During the Ganeshchaturthi festival, clay idols of Ganesha are specially prepared and most families in Maharashtra install an idol for periods varying from two days to eleven days.
During the period when the idol of Ganesha is installed in a home, every morning and evening prayers (Aarti) are performed and hymns are sung. The singing of hymns is a popular event during this festival, especially for children. The hymns are sung to the clanging of small gongs (called jhanja), the sounds of which reverberate throughout the day.
The festival ends with the ceremony of immersion of the idols in the sea or rivers and wells. This ceremony which is called Ganesha-Visarjan which means immersion of Ganesha is as popular as the festival proper. During the immersion ceremony huge crowds move in a procession carrying idols of Ganesha towards the places of immersion. These processions which take place with great fanfare, begin in the afternoon and continue till the late hours of the night. Although this festival is observed in all parts of the country, it is celebrated with maximum fervour in Maharashtra where it is celebrated both publicly and privately.
This festival occurs on the fourth day (chaturthi)of the bright half of Bhadrapad. Ganesh Chaturthi is in August-September and in 2010 falls on 11th September.
The Public Celebrations of Ganesh-Chaturthi – Started by Lokmanya Tilak
In these public celebrations huge images of Ganesha ranging from 10 feet to 40 feet are installed and along with the daily prayers and hymns, there are entertainment programmes which are a major attraction. Till the turn of the last century, this festival was celebrated only in homes and temples.
But during the struggle for independence against British rule, freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak made it a public festival. Tilak did this so as to cleverly broadcast his political message of freedom for India. Carried out in the garb of a religious activity, it was difficult for the British Administration to curb it. But the festival once having acquired a public form for a political purpose, retained that form even after the political purpose ceased to exist. Hence even today in independent India Ganeshotsava is celebrated both publicly and privately.
The Composite Image of Lord Ganesha
When looking at the lord Ganesha, a question that comes to mind is: How could the concept of a human being with an elephant head, have come into being. Claims are made that this is an evidence of the development of surgery in India. Although nothing can be said assertively, piecing together of facts and hypothesis can afford a convincing answer. Gana-esha (eshwara) or Gana-pati means Lord of the tribe (Gana means a collection of people or a “tribe”; Esha, Eshwara or Pati roughly mean “lord”). Thus, these names convey the meaning of a tribal title.
The second set of names by which he is referred are Gajanana and Gajamukha which seem similar to the names Ganapati and Ganesha but have an entirely different meaning. Gaja means elephant while mukha or anana mean face or head. Gajanana and Gajamukha mean elephant headed. Thus although Gana meaning a tribe or a collection of people sounds similar to Gaja which means elephant, their connotation is totally different. The only possible link between the two terms is that both originate in a tribal ethos of the hazy past.
Apart from the mythological explanation, there is one hypothesis that can explain the composite idols in Indian culture like Gajanana (man-elephant), Narasimha (man-lion), and in other cultures like mermaids (woman-fish), winged angels and sphinxes, etc.
Instances of Composite Divine Objects in Other Culture
But instances of such composites is found not only in Indian mythology but also in other countries. The idea about Centaurs (man-horse), Mermaids (woman-fish), Winged Angels, etc., are examples of this in other parts of our globe.
But this is all pure hypothesis, and could be written off as ‘grotesque’ imagination for explaining a result of divine action. Is there anything to substantiate this theory, it may be asked?
The Hasti-Gumpha Bas Relief
Fortunately there is at least one rock carving that lends credence to this theory. Hasti-Gumpha (meaning an “elephant cave”) in Orissa in eastern India contain a curious carving that conveys the story of a battle between an elephant clan (Hasti-gana) and a mouse clan (Mushika-gana) This battle, the carving says, led to the victory of the elephant clan over the mouse clan. The subjugation of the mouse clan by the elephant clan might be the explanation behind how the elephant-God got to ride a mouse. It need not be underlined that an elephant riding a mouse seems somewhat incongruous. But the narration of this episode at Hasti-Gumpha throws up circumstantial evidence on the coming together of two totems as a result of a tribal war.
The Mythological Explanation of Ganesha
But parallel to all the rationalization of this phenomenon, mythology has an equally enthralling account that explains the birth (or more properly the creation) of this curious half-man, half-elephant God called Gajanana or Ganesha. All Hindus know that Ganesha is an unique deity.
He is no ordinary God, but is like the first among equals. All Hindu prayers start with the invocation “Shree Ganeshaaya Namaha” meaning Salutations to You O Ganesha. Mythology has an explanation to offer for Ganesha’s elephant head as well as for his being a first among the Gods.
The divine couple of Shiva and Parvati had remained childless for a long time after the birth of their first son Kartikeya.
Parvati makes Ganesha from Clay and Infuses Life in the Idol
Parvati’s motherly instincts made her yearn for a son and Shiva’s long absence from home intensified her yearning due to loneliness. One day a bright idea came to her mind, she decided to mould a statue of clay in the form of a son. Having created this the idol her yearning for a son was satisfied. She used her divine power to bring the clay idol to life. Happy as she was to have the company of a son, she went about her chores, many a times leaving the boy in charge of the house.
Shiva Confronts Ganesha
One fine day while Parvati was busy with her daily ablutions, Shiva turned up and saw Parvati’s son Ganesha, guarding the entrance to his house.
Shiva – the Lord of Mount Kailas who is portrayed as the Destroyer in the Hindu trinity (trimurti) along with Brahma (the Creator) and Vishnu (the Preserver). Shiva is also known as Nataraja or Nateswara (Lord of dance). Shiva is characterised by an angry temperament and we are told has a third eye on his forehead that emits fire if opened. The unfortunate Madana who dared disturb Shiva’s meditation was reduced to ashes when Shiva opened his third eye, enraged by Madana’s having disturbed his Tapasya (meditation).
Strangers as they were to each other the son (Ganesha) refused to allow Shiva to enter the house. Taken aback at being prevented from entering his own house, Shiva asked this tiny sentinel who he was. On being told that he was Parvati’s son Shiva was confounded and enraged, at this insolence.
In a fit of anger Shiva chopped off his head and threw it away. Shiva fetches an Elephant’s Head for the Beheaded Ganesha When Parvati heard about this outrage she lost her temper and she demanded that Shiva restore her son to life immediately. Compelled to appease Parvati, Shiva set out to find the head of her son. Hard as he tried, he could not find the head that he had chopped off and thrown away in disgust. As he could not find the head he wanted, he thought of fitting the headless body with the head of any living being that he would come across. Having so resolved he came across a baby elephant and true to his word, Shiva chopped off the elephant’s head, carried it to his beloved and to pacify her, he fitted it to the lifeless body of her son and revived him. This was how the Lord Gajanana or Gaja-Mukha came into being.
Ganesha becomes the first among the Gods
To atone for his deed Shiva also granted a special status to Gajanana by issuing a divine decree that thenceforth Gajanana would be the first to be invoked in every prayer and only after this, could the invocation of any other God takes place. This was how the elephant-headed Ganesha got to acquire his privileged position. In deference to the decree of lord Shiva, Hindus today, continue to regard Ganesha as the first God to be invoked in any prayer.
Author: Vamshichandra Paruchuri