Happy Ganesh Chaturthi! A Festival that Welcomes All Worshippers Equally

Oh boy, I get to explain someone else’s religion/culture! That’s, like, the worst possible thing a person can do. Why am I doing it? I don’t know, I have this need to spread knowledge even when it is outside of my own culture. Forgive me, ignore me because I am white if you want, but the data I am sharing is the best most reliable information I can find.

Ganesh! The Elephant Head God! Not Elephant God, if you look closely at his idols you will see only the head is that of an Elephant. There are various legends as to why this is, the one I have heard is that the goddess Parvati created him because she was tired of her husband Shiva interrupting her while she was bathing. She set Ganesh to guard the entrance of her bathing chamber, and sure enough Shiva arrived. Ganesh stopped him and Shiva was insulted and angry and beheaded him. Parvati came running out, declaring that Ganesh was Shiva’s son (since he was born/created of Parvati). Shiva, in apology, gave Ganesh the head of an elephant instead. Ganesh was then welcomed as a son of Shiva and Parvati.

Shiva,Parvati and Ganesha | Lord shiva family, Hindu deities, Shri ...

In Hindu mythology, the Gods are timeless in a way that kind of makes you twist your thinking around. When you read about the Gods, there is a moment when Shiva and Parvati met, when they married, when Ganesh was created, and so on. But in the larger sense of things, they are all timeless. Ganesh is the child of Parvati and Shiva and lessor than them, but he is also eternal.

Ganesh has an elephant head because Shiva beheaded him and then replaced it, but he also has an elephant head because it is a visual metaphor for his role. Ganesh is the placer and remover of obstacles, like an elephant who can move any large object. Before beginning any auspicious task, including a worship service for a different God, it is good to say a prayer to Ganesh first.

Ganesh’s role as the start of every service, and the simple memorable iconography of the elephant head, made him a popular God through out South Asia. Hinduism has ancient texts, the Vedas, but those were only known to the learned Priests and that knowledge did not spread through out society. For the non-priests, Hinduism was a matter of local practices, visual symbols, traditions. Ganesh is mentioned in the Vedas, but the stories of him as the son of Shiva and Parvati and a go-between in their fights, and the statues with his distinctive appearance (the elephant head, the potbelly, the graceful posture, and eventually his mouse steed), grew up separately. I’m still talking thousands of years before Christ, but these practices all came up after the oldest texts, in response to usage of Ganesh by the people.

Amazon.com: 19" Tall Large Ganesh Statue Sitting on Mouse- Hindu ...

Ganesh Chaturthi is his special holiday, celebrating a date when he and his mother Parvati supposedly came to earth to visit people, and then returned. To remember this, a Ganesh idol is kept in your home for several days, before being immersed in water to disintegrate and represent his return to the land of the Gods. It’s a lovely simple tradition, a ritual metaphor for having a God in every home, no difference between castes, Ganesh is there for every family and then every family says good-bye to him.

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting! In the 1890s, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was in Bombay and was determined that India should get self-rule. He is called “the father of Indian unrest”. While the Indian National Congress was still focused on treaties and appeasement, he wanted the people to take to the streets and demand their rights. And in the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, he saw a useful tool.

Ganesh was celebrated and beloved already through out India. In Maharashtra in particular, there was a tradition of public celebrations, the Gods taken from each house and in one grand procession brought together to the ocean to be immersed. By the way, Bal Gandadhar himself was a strong Nationalist. That’s important to mention today as the Marathi chauvanists are increasingly claiming the Maharasthrian empire as separate from greater India. Bal Gangadhar was not into that, he wanted a national government and a national Hindi language, and all the other stuff. Oh, and Jinnah (father of Pakistan) was his lawyer and good friend. History! It’s about real people doing real things and not fitting into easy boxes! Think about that, the father of the modern celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi was friends with the father of Pakistan.

Lal Bal Pal - Wikipedia
“Lal Bal Pal”, Lala Lajpat Rai of Punjab who mentored Bhagat Singh, Bal Gangadhar Tilak of Maharashtra, and Bipin Chandra Pal, the three men who simultaneously pushed their regions towards direct action against the British. Also, isn’t it nice for future history students that their names rhyme? It’s like God built the mnemonic device in for us.

Anyway, Bal Gangadhar started pushing in his newspaper for a public celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi. He saw it as a way to create unity across society. It’s a celebration that all castes could participate in as equals, and a celebration already popular all over the country. Bonus, it was a way to have a large public gathering and build unity without obviously tipping off the British. It’s religious, that’s all! Not a scary mass meeting!

He started in Bombay, his home town, and the practice quickly spread. Weeks of Ganesh kept in your home, and then a massive city wide celebration as each home brought out their separate statue and joined the procession to the sea. On top of that, he suggested sports meets, parties, music festivals, any excuse for folks to get together and celebrate equally. In the modern day, Ganesh Chaturthi comes with blood drives, charity events, even more good things.

I didn’t know any of this until just now, but it fits with what I have seen in films. Ganesh Chaturthi is used as the celebration of the people, in Agneepath it is celebrated by gangsters and prostitutes, in the ABCD/Street Dancer films it is what brings together Hindu and Muslim, and gives power to the hardscrabble lower class street dance team, in Judwaa it introduces our street kid conman hero. It’s a religious ceremony, but it doesn’t say “this character is religious and upper caste and serious”, it says “this character loves the people of the streets and loves celebrating with them”.

This is also, I guess, why I have never felt uncomfortable about my own Ganesh statues. Two of them were gifts, one I bought myself. I wouldn’t feel right having a formal alter to Ram (for instance), or even to Shiva, because I am not Hindu. But somehow Ganesh feels like he is for everyone, like he wouldn’t mind my having his statue in my room so long as I treated it respectfully.

This is on the highest shelf in my room, next to my little nativity scene that I put out at Christmas and some family heirlooms. I don’t light incense to it or anything, but it is in a special place, and I feel like Ganesh is a God that is okay with being in the room of an unbeliever, on a shelf with other sacred things. He’s not fussy.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got! Fill in anything I missed (or got wrong) in the comments!

9 thoughts on “Happy Ganesh Chaturthi! A Festival that Welcomes All Worshippers Equally

  1. It is interesting that you got the “Lal Bal Pal” trio,they were three of our beloved assertive nationalists,and their names do rhyme.But that means high schoolers end up messing the names of moderate nationalists because there were no catchy names to memorise them(to add to confusion,the syllabus have three them of prominently-Dadabhai Naoroji,Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Surendranath Bannerjee.Perpetual confusion for students trying to remember the trios).
    Regarding the Ganesh Chaturthi celebration in India,it is an extremely important event for the local craftsmen and artisans-people who build statues,pandals,pavilions,clothes for the deities and the numerous merchants at the fares(obviously not happening this year,but it is a glorious experience,my father visited one eight years ago).If anything that surpasses this in popularity and zeal,it might be the Durga Puja of Bengal(and seriously,the sales for the craftsmen literally shoot up at that time of the year).In some ways it is the equivalent of Christmas in India,with symbolism attached.Like how people like to keep Bappa at their home before he goes back to his abode,and Bengal decks up like the Goddess is coming as a daughter before she eventually leaves to resume her duties as the Mother of the universe.These symbolisms were as heartwarming for me as they were for you.
    There is nothing wrong with keeping statues of gods.We keep paintings of Buddha for peace(which is ironic because he was opposed to idol worship,but does it count if it is a painting ?),Radha-Krishna as symbols of love and Hanumanji to ward off ill-luck.People avoid it as they might mistakenly keep something inappropriate in its vicinity or if they point their feet towards it,but keeping it isn’t something to be frowned upon.Besides Ganesha,Hanumanji and Krishna are “popular” as favourite gods among kids,so everyone is allowed to feel that innocence without overthinking 🙂

    Like

    • I hadn’t thought about the local craftsman element! that makes complete sense, we do get a little bit of that around Christmas, Christmas tree farms that survive on that couple months and craft fairs for local artists scheduled around the Christmas season. Most of it is more manufactured goods and big box store kind of things, but there is some local artisan and agriculture that benefits too. I can see how it would be far more for Ganesh Chaturthi, just with the little I see in news coverage there are all those temporary handmade structures and decorations and things. I wonder if that was part of the initial push for bigger local celebrations? Support local goods instead of British made? Or just a nice side effect.

      I love your point about Ganesh, Krishna, and Hanuman as Gods that even children can understand and feel affection for. I feel the same way, learning just a little bit about Hinduism I can immediately remember and recognize them, and somehow get a sense of personality from them. Shiva for instance is hard for me to grasp, his philosophy is complex. But Ganesh is friendly, and Krishna is naughty, and Hanuman is loyal and strong. I can understand those Gods immediately.

      On Sat, Aug 22, 2020 at 11:06 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

      Like

  2. The processions that go on in Hyderabad are a thing. You need take part to feel it. Look up Khairtabad Ganesh – every year they one up themselves with design and height. Not this year though. The other thing is Balapur Laddu. The festival itself is celebrated in different ways in each state. That is how many days to keep Ganesha at home before taking to a lake or even a bucket at home.

    When ever some one gives us a idol of a god of any religion or even say a pendant we just place it with all other idols and pictures we have.

    Like

    • My favorite interpretation that I heard was that sometimes he places obstacles in your path and that is a good thing. I really like that idea. Especially right now when there are so many obstacles between us and our goals. But it is making us be slower, more careful, more sure of what we want before we make our moves. We didn’t ask for obstacles, but that doesn’t mean they are bad things.

      On Sun, Aug 23, 2020 at 12:22 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

      Like

  3. The biography of Tilak came out just a few years back, it was directed by first time director Om Raut and apparently he did a good job, because Ajay Devgn not only agreed to act but also produce his next movie – Tanaji. And now he will be directing Prabhas in an ambitious adaptation of Ramayana … Adi Purush, so big things are happening for him…

    Like

  4. Very interesting! Ganesh is actually pretty popular here, although most people are nominal Buddhist/irreligious. But you can get statues of him and there was a manga a while back called “The Elephant who Grants Wishes” with the title character clearly drawn as Ganesh.

    Twitter was also really interesting with people sharing their biodegradable Ganesh statues. Rajkummar and Patralekha had a really cute one made of wheat flour.

    Like

    • That’s really interesting! I wonder if he traveled with recent Indian immigrants, or of it is a more ancient connection?

      Maybe my family should make a biodegradable Ganesh? We missed the day, but we have an actual lake available to us, so we could send him home in a fancier way than just drowning in a rain barrel.

      On Sun, Aug 23, 2020 at 10:53 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.