a day of fasting. And the family does not taste any food before the deity is installed and consecrated. The image is made from clay brought from the river bed or sea and is colourfully painted, or Plaster of Paris. Once the image is consecrated by the mantras of the pujari (priest), God is supposed to have come to dwell in that stature and to have visited the house, and so beautiful prayers are addressed to him. The puja may last for hours, or three days, sometimes seven or more days, according to the decision of the dha zonn of the village or in fulfillment of vows. At the end of the festival, the presence of the deity is “removed” by a special ceremony, and the image is immersed in a well, river, or sea, as the case may be, returning it to the dust from which it was made. The image may look to be strange, half-man and half-elephant, with four hands and a pot-belly. But it has social origins and symbolize divine attributes. We have to bear in mind the two distinct currents of Hinduism: popular or folk and literary or classical. Folk Hinduism denotes the sum of customs and beliefs as actually practised in the life of an ordinary Hindu. Literary or classical Hinduism indicates the more scholarly and higher values and cultural conditions. Folk Hinduism has its roots in the Indian village where the Aryan civilization initially rested and flourished. Origins of Gram Devata: Aryans were in the forests, they needed protection. Beasts became spirits, the Lion became the “King of the Animals” at the entrance of the village, so that propitiated by regular sacrifices, he would keep away from the village all those evil “spirits”. Thus, he became the “protector of the village”, Kshetra-pal or, in later Hinduism, Gram Devata. In the Deccan, one of the most popular Kshetra-pal was Gajendra (Lord Elephant), known as Ganesha or Ganapati, a name that means “the lord of the hosts of evil spirits”, symbolized by the rat at his feet. (Another such popular Kshetra-pal was Hanuman, the Monkey God). Other tribes also represented protecting divine beings by a “totem”, which was initially an image of an animal or a plant. Gradually it changed to half human and half animal, and finally to a totally human form. Thus, the Eagle became Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu, and the Bull became Nandi, the vehicle of Shiva. The Ganapati Myth: Vedic Hinduism had become ritualistic, therefore there was a revolt against the value of exterior rites performed by the Brahmins, and emphasis was laid on inner life of self-control, non-violence, meditation, and penance. Sages in the forests founded their own schools and began to discuss on soul, the after death, nature of the world. These ideas were propagated by kings like Ashoka who patronized Buddhism, and most of folk India went over to Buddhism. In order to stop the exodus from Hinduism, Brahmins began to compile the Puranas. Stories about gods were introduced, myths created. There was a myth on the birth of Ganesh. Parvati wanted to find a way to prevent Shiva from entering her apartments while she had her bath. So she collected the dirt from her body and with it formed a child. Proclaiming him as her son, she appointed him to be her gatekeeper. When Shiva was making his rounds and wanted to enter Parvati’s apartment, he was stopped by Ganesh at the door. A fight followed, and after much bloodshed Ganesha was beheaded. The goddess became infuriated and herself entered the arena. Her wrath threatened the whole universe. At this Shiva and his followers asked her forgiveness, but Parvati demanded that her son be restored to life. Shiva sent her attendants to get the head of any living being they could find. The attendants went and then returned with the head of a single-tusked elephant. This Shiva joined to the lifeless trunk of Ganesha and Ganesha came back to life! How is it understood by the Enlightened people? Such beliefs were accepted by folk Hinduism.The enlightened Hindus, however, had a different explanation. For them the Puranas are not of great value because these were added later on and to make Hinduism popular. For the enlightened Hindu and the philosopher, God is a Supreme, all-powerful, omnipresent, omniscient, formless, spiritual Being who cannot be truly represented in any human form. However, since Man needs something to concentrate on, to reach the knowledge of God and to meditate on him, the Supreme Being’s divine powers are depicted in the different images of gods and goddesses and in various forms consonant with his particular culture. Ganesha, therefore, is merely a human representation of some of God’s powers. The trunk of an elephant is the most powerful part of his body, with which he can uproot big trees and carry the heaviest loads. Now God is all-powerful, and representing him as having an ordinary human nose would not depict him as he really is. So he is not only given the trunk of an elephant, but also four, six, or even eight or more hands, to show that there is no limit to God’s power. With his trunk resting on his one tusk and with his eye-brows, Ganesha symbolizes the eternal mystic “AUM”. God’s omnipotence and omnipresence are depicted in Ganesha’s small sharp eyes that penetrate everything, in his long ears that can hear the least whisper from the hearts of men, and in his broad forehead that is the seat of wisdom. Thus, the idea of an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God is meant to be expressed in the image of Ganesha. Reflection: Hospitality is the hallmark of that festival. All visit the neighbours. He can realize this only with the blessing of the Lord of Hosts. The idol reminds us of the omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence of God, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (cf.Rev 1:8: Christian equivalent of AUM), Man is in continual search of divine. The meaning of AUM is as follows: AUM (sometimes written as OM) is a sound-symbol of the Indian tradition. It is equivalent to the Greek letters Alpha and Omega of the book of Revelation (Rev 1:8). According to Mandukya Upanishad, the “syllable AUM” is the whole Universe. Whatsoever has existed, whatsoever exists, and whatsoever shall exist hereafter, is AUM; and whatsoever transcends past, present, and future also “AUM”. And according to Prasna Upanishad, the A stands for the Rig-Veda and comprises the world of men, the earth; the U stands for the Yajurveda and comprises the world of the moon, the atmosphere; and M stands for the Samaveda and refers to the Purusha, the Supreme Being (see V, 1-7). Logically, therefore, it stands for the Supreme Being, the Ineffable. We cannot deride or denigrate the Hindu gods and goddesses. We have to understand, first of all, their popular and classical Hindu theology. “Ganpati Bappa Moriya Pudhchya Varshi Lavkar yaa”, which means “Oh Ganpati My Lord, return soon next year!” We wish all a blessed Ganesha Festival! (from: Understanding Our Fellow Pilgrims, by the Sub-Committee for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Goa, 2000, pp.113-119)


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