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