Ganesh Chaturthi, also known as ‘Vinayaka Chaturthi’ or ‘Vinayaka Chaviti’, is a Hindu festival celebrating the arrival of Lord Ganesha to earth from Kailash Parvat with His mother Goddess Parvati or Gauri. The festival ‘Ganesh Chaturthi’ is celebrated to pray Lord Ganesha as – ‘the God of new beginnings and the remover of obstacles’. The celebration of ‘Ganesh Chaturthi’ denotes the significance of the cycle of birth, life and death. This festival is celebrated throughout India, especially in the states such as Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, West Bengal, Gujrat, Chattisgarh and Tamil Nadu. In abroad, Ganesh Chaturthi is observed in Nepal with great enthusiasm and also by the Hindu-diaspora elsewhere such as in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobaggo, Guyana, some parts of Carribea, Fizi, Mauritius, South Africa, United States, and Europe. According to Gregorian calendar, Ganesh Chaturthi falls between the end of August to starting of September.
Mythology regarding Ganesh Chaturthi and Lord Ganesha : Ganesha, the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati devi is popularly worshipped under different names like ‘Sumukha’, ‘Ekadanta’, ‘Kapila’, ‘Gajakarna’, ‘Lambodara’, ‘Vikath’, ‘Vidhananasana’, ‘Vinayaka’, ‘Dhumraketu’, ‘Ganadhyaksha’, ‘Bhalchandra’ and ‘Gajanana’. Though not alluding to the classical form of ‘Ganapati’ – the earliest mention is found in RigVeda. It appears twice in Rig Veda, once in Shloka 2.23.1, as well as in Shloka 10.112.9. Both these shlokas imply a role of Ganapati as ‘the seer among the seers, abounding beyond measure in food presiding among the elders and being the Lord of invocation’, while the shloka in 10th mandala states that without Ganapati, ‘nothing nearby or afar is performed without thee’. However, it is uncertain that the Vedic term Ganapati literally means ‘guardian of the multitudes’, referred specifically to later era Ganesha, nor do the Vedic texts mention Ganesh Chaturthi. In post- Vedic texts such as Grahya Sutras and thereafter ancient Sanskrit texts such as the ‘Vajasenyi Samhita’, the ‘Yajnavalka Smriti’ and the ‘Mahabharata’ mention Ganapati as - ‘Ganeshvaras’ and ‘Vinayak’. Lord Ganesha appears in the medieval Puranas in the form of ‘God of success’ or ‘Obstacle remover’. The ‘Skanda Purana’, ‘Narada Purana’ and ‘Brahma Vaivarta Purana’, in particular, profusely praise Him. Beyond textual interpretations, archaeological and epigraphical evidences suggest Lord Ganesha was revered before the 8th century CE and numerous images of Him are traceable to the 7th century or earlier. The carvings at Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples such as at the Ellora caves, dated between the 5th and 8th century show Ganesha, reverentially seated with major Hindu Goddess (Shakti).
History of Ganesh Chaturthi : Although it is unknown when or how Ganesh Chaturthi was first observed, the festival has been publicly celebrated in Pune since the era of Shivaji (1630-1680, founder of the Maratha empire). The Peshwa rulers in the 18th century were devotees of Lord Ganesha, and started a public Ganesh festival in their capital-city of Pune during the month of Bhadrapad. After the commencement of British Raj, the festival Ganesh Chaturthi lost the state-patronage and became a private family-celebration in Maharashtra, until its revival by Indian freedom fighter and social reformer Lokmanya Tilak. The festival Ganesh Chaturthi became a public event later in 1892 when Basudev Laxman Javale (also known as Bhau Rangari), installed the first ‘sarvajanik’ (public) Ganesh idol in Pune. In 1893, the Indian freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak praised the celebration of Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav in his newspaper ‘Kesari’ and dedicated his efforts to launch the annual domestic festival into a large well-organised public event. Sociologist Robert Brown presented Lord Ganesha as the god that bridged the gap between the Brahmins and the non-Brahmins; thereby building grassroots of unity across them to oppose the British colonial rule.
Lokmanya Tilak was the first personality to install large public images of Lord Ganesha in pavilions in Bombay Presidency and other celebratory events at the festival. Lokmanya Tilak recruited and passionately committed himself to Lord Ganesha after the 1893 Hindu-Muslim communal violence in Bombay and the Deccan riots, when he felt that the British Government under Lord Harris had repeatedly taken sides and not treated Hindus fairly because Hindus were not well-organised. Finally in 1893, Lokmanya Tilak helped to expand Ganesh Chaturthi festival into an event of mass-community and a hidden means for political activism, intellectual discourse, poetry recitals, plays, concerts and folk-dances.
Symbolic interpretation of Ganesh Chaturthi : The form of Lord Ganesha is highly charming and mesmerizing. Lord Ganesha is a god with an elephant-face. The cute little chubby boy like body with an elephant-head has been inspiring devotion and love in the hearts of millions down the history. His face is not supposed to be that of an elephant, it is upposed to be a ‘gana’. He is called Ganapati, which means ‘the chief of ganas’. Unfortunately, down the millennia, some artists made a mistake and it became an elephant. Lord Ganesha is the symbol of intellectual activity.
Lord Ganesha is the one who wrote down the Mahabharata. Ganesha’s challenge for Vyasdeva, the sage who dictated the Mahabharata to him – was that Vyasdeva should not pause in His dictation. It was a test for the sage, whether what he was speaking, was really a fountain-head of his being or something scholarly that He made up in His head. Lord Ganesha said, “I will write only if it is uninterrupted dictation. If you pause somewhere, once I keep my pen down, I will not write again”. Sage Vyasa spoke uninterrupted. It went on for months to end. Ganesha wrote without missing a single word. Thus Lord Ganesha can be symbolized as the best stenographer we can have.
Lord Ganesha is the symbolism of human intellect. This is symbolically very appropriate because this is the nature of the intellect, which can be used to consciously imagine something and dissolving Him, is the symbol that if one use the intellectual right, one can easily dissolve the world. Once the world is dissolved with one’s imagination, the activity of the intellect will also be dissolved, thus the switching off the imagination will not be great problem. One can be obliterate to the universe with imagination. The universe will not exist in one’s experience, if one can create a powerful imagination. If imagination is consciously developed, turning it off is also easy. Right now, the bits and pieces of imagination are happening unconsciously and it looks like it is impossible to be stopped. The entire Ganesh Chaturthi festival is symbolic to this.
While the form of Lord Ganesha evokes our imaginations and pleases us beyond comparison, there is also deep spiritual symbolism behind the form of Lord Ganesha. Description of Lord Ganesha’s form is found in a famous shloka dedicated to the Lord – “Vakra Tunda Mahakaaya Koti Surya Samaprabha/Nirvignam Kurume deva Sarva Kaaryeshu Sarvataa” : (Meaning – I worship the Lord with a curved trunk and huge body with the effulgence of a core suns. Let him remove the obstacles to all my deeds and lead them to fulfillment). We find Lord Ganesha having a huge body and an elephant-face. His huge belly symbolizes ‘the created universe’. The elephant-head is the symbol of ‘gyan’. In ‘Ganapati Atharvanasirsha Upanishad’, we find different shades of deep symbolic meaning, coming out with regard to Lord Ganesha. In this Upanishad, Lord Ganesha is identified as ‘the supreme Brahman’ and ‘the highest head of the created universe’.
Hidden meaning and significance on Lord Ganesha’s body-parts : The unique body-parts of Lord Ganesha are descriptions of His character and also of the qualities that humans must adopt for spiritual growth.
1) An elephant is strong enough to uproot trees. It sustains on leaves and grass. An elephant makes multiple use of its trunk – to take shower, have its food, reach out to the branches for leaves and even offer something to someone. Likewise, Ganesha’s trunk is a symbol of strength and wisdom. A wise mind can penetrate far and wide and thus help in making correct decisions.
2) The large majestic ears of Lord Ganesha, indicates that He listens to the prayers of every single human-being, who is devoted to Him.
3) Lord Ganesha is always depicted as having four hands, with one bearing- lotus, one holding a hatchet, one hand carrying sweet-meats and the fourth hand is always seen in an ‘Aashirwad Mudra’. This ‘Aashirwad Mudra’ or the blessing-pose means that an ideal person will always wish for the well-being of one and all.
4) The lotus symbolizes enlightenment and the hatchet symbolizes that enlightenment can cut off all bonds of attachments with the material world. The sweet-meats are the symbol of sweet grains, reaped by practising good-deeds.
5) Lord Ganesha is portrayed with one foot on the ground and the other resting on his knee. This posture is symbolic of the fact that the enlightened person lives on earth without any attachment to the material world.
6) Lord Ganesha is seen riding on the back of a rat. The rat usually stands for greed. The mind of a wise person must always control his senses. A human being’s desire or greed must never control him. This is the message, that Lord Ganesha gives by sitting on a rat.
7) The trunk of Lord Ganesha, facing in the left direction, is mostly preferred for home, which is believed to bring the positive energies. Ganesha with the trunk facing towards right direction, popularly known as ‘Siddhivinayaka’, should ideally be worshipped during the special rituals.
The idol of Lord Ganesha with the trunk towards the right side, signifies the ‘Pingala-Nadi’ or ‘the energy of the Sun’, just like the Sun can create as well as destroy - this Ganapati can bring you happiness; if worshipped in correct way or destruction if uncared for.
Story-line : Ganesha Chaturthi is the festival celebrating the rebirth of Lord Ganesha. The elephant-headed God has an interesting story. He was created in a complete human-form by Goddess Parvati. Devi Parvati moulded Ganesha from clay or the earth from her own body (versions vary) and gave it life. She then tasked Him to stand by the door of her palace as She bathed and not let anyone in. When her own husband, the great God Shiva tried to enter, the human-form barred His path. Lord Shiva was furious at being denied entry into His own home and a battle followed next. Lord Shiva won the battle beheading Ganesha. But He immediately felt guilty and He knew His wife would be furious. So, He sent His men to bring back the head of the forst- creature, they came across. They met an elephant with one tusk, who happily sacrificed His head for the honour.
Lord Shiva brought back Ganesha to His life and thus His story is considered one of rebirth and regeneration. Ganesha was made the head of Lord Shiva’s followers, ‘the Ganas’; hence His name was given Ganapati. He is worshipped as a bringer of luck and prosperity. He was also the God to help the Devas and humans in the preservation of balance by bringing obstacles to block the progression of evil and removing obstacles from the paths of goodness. Thus, Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated on the anniversary of the day when Lord Ganesha was revived in His elephant-headed form. Around this time there is a huge celebration where believers bring Ganesha into the house or temple or pandals. Lord Ganesha is worshipped with elaborate rituals for 10 days, so as to invoke His blessings and when His stay is over, the statue is ceremoniously immersed in a water body, which is called ‘Visharjana’.
According to Brahmavarta Puran, Tulsi devi was amazed by the charm of Lord Ganesha when she was crossing through the banks of river Ganga where Lord Ganesha was meditating. Tulsi devi went ahead to ask Ganesha to marry her but Ganesha replied that He will never get married in His life. This angered Tulsi devi and she cursed Ganesha that He will be married soon and Ganesha cursed Tulshi that she will remain a plant forever. Again, once Goddess Durga was devouring food. Ganesha asked his mother about this plight. To this Goddess Durga replied, “What if your wife does not give enough food to eat after you get married?” Then Ganesha went to cut a banana tree and gave it to his mother saying, “This is your daughter-in-law”. So, even today during Durga puja, banana tree wrapped in a saree and adorned with vermillion is placed on the right side of Lord Ganesha as his wife. Thus while in South India, it is believed that Ganesha is a Brahmacharya, it is generally believed that Lord Ganesha was married to the twin sisters Riddhi (Goddess of prosperity) and Siddhi (Goddess of intellect), who bore him two sons Subha (auspiciousness) and Labha (profit).
Celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi : At the start of the festival, idols of Lord Ganesha, made of clay, are placed on raised platforms in homes or in elaborately decorated outdoor tents. Observations include chanting of Vedic hymns and Hindu texts such as prayers and vrata (fasting). Offerings (prasada) from the daily prayers, are distributed from the pandal to the community. The worship begins with ‘pranapratistha’ (a ritual to invoke life in the idols), followed by ‘shodashapachara’ or 16 ways of paying tribute. The idols are anointed with red sandalwood paste and yellow or red flowers. Lord Ganesha is offered coconut, jiggery and 21 modakas (sweet dumplings – jiggery and coconut cakes wrapped in rice-flour), considered to be Ganesha’s favourite food. The worship of Lord Ganesha ends with an aarati in honour of the Lord.
In Maharashtra, Ganesh Chaturthi is also known as Ganeshotsav. In Maharashtra, Marathi aarati ‘Sukhakarta Dukhaharta’, composed by Samarth Ramdas, a saint of 17th century. In Goa, Ganesh Chaturthi is known as ‘Chavath’ in Konkani and ‘Parab’ or ‘Parva’ (auspicious celebration); it begins on third day of the lunar month of Bhadrapada. Instruments such as ghumots, crash cymbals and pakhavaj are played during the Ganesh Chaturthi utsav. The harvest-festival ‘Navyachi Pancham’ is celebrated on the next day; freshly harvested paddy is brought home from the fields and a puja is conducted. In Karnataka, the Gowri festival precedes Ganesh Chaturthi and people across the state wish each other well. In Andhra Pradesh, Ganesh-murtis made of clay and turmeric are usually worshipped at home with Plaster of Paris.
In South India, Ganesh Chaturthi festival is also known as ‘Vinayaka Chaturthi’ or ‘Pillayar Chaturthi’ or ‘Lamboodhara Piranalu’, falls on the fourth day after the new moon in the month of Avanai as per Tamil calendar. Some idols are made of coconut and organic products in South India. In Thiruvananthapuram, a procession marches from the Pazhavangadi Ganapati temple to Shankumugham beach with tall statues of Ganesha made from organic items and milk, immersed in the sea.
Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in UK by the British Hindu population living there. The Hindu culture and Heritage Society, a Sothall-based organization, celebrated Ganesha Chaturthi for the first time in London in 2005 at the Vishwa Hindu temple and the idol was immersed in river Tames at Putney Pier. Another celebration, organized by a Gujrati group has been celebrated in South-end-on Sea and attracted an estimated 18000 devotees. Annual celebrations are also held on the River Mersey in Liverpool. Again, the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Philadelphia is one of the most popular celebrations of Ganesh Chaturthi in North America and it is also celebrated in Canada (particularly in Toronto area), Mauritius, Malaysia and Singapore. The Mauritius festival dates back to 1896 and the Mauritian Government has made it a public holiday. In Malaysia and Singapore, the festival is more commonly known as ‘Vinayagar Chaturthi’ because of the large Hindu community.
End of Ganesh Chaturthi festival : The festival Ganesh Chaturthi ends on the tenth day after starting, when the idols are carried in public procession with music and group-chanting, then immersed in a nearby water-body. Thereafter the clay idols dissolve and Lord Ganesha is believed to return to Mount Kailash, to Devi Parvati and Lord Shiva.
There is an interesting story behind the legend of ‘Ganesh Visarjan’ or ‘Vinayaka Nimajjanam’. It is believed that Lord Ganesha returns to Mount Kailash to join his parents Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati on the last day of the festival. It is believed that when the idol of Ganesha is taken out for immersion, it also takes away with it the various obstacles of the house and these obstacles are destroyed along with the ‘visarjan’/’nimajjanam’. Again people wait for with great anticipation to celebrate the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi for another year.
The ritual of Ganesh Visarjana is done to signify the birth-cycle of Lord Ganesha; just as the idol was created with clay/earth, His symbolic statue is as well. The idol is immersed in water so that Ganesha may return to his own home after his stay at the home of His devotees or temple where the Ganesha- Chaturthi rituals are conducted. While it might seem like a good idea to skip the visarjan and keep hosting Lord Ganesha for fortune and prosperity, it is said that the power that suffuses the statue after 10 days of worship is all a human can bear. So, it is not to be kept longer.
Since discarding or breaking the idols of Ganesha would be disrespectful, the statue is ritualistically immersed in the water, so it may break down to the clay, from where it came. Some statues are prepared as such that its constituent materials actually benefit the ecosystem they enter. However in recent years, the immersion of Ganesha-idols made of non-biodegradable materials and the use of poisonous substances in the paints has led to pollution of water-bodies and takes away from the positive symbolism and impact of the ritual. The Pune Civic body has been using Ammonium Bicarbonate to dissolve the idols of Lord Ganesha. The Pune based National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) has developed Ammonium Bicarbonate process to dissolve the idols made of Plaster of Paris. As human-beings pray to Lord Ganesha, we all must remember to do so responsibly.