Bhagawan Ganesha bestows wisdom and wealth, removes obstacles, and grants success in any noble endeavor. He is one of the five devatas of daily worship in the system of panchaayatana pooja (the five are: Surya, Ganapathi, Ambika, Shiva, and Vishnu). He is known by many names, such as Vinayaka, Ganapathi, Lambodara, Herambha, etc. Ganesha Chaturthi is His birthday. It is celebrated on the fourth tithi during the bright half (shukla paksha) of the bhaadrapada maasa (month). Celebrations with daily homas, poojas, and prayers continue for ten days till the anantha chaturdashi day. The earliest celebrations of this festival go back to the times of Shatavahana (230BC-22CE), Chalukya (540-750 CE), and Rashtrakuta (6-7th century) rules in Bharat. Since Shivaji’s time and through the period of Bharat’s freedom struggle, this festival became a great unifier of the Hindu society. As the resistance to the British rule in Bharat increased during the 1890’s, the British banned public assemblies. This led to Lokamaanya Blagangadhara Tilak popularizing the public celebration of Ganesha Chaturthi and using it as a means to spread the message of the freedom struggle.
These days Ganesha Chaturthi is one of the most colorful public festivals celebrated by Hindus throughout Bharat as well as in many countries outside Bharat. For a typical festival, a life-like clay model of Lord Ganesha is made 2-3 months prior to the day of the festivities. The size of this murti may vary from 3/4th of an inch to over 25 feet. On the day of the festival, it is placed on a raised platform (in home or an outdoor tent). Divinity is then invoked into the murti amidst the chanting of mantras. This is ‘pranapratishtaa’. After this the ‘shodashopachara’ (16 ways of paying tribute) follows. Coconut, jaggery, 21 ‘modakas’ (rice flour preparation), 21 ‘durva’ (trefoil) blades and red flowers are offered. The murti is anointed with red unguent or sandal paste (rakta chandanam). Throughout the ceremony, Vedic hymns from the Rig Veda and Ganapathi Atharva Shirsha Upanishad, and Ganesha sthotra from the Narada Purana are chanted. For ten days, from bhadrapada Shukla Chaturthi to the ananta Chaturdashi, Ganesha is thus worshipped. As in any Hindu festival, food offered (naivedyam) is saatvic; onion and garlic are strictly avoided!
The public venue serves as the focal point for free medical checkups, blood donation camps, charity for the poor, drama performances, films, devotional songs, etc. during the ten days. On the 11th day, Ganesha ji is taken through the streets in a procession accompanied with drumbeats, dancing, singing, and then immersed in a river or sea symbolizing a ritual see-off of the Lord to his abode in Kailasa. Throughout Bharat, thousands of such processions carrying the Ganesha murtis on decorated floats are taken and the murtis are immersed with great splendor.
Stories about Ganesha ji:
Puranas narrate several stories associated with Ganesha ji. He is the Son of Sri Shiva and Devi Parvati; Lord Kartikeya is his brother. His form is that of the pranava (aum). As the pranava is recited in the beginning of any mantra, so is Ganesha ji worshipped first in any pooja, homa, or prayer. He rides the mooshaka, signifying the mastery over the ego. The story of the birth of Ganesha ji, as depicted in the Shiva Purana, goes like this: Once Devi Parvati, while bathing, created a boy out of the dirt of her body and assigned him the task of guarding the entrance to her bathroom. When Shiva, her husband returned, he was surprised to find a stranger denying him access, and struck off the boy’s head in rage. Parvati broke down in utter grief and to soothe her, Shiva sent out his squad (gana) to fetch the head of any sleeping being who was facing the north. The company found an elephant and brought back its head, which was then attached to the body of the boy. Shiva restored its life and made him the leader (pati) of his troops. Hence his name is ‘Ganapati’. Shiva also bestowed a boon that people would worship him and invoke his name before undertaking any venture. The story associated with His birth and attaining the head of a gaja (‘elephant’) is the re-telling of the process of cosmic creation (Devi Parvati ‘making’ him out of the material world) and the attainment of the knowledge that the Supreme Self (gaja) is in everything. Ganesha or Gajanana indeed is the Supreme Self. All the universes exist in His belly.
Regarding His single tusk, there are two popular stories. In one, as Vyasa Maharshi was speedily dictating the Mahabharata to Ganesha ji, Ganesha ji broke his pen; He then hurried broke one of his tusks and, using it as a pen, continued writing! This signifies that even the message of the Mahabharata is that the divine Almighty is One, since Eka dantam (the one with one ‘tooth’) also conveys Ekadam tam (You are One). The Mahabhaarata is the process of discovering That One in the many. This message is distilled in Shri Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna in the 700 verses of the Bhagavadgeeta. In another story, Ganesha ji gets angry at Chandra deva (moon) for making fun of Him and throws one of His tusks as a missile at Chandra. Here ‘chandra’ represents our mind that sees the dual and the differences. The missile from Ganesha (the Self) when directed to the mind makes it realize that there is no duality. Ganesha ji reminds us not to discriminate anyone.
A third story with the same inner meaning of Vedanta is the competitive race around the universe by Ganesha ji and Kartikeya ji. In the Balagokulam guide there is a skit based on this story. Kartikeya attempted to go around the biggest thing, i.e., the universe. The wise Ganesha ji knew that the bigger-than-the-biggest, the Brahman, is the smaller-than-the-smallest that exists in every tiniest thing. So by going around Sri Shiva and Devi Parvati, He not only educated us about the importance of revering our parents, he also revealed the Vedantic Truth.
Forms and Names:
Just as Bhagawan Vishnu’s dashaavataars, Ganesha ji too appeared in several avatars. Ganesha Purana narrates the four avatars (Vinayaka, Mayureshwara, Gajanana, and Dhumrakeu), one for each of the four yugas. The Mudgala Purana states eight inner avatars of Ganapathi. These can be understood as the eight divine qualities that vanquish the asuri tendencies, as listed below:
- Vakratunda – recognizing the nirguna Brahman alone overcomes matsara (jealousy)
- Ekatanta – recognizing the Oneness (advaitam) overcomes mada (arrogance)
- Mahodara – recognizing the world as “my own” overcomes moha (attachment, delusion)
- Gajanana – recognizing the Almighty as the face of creation subdues lobha (greed)
- Lambodara – the essence of sattva defeats krodha (anger)
- Vikata – the right knowledge (intelligence) overcomes kaama (lust) Vighneshwara, Vighnaraaja – anyone forgetting the above will face all the obstacles in life; remembering Him will relieve our mamatvam (feeling of possessiveness) Dhumravarna – the destructive power of Brahman overcomes aham (ego, raw pride)
According to Ganesha Purana, Ganesha ji is worshipped in two forms:
1) Varada Ganapathi, and 2) Sankatahara Ganapathi. The first is used in the Ganesha Chaturthi. Worship of the second relieves us from all fears. This takes place in every krishna chaturthi. Thus, Bhagawan Ganesha is worshipped in every chaturthi (i.e., on the fourth tithi), about 24 times a year! The bhaadrapada chaturthi is the most popular one but other chaturthi vratas too are common in the Hindu temples across the USA. Further, Mudgala Purana and the aagama shastras narrate 32 forms of Ganapathi, i.e., 32 murti images used in Ganesha worship. His naamaavalis list His 12, 108, or 1008 names too.
Thus Ganesha Chaturthi with all its merrymaking festivities is a deeply spiritual journey that reveals the fundamental characteristics of Hinduism: That One Supreme Divinity exists in fullness right here, in everyone, in everything, and yet beyond mind’s grasp. With total shraddhaa, one can experience this abiding Truth of this universe and us. Life with such a ‘seeing’ indeed is called ‘brahmacharya’ (= walking in the Brahman) and Bhagawan Ganesha is theforemost among the brahmachaaris.