Tomorrow (15 September, 2007) is Ganesh Chaturthi Day, the birthday of Lord Ganesh (Ganesha), the God of Wisdom and Prosperity. Ganesh Chaturthi falls on the fourth day of the moon's bright fortnight, or period from new moon in the lunar month of Bhadrapada.
To quote the appropriate words of Yuvaraj Krishan: 'Ganesha is worshipped in all parts of India, being the most popular of all the Gods of the Hindu pantheon. He is non-sectarian in character inasmuch as followers of all sects and denominations, Saivites, Vaishnavites, Buddhists, and Jainas, pay homage to Him. Brahma and other Gods are also believed to pay homage to Him at the commencement of any of their enterprise or work. He is figured as a being with the head of an elephant and the body of a human being riding or surmounted on a rat.
He has numerous epithets: Gajajana (Elephant-faced), Lambodara (Pot-bellied), Ekatanta (one-tusked), Ganadhipa (Lord of Ganas and Hosts), Vinayaka (great leader or Lord), Vighneshwara or Vignaraja (Lord of obstacles), Vignakarta (creator of obstacles) and Vignaharta (remover of obstacles).
HE IS POPULARLY KNOWN AS THE REMOVER OF OBSTACLES AND IS VERY OFTEN INVOKED WHEN PEOPLE ARE BEGINNING A NEW ENTERPRISE. In States like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, Ganesh festival is celebrated for at least 10 days and is a very joyous event. While in the other places, it is celebrated on a grand scale for one day on the festival day of Ganesh Chaturthi. In all Hindu homes, hymns and songs are sung in praise of Lord Ganesha.
According to Hindu mythology, He is the son of Shiva and Parvati, brother of Kartikeya (the General of the Gods), Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth) and Saraswati (the Goddess of Learning). There are innumerable stories in Hindu mythology, associated with the birth of this elephant-headed God, whose vehicle is the Mooshak or rat and who loves Modakas (droplet shaped Indian sweet).
One of the Legends has it that Goddess Parvati created Ganesha out of the sandalwood dough that She used for her bath and breathed life into him. Letting him stand guard at the door, She went to have her bath. When Her husband, Shiva returned, the child who had never seen him stopped him. Shiva severed the head of the child and entered His house. Parvati, learning that Her son was dead, was distraught and asked Shiva to revive him. Shiva cut off the head of an elephant and fixed it on the body of Ganesha. Thus was Lord Ganesha born and created.
Another fascinating traditional tale tells us how one day all the Gods decided to choose their leader and a race was to be held between the brothers, between Kartikeya and Ganesh. It all started with the mischievous suggestion of Sage Narada to Lord Shiva that his two sons Lord Ganesha and Lord Kartikeya must be made to participate in a race to traverse the Mother Earth in order to ascertain who was the winner. Whoever completed three rounds of the Earth first was to be made the Ganaadhipati or the leader. Kartikeya seated on a peacock as his vehicle, started off to complete the task. Ganesh was given a rat, which moved slower than the peacock. Ganesh realised that the test was not easy, but He knew that He could not disobey his father Lord Shiva. He reverently paid obeisance to His parents and went around them three times and thus completed the test much earlier than Kartikeya. Thus, Ganesha declared in triumph: 'My sacred parents, Siva and Parvathi, pervade the whole universe and therefore, my encircling them would automatically mean not only going around the world but traversing the whole Cosmic Universe'. Everybody was pleasantly surprised and overtaken by Ganesha's transcendental logic, intuition and intelligence. Thenceforth He came to be known as the Ganaadhipati or leader, now referred to as Ganapati.
There is also another interesting story behind the symbolic snake, rat (Ganesha's vehicle) and the singular tusk associated with the childish pranks of Ganesha. The symbolic mythology behind the story of the mouse, the snake and Ganesha's big belly and their relationship with the Moon on Ganesha's birthday is highly philosophic. The whole cosmos is known to be the belly of Ganesha. Parvati is the primordial energy. The seven realms above, seven realms below and seven oceans, are inside the cosmic belly of Ganesha, held together by the cosmic energy (Kundalini) symbolised as a huge snake which Ganesha ties around Him. The mouse is nothing but our EGO. Ganesha, using the mouse as a vehicle, exemplifies the need to control our ego. According to our Vedanta, one who has controlled ego enjoys the transcendental bliss of Ganesha-consciousness or God-consciousness. Rajaji wrote brilliantly as follows: 'All culture in India has been rooted in Vedanta. Whatever courage, heroism, self-sacrifice or greatness is to be found in our history or seen in the lives of our people has sprung from Vedanta which is in our blood and tradition. It is in the air, so to say, of India and of Asia. The mysticism involved in the Vedanta relates the good life to truth and science. The conflict between religion and science is replaced and healed by harmony and integrated thought. Vedanta has a contribution to make to enduring civilisation. No polity based entirely on exploitation or force, even though it is administered by able and well-intentioned men, can last or be elevating even during the period it lasts.
Vedanta offers a religious faith that can have no quarrel with the scientists who work in the laboratory or with the geologists who do research in the history of the physical world on lands and oceans, and yet it offers a firm spiritual foundation for the just polity of a new world. The Vedantin is indeed a citizen of the world and a soldier in the world's army in a totally non-martial but no less heroic war against evil, the more heroic since he seeks no personal reward. Bewildered by the beauty of the Universe, the Vedantin seeks real enlightenment in the realms of the spirit.
The festival of Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated the in States of Maharashtra, Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and many other parts of India. Started by Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaja, the great Maratha ruler, to promote culture and nationalism in the 17th century, the Ganesh festival was revived by Lokmanya Tilak (a freedom fighter) to spread the message of freedom struggle and to defy the British who had banned public assemblies in the last decade of the 19th century. Tilak wrote in his 'Kesari': "We are at present being inspired by the spirit of patriotism. We have learnt from our lessons in ancient and modern history, what were the fruits of patriotism among the ancient Greeks and the Romans. We have also learnt from their histories how, when they lost their patriotism, they were subjected to foreign domination and became ignorant and superstitious. Patriotism is not our national quality, it is a product of the influences to which we have been subjected after the introduction of British Rule. The spirit of patriotism has not as yet permeated all the classes in India."
In order to diffuse the spirit of patriotism and nationalism among the masses, Lokmanya Tilak revived the tradition of two great festivals in Maharashtra- the Shivaji festival and the Ganesh festival. Thus, he requisitioned into national service two of the great forces which are calculated to deeply stir the national mind, namely, religion and history.
Thus Tilak transformed the traditional worship of Lord Ganapathi into an altogether new form. The Ganesh festival organised by him in the 1890s in Maharashtra gave the Indians a feeling of unity and revived their patriotic spirit and faith. This public festival formed the background for political leaders who delivered speeches to rouse the Indian people against the atrocities of British rule in India.
One of the most glorious moments in India's cultural history was the martial leadership provided by Dr K B Hedgewar when he started the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS.) in 1925. From that moment, no difficulty was ever experienced by the Hindus of Nagpur in organizing the Ganesh festival on a grand scale year after year, in an atmosphere of peaceful security, without any danger of being vandalized by the Islamic fundamentalists in the area.
The Ganesh festival has become so popular that the preparations for this festival begin months in advance in States like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu and Karnataka. Thousands of Ganesh statues are installed on street corners in the cities and towns and villages in different parts of India. At the end of the festival, these statues are carried on decorated floats to be immersed into the sea. In Chennai city, hundreds of processions converge on the beaches on the concluding day to participate in the holy practice of immersing the Ganesha idols into the sea. These processions are marked by drum-beats, devotional songs and dancing.
Even beyond India's frontiers, Ganesha has been and still is a popular God. In Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Indonesia (Jawa and Bali), Indo-China (Cambodia and Champa), China, Japan and Mongolia. In all these countries, there are innumerable temples dotted with several exquisite carvings and idols of Lord Ganesha. Thus the cult of Ganesha can be seen exercising its living influence throughout the length and breadth of South East Asia. It will be more appropriate to say that as a pan-Asian God, Ganesha is India's permanent cultural ambassador to the various countries of Asia. The spread of His influence is a grand chronicle of Ganesha Digvijaya. His pan-Indian character brings out that, next to Buddhism, He is an important cultural link between different countries of Asia.
The importance of Lord Ganesha in the life of Indians has been beautifully expressed by Edwin Arnold in his famous 'The Light of Asia':
'And on the middle porch God Ganesha
With disk and hook-to bring wisdom and wealth
Propitious sate, wreathing his sidelong trunk'