Ganesa Chaturthi is an annual festival celebrating the birth of the god Ganesa. It is celebrated on the chaturthi, or the “fourth day” after the new moon, in August/September (Hinduism Today 196). Ganesa is an elephant headed, short, pot-bellied god who is the immortal son of Siva and Parvati [Also known as Shakti]. Ganesa is said to have only his right tusk, as his left one was chopped off. For this he is known as Ek Danta (one-toothed) (Verma 44). Ganesa is believed to be the destroyer of obstacles (Vighna Vinashaka); the harbinger of happiness and joy (Sukha Kartha); the absorber of sorrow and misfortune (Dukha Hartha); and one who makes wishes come true (Siddhi Vinayaka) (Bhalla 18).
Ganesa is usually seen sitting on a padma lotus flower. He has four arms, each holding a different weapon. He carries around an axe (parasu), lasso (pasa), hook (ankusa) and a lotus flower. On his left side sits his vahana (that which carries) a mouse (Musakavahana). This mouse is usually seen eating a modak (sweet dumpling). His trunk is usually curved to the left and he is wearing a dhoti (cloth wrapped into pants). His head represents atman and his corpulent body the things of the earth (Brockman 226). He is the supreme lord of dharma and we pray to him for guidance and direction of our lives.
There are two myths on how Ganesa was born. The most common one suggests that “ disliking Lord Siva’s surprise visits during her baths, Parvati formed a human figure out of clay and water into a man’s figure and gave it life” (Verma 43). This figure had come to be known as Ganesa. Ganesa’s mother, Parvati, then put Ganesa on guard as she went to go bathe. Oblivious he had a father, Ganesa, came upon an Aghori-like man holding a trident. This man was none other than his father, Siva. Upon Siva’s arrival from samadhi, he tried to enter the house to see Parvati, but Ganesa would not let him in. Siva enraged, takes his trident and cuts off Ganesa’s head. As Parvati returns from her bath she sees her son headless. She questions Siva as to what had happened and explains to him that Ganesa was their son.
To ease Parvati’s grief, Siva promised to cut off the head of the first living thing he would see and attach it to Ganesa’s body (Bhalla 18). The first thing Siva came upon was an elephant, therefore, Ganesa has an elephant’s head. Ganesa was thus restored to life and rewarded for his courage by being made lord of new beginnings and guardian of entrances (Bhalla 18).
The second myth is about Parvati and Siva having a son together. Every god had come to see this new born except one, Sani (Lord of Saturday). Sani desisted from it because he was under the curse that, whomsoever he had beheld will be burnt to ashes (Verma 44). Parvati had thought that if everyone came to see Ganesa, then Sani should have to. Sani then agreed to see Ganesa, but as soon as he did, Ganesa’s head burnt and fell off. Parvati, being short-tempered, was starting to give Sani a shraap (curse). But Brahma interrupted and said that if they had found a head, it would not be to late to reattach it. So Visnu set forth on his Garuda [Vishnu’s mount who has the body of a bird and the head of a human] in search of it and the first creature he found was an elephant sleeping beside a river. He cut off its head and it was fixed on Ganesa’s body (Verma 44).
People who are starting a new beginning worship Ganesa, because he is known as the “Lord of new beginnings” and “Lord of Obstacles”. Ganesa Chaturthi is a festival that many people are engaged in before they start their new beginnings. Ganesa Chaturthi is a festival that lasts 10 days. Initially a private celebration, it was first turned into a public event by the Indian leader Lokmanya Tilak who used it as a means of uniting people in the freedom struggle against British rule (Bhalla 18).
Two or three months before the Chaturthi, people start making idols of Lord Ganesa. These idols can range from three quarters of an inch up to 25 feet. They then bring the idol to their house and set it on an elevated platform. The murti (idol) is then placed facing east in the padma (lotus flower) with uncooked rice underneath. The priest then invokes life into the idol amidst the chanting of mantras. This ritual is called pranapratishhtha (Bhalla 18). Followers of Ganesa then decorate their house to make it appealing to the lord. Author of Loving Ganesa states, “we decorate the temple and home shrine with banana leaves, sugarcane and strings of mango leaves, making it look like a small forest” (Subramuniya 300). Pandit Arunachalam notes,
“In Karnatak, India, young people make a ritual of seeing 108 Vinayakas on this occasion, so they go about visiting their friends’ and relatives’ houses on this day…the worship of Ganesa on this day is supposed to confer advancement in learning to the young student and success in any enterprise undertaken” (Festivals of Tamil Nadu, p.110-121)
Right after the devotees bring food, fruits, and sweets to offer to Ganesa. Modak (sweet dumpling) is often offered to Ganesa, for it is Ganesa’s favorite thing to eat. During this time special pujas (prayers) are done. The idol is anointed with red unguent (rakta chandan). Throughout the ceremony, Vedic hymns from the Rig Veda and Ganapati Atharva Shirsha Upanishad, and Ganesa stotra from the Narada Purana are chanted (Bhallah 18). One popular chant is “Ganapati Bapa Moriya, Purchya Varshi Laukariya” (Oh father Ganesa, come again early next year). Devotees of Ganesa usually fast during this ten-day period if they have a wish to ask for.
The Ganesa Visarjana (a Sanskrit word meaning “departure”) takes place after the 10 days of the Ganesa Chaturthi. In some places, the Visarjana is done on the same day as the Chaturthi. The clay idol is taken from the house to the river and then it is submerged. In bigger cities, idols up to 25 feet are taken to the sea while chanting “Ganapati Bapa Moriya, Purchya Varshi Laukariya.” They then immerse the idol into the water. “We honor His departure with a grand parade, as we carry Him on a palanquin bedecked with flowers and accompanied by puja, music, dancing and celebration” (Subramuniya 301).
The Ganesa Chaturthi has started to become a global festival. In 1988 Ganesa broke new ground in his public relation when Visarjana was held in the United States. It was the first large scale interdenominational public Hindu festival held in US history (Subramuniya 303). In San Francisco, California almost 2000 people had come together on September 25 to celebrate Ganesa Chaturthi. The idols were submerged into the Pacific Ocean. Following this, places like Sydney, Australia had started celebrating as well.
The Ganesa Chaturthi is a very important festival in the Hindu religion. It signifies the birth of Lord Ganesa and it is not only celebrated in India, but it is celebrated worldwide. From the early ages up till now, the deity Ganesa has been known as the Lord of Obstacles. He is the one who is always worshiped at the beginning, and ending of a prayer. Ganesa Chaturthi is a very beautiful event that everyone should one day be a part of. It is very enjoyable and to sum it up into a sentence: It is a ceremony of fond farewell to a beloved god (Subramuniya 301).
Bhalla, Kartar Singh (2005) Let’s Know Festivals of India. New Delhi: Star Publications.
Gupte, B.A (1994) Hindu holidays and ceremonials. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.
Editors of Hinduism Today (2007) What Is Hinduism: Modern Adventures Into a Profound Global Faith. India: Himalayan Academy Publications.
Subramuniyaswami, Satguru Sivaya (2000) Loving Ganesa: Hinduism’s Endearing Elephant-Faced God. India: Himalayan Academy Publications.
Brockman, Norbert C. (2011) Encyclopedia of Sacred Places. USA: ABC-CLIO.
Verma, Manish (2007) Fasts and Festivals of India. Delhi: Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd.
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Article written by Ajay Parekh (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.