By Nithin Sridhar
Ganesha Chaturthi, also called Vinayaka Chaturthi, is one of the most important festivals celebrated by Hindus worldwide. The auspicious festival is especially observed in the states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.
The festival is celebrated both privately at homes and publicly at gran pandals (public stages). The public celebration was popularized by Balagangadara Tilak in Maharashtra during India’s struggle for freedom from the British. But, the festival itself is much older.
Every Hindu festival has a meaning and symbolisms associated with it. But, these symbols are not dry metaphors or mere representations of abstract philosophies. Instead, every festival is deeply associated with the living presence of the deities.
Lord Ganesha is the personification of Ganesha tattva (principle) manifested in the Universe on Ganesh Chaturthi. Hence, this aspect of God can be most intimately realized by worshiping Him on that day.
Therefore, Ganesha Chaturthi is not just a festival of merriment. Instead, it is a day when one should worship and contemplate on Ganesha tattva, so that one attains both material welfare and spiritual progress. But, a proper worship is only possible when one understands the deity one is worshipping. So let us look into who Lord Ganesha really is and what does his birth signify.
Who is Lord Ganesha?
Lord Ganesha is popularly known as the remover of obstacles. Thus, he is called as “vigna-harta.” He helps people accomplish their desires and goals by helping them overcome the obstacles that obstruct their paths.
He is also called as “muladhara-stitah”- the one who is seated in muladhara chakra. Muladhara chakra refers to physical Universe. Hence, Ganesha sustains this whole physical universe.
The scriptures say that Lord Ganesha has two consorts- Siddhi and Buddhi. Siddhi represents material accomplishments and Buddhi represents spiritual intelligence.
Therefore, the uniqueness of this form of God is that Ganesha can grant both material prosperity as well as spiritual emancipation. If worshiped sincerely, He will remove the obstacles in one’s path and take one to the ultimate goal of Moksha (Liberation).
Symbolism behind Lord Ganesha’s birth
The events surrounding the birth of Lord Ganesha are well known. Goddess Parvati manifested Ganesha out of her own sweat and asked him to guard the entrance of the cave while she was having a bath. Meanwhile, Lord Shiva came and wanted to enter the cave. But, Ganesha who did not recognize Lord Shiva refused to allow Shiva. Shiva then beheaded Ganesha.
Goddess Parvati came out and saw her dead son. This enraged her and she became very fierce. Lord Shiva promised his wife that he would revive Ganesha. He asked other gods to bring suitable head that is fresh and is present in the northern direction. The gods were able to locate only the head of an elephant that had recently died.
Lord Shiva attached the elephant’s head to Ganesha’s body and revived him. Thus, Ganesha was alive again and he was given a boon that he would be worshiped first before any other worship is started.
These events, though usually dismissed as mere “stories”, have deep symbolism and significance at many levels. The events not only correspond to cosmic principles and the manifestation of Ganesha tattva, it also corresponds to the ascent of a spiritual practitioner from bondage to emancipation and the subsequent descent as a liberated being.
Goddess Parvati is none other than the Cosmic Prakriti, the Shakti, or the Maya (the cosmic energy principle). The son she created out of herself, refers to tattvas (principles) created from this Maya. Hence, internally, the Ganesha who was originally created by Parvati represents the physical and the subtle bodies into which a jiva (individual self) is bound by. Jiva is limited. The Kundalini (the serpent power, the power of ego) is strongly identified with the body.
Therefore, the initial creation of Ganesha represents individual jiva who is in bondage being devoid of consciousness (Shiva Tattva).
The beheading of Ganesha by Shiva denotes the slaying of the false ego that happens, when Kundalini rises from her base in Muladharachakra (physical plane) to the SahasraraChakra in the head. Sahasrara is the seat of Shiva and when Shakti merges in Shiva, the false identifications with body dies.
Elephant denotes “intelligence”. Here, it refers to “Atma-Jnana” or “Brahma-Jnana”. The individual jiva now descends from the Sahasrara chakra into Muladhara chakra (Physical universe), but this time, there is no bondage. The individual jiva, on its return stays as “Jivanmukta”- liberated even while having a body.
But, there is a small difference even here between Ganesha and the path of normal jivanmuktas. Normal jivanmuktas when they return, their power or Shakti is limited to the power that their bodies can hold. In the case of Ganesha, he returns as Brahman itself. He at once, represents the unity of Shiva and Shakti.
It is for this reason that Ganesha is described as “pratyaksham brahmasi”- Brahman who can be directly perceived here itself. Therefore, Ganesha should be worshipped not just as a remover of obstacles, but as the supreme Brahman itself, who has in Himself both the essence of Shiva which is consciousness and the essence of Shakti which is movement.
Lord Ganesha is offered various offerings- flowers, fruits, clothes, food, etc. These offerings are modes of expression of one’s devotion and surrendering. At the end of the worship, the life force of the deity present in the idol is requested to return back to its cosmic aspect.
The idol that is left behind is placed in water in a process called as “visarjan.” It is important to understand that visarjan does not mean dumping of or throwing away of idols into lakes and rivers. It is a respectful manner of disposing of the idol that represents the body occupied by the deity for a small duration.
Just as human bodies are respectfully cremated or buried with proper rituals, etc. The idols have to be respectfully submerged in water as well.
For the last few years the festival has been often associated with pollution in the media. But, the fact is that the pollution is a recent phenomenon that is itself a product of commercialization. Previously, people sold idols that were made from clay. In fact, many people used to prepare idols from their own hands and use them for worship.
It is only in the last few decades, that the number of people using Plaster of Paris (POP) has increased. In any case, in olden days there were neither POP nor any chemical paints. Ganesha festival as a public celebration itself is only around 125 years old. Therefore, no question of the festival being polluting by its very nature. The pollution is rooted only in some of the current practices that must be avoided.
The true essence of the festival is not in pandal hopping or buying very large idols. Instead, it is in worshipping Lord Ganesha with sincere devotion and surrendering. Hence, every person must attempt to connect with Lord Ganesha tomorrow through worship and contemplation.