In case you didn’t know, we are in the midst of Ganesha Chaturthi! It’s a 10-day Hindu holiday honoring Ganesha, one of the most recognizable deities in the Hindu pantheon. Ganesha is arguably the most popular deity in India, worshipped regardless of caste or geographical region. He is also adored around the world, being well-loved by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists alike. Ganesha’s widespread popularity belies his relatively late appearance as a distinct deity. Ganesha doesn’t actually show up in the oldest Hindu texts (the Vedas from around 1000BCE). Rather, he seems to appear around the 5th century CE. He is known as the Remover of Obstacles, the Lord of Intelligence, and the God of New Beginnings, but the most obvious aspect of Ganesha – which makes this holiday especially fun – is his elephant head.
To understand Ganesha fully, we really must begin with Shakti. The Sanskrit word “Shakti” means “to be able.” It can refer to the dynamic energy that moves through the universe, the divine feminine, or the forces of creativity and change. Parvati is revered as the embodiment of Shakti, which makes her the Goddess of Power and the mother of all other goddesses. In some sects, she is even worshipped as the Supreme Being. Parvati was the mother of Ganesha. She was also the consort of Shiva, who is widely recognized as the Destroyer/Transformer and one of the deities in the Hindu Trinity (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva). With this sort of pedigree, you can safely assume that Ganesha will be strong, mighty, and powerful.
Hindu legends are notorious for being both varied and contradictory, so I’ll share just one version of Ganesha’s birth, naming, and acquisition of an elephant head. For whatever reason, many of these legends somehow involve Parvati and her bath. In this one, Parvati creates Ganesha from the dirt, oil, and spices floating in her bath water. After molding these substances into the shape of a boy, she breathes life into him. Now she has someone who will cater to her every need and who will not be swayed by any allegiance to Shiva. Parvati puts the boy at the entrance of the palace and tells him to guard it unconditionally while she is bathing. All is well until Shiva, himself, arrives. The boy, who doesn’t even know Shiva, refuses his entry. Shiva can hardly believe what he is hearing. He is the great and powerful Shiva, and Parvati is his wife! Tempers flare, and Shiva asks his attendants, the Ganas, to make the boy see the error of his ways. The boy, endowed with Parvati’s power, defeats the Ganas. He then refuses the diplomatic gestures of the other deities which is followed up by his resounding defeat of Indra and his army of demi-gods. Having had quite enough of the boy’s insolence, Shiva finishes the battle by lopping off the boy’s head.
Parvati is inconsolable. Desperate to see Parvati happy once again, Shiva promises to revive the boy and make him a leader among the gods. He instructs the Ganas to retrieve the head of the first sleeping being they find that is facing north. What they find is an elephant. When they return, Shiva attaches the head to the motionless body, bringing the boy back to life. From then on, the boy is known as Gana Isha (shortened to Ganesha), which means Lord of the Ganas. The title honored Ganesha’s power and his superiority over Shiva’s attendants.
Over time, Ganesha became a deity in his own right. Today, Ganesha is routinely called upon at the beginning of rituals, ceremonies, and prayers. He is also invoked prior to starting something new like opening a business, changing residences, commencing the school year, or even driving a new vehicle. Figures of Ganesha are still placed at the doorways of Hindu temples so he can guard them in the same way he guarded his mother while she was bathing, and red flowers are often seen at the base of his images and idols. Another way to honor Ganesha is through his Sahasranama — a litany of his thousand (or more) names/attributes/aspects. Ganesha is also known to enjoy the occasional tasty treat, although his characteristic pot belly is usually said to symbolize all of earthly existence and all of life’s experiences (both pleasant and unpleasant) rather than a god who is suffering the consequences of a sweet tooth.
During Ganesha Chaturthi, veneration of the great god intensifies. The holiday is observed throughout India, but the western region of Maharashtra is particularly well-known for its elaborate and lively celebrations. Ganesha Chaturthi became a widely-recognized festival in the late 1880’s when the great Indian activist, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, used the deity to unite Brahmins and non-Brahmins as part of his nationalist movement against Britain. His efforts included erecting large statues of Ganesha in the pavilions and making Ganesha Chaturthi a public holiday. Nowadays, people place clay idols (either handmade or bought) on home altars, in public pavilions, or in temples. These images can literally range from a fraction of an inch to over 100 feet in height. Corporations often use the holiday as a time for team-building games and bonding activities among co-workers; colleges/universities use it as a way to kick off the new school year as the new students get a chance interact with each other, the older students, and the faculty/staff. Devotees also wash Ganesha idols in the nearest body of water. In some cases, this means toting a Ganesha idol across town in a taxi! Recently, this practice has prompted an increase in environmental concerns, and many sources now offer suggestions about how to celebrate Gansha Chaturthi in more sustainable ways.
If you want to celebrate Ganesha Chaturthi with your kids, start with simple, inexpensive crafts available on the internet. The most obvious idea is to make an elephant! It’s fairly easy to make elephants from old CDs, handprints, paper plates, or party blowers. If you want to stay true to the Ganesha Chaturthi theme, make an elephant from clay. A link showing a super-easy, kid-friendly clay Ganesha is provided below, along with several other craft-related links. The important thing to remember is that Ganesha is a great god in the Hindu pantheon. That means kids get to decorate their Ganeshas with colorful beads and jewels. There are no boring, gray elephants at Ganesha Chaturthi! If crafts aren’t your thing, consider making a donation to one of the many organizations trying to save the elephant population from extinction. Poachers continue to slaughter elephants for their ivory tusks, and it has been estimated that as many as three elephants are killed on earth every hour.
The widespread appeal of Ganesha Chaturthi simply highlights the conclusion often made about this influential god: that Ganesha is the most malleable deity in the Hindu pantheon. There seems to be no end to the creative approaches taken by artists when depicting him, and his images are replete with symbolism. Ganesha is one of those gods that offers something for everyone. After all, life really is just a series of new beginnings. So take a moment during Ganesha Chaturthi to think about the obstacles in your life. Are they preventing you from commencing on an exciting new path? Or were they put there by Ganesha to reign you in somehow? Are you focused on your soul, your essential self, your atman? Or are you stuck in the pot belly of human existence? This might be a good week to change things up a bit. After all, you’ve got the elephant god to assist you.
A few fun crafts for kids!
There are several animated videos depicting the story of Ganesha’s birth and acquisition of an elephant. They range in length from 2 minutes to over 1 hour. Here are links to a couple of short ones.
How Lord Ganesha Got His Elephant Head (3 minutes)
Birth of Ganesha (a slightly more graphic but slightly shorter version)