Tuhin A Sinha
What comes to mind when we think of ‘Ganesha’? The God with an elephant head, of course. So deeply embedded in the Indian psyche is the Lord of new and auspicious beginnings, that there is no Indian, irrespective of religion or belief, who doesn’t know of Ganesha.
The Ganesha festival holds a lot of importance not only in Mumbai, but across Maharashtra and other parts of India. Coincidentally, the day I shifted to Mumbai was the second day of the Ganpati festival and I remember the city alive with sounds of the chants of ‘Ganapati bappamorya’, and festivities and celebrations enlivening the streets. So, the festival is very special to me.
The 11-day fanfare and celebrations around the festival can largely be attributed to two figures – Shivaji and Lokmanya Tilak. The earliest record of the mention of Ganesha can be found in the Rig Veda, our most ancient text written thousands of years ago. But it was around the time of the rule of Chhatrapati Shivaji during the 17th century that the festival first began to be celebrated widely, and began to hold much popular appeal among people, like we see today.
Shivaji had a big role to play in popularising this festival in Maharasthra, and the astute ruler that he was, he also used it as a tool and a means to organise the scattered society. This was particularly crucial at two historical junctures: first, during Shivaji’s war campaigns against the Mughals, Ganesh puja was popularised at the behest of the Maratha leader and was an important step in organising Hindu society against the enemy. The second important juncture was in the 19th century, when Indian nationalist and independence activist Bal Gangadhar Tilak employed this festival gainfully to organise society against the British, much like Shivaji did. This played a pivotal role in Hindu social renaissance and in India’s freedom struggle.
Ganesha is a truly special and unique character. He is unlike Hanuman, unlike the maryadapurushotam, like Rama. He is considered a confidant. A friend, more than a God, whom you can talk to, confide in, and who will pull you out of your troubles. Ganesha is also the epitome of the obedient and dutiful son, an excellent child anyone would want to have. An interesting anecdote about Lord Ganesha is a famous story: One day, Ganesha and his brother, Kartikeya, were asked by their parents, Shiva and Parvati, to travel around the world and return to them. While Kartikeya went on a world tour, Ganesha did the unthinkable – he circled around his parents twice. An astounded Shiva and Parvati asked him as to why he did that, he said that his world revolved around the two of them because they were his world in entirety. This is one marvellous instance which serves to highlight his dedication and devotion to his parents.
The other important attribute of Ganesha is that he is considered auspicious in Hindu culture. Before beginning any event or activity, it is considered auspicious to take his name, revere him and to pray to him to grant success. This is also because Ganesha is considered a very sagacious and intelligent God who offers a solution to every problem. His intellect is supposed to be handy in warding off difficult situations.
Ganesha has a deep spiritual significance, too. Among his physical aspects, his elephant-head and large ears indicate the wisdom he has gained through listening and reflecting on the eternal Truth. In his hands, he holds a hook and a noose, which remind the devotee to tame the mind which is like a wild elephant. The sweet he holds indicates the reward of joy, satisfaction and contentment that come from spiritual knowledge. He sits with one leg folded up and the other leg resting on the ground, clearly telling us that we can live in the world, while keeping our focus on the godhead within. The lotus he holds tells us how to bloom and remain unpolluted by the negativity around us. The large spread of food represents material wealth, power and prosperity, indicative of material benefits available to you if you live a life of high ideals & principles.
In Mumbai, from my experience, depending upon their ability, time and resources that they are able to dedicate, people celebrate the festival for 2, 5, 7 or 11 days. The beauty of the festival is that there is a fair amount of flexibility in the celebrations and that makes Ganesha, in a true sense, a friendly god for everybody.
(As told to Rupesh Jhabak)
(Tuhin is an author and a politician)