If you ask people around the world to think of a Hindu deity, chances are that what immediately springs to mind for most is a round, elephant-faced god with a beneficent smile: Śrī Gaṇeśa. He is revered and beloved across most lineages in our tradition – Śaivites, Vaiṣṇavas, Śāktas, and many other traditions all worship Śrī Gaṇesa. So you can imagine that during the time when we celebrate his presence and invoke his blessings each year, it is quite the enthusiastic and popular celebration.
In fact, in Maharashtra and other parts of India, people celebrate for a full 10 days – Gaṇeśotsava is a joyful, profound, and very sweet devotional experience each year.
The most immediately striking thing about Lord Gaṇeśa is his elephant head, and many different versions of the story of how he got it! However, most of them loosely follow this narrative:
Once, Pārvatī Mā was filled with longing to have a child. Lord Śiva was off meditating somewhere, so she scooped up some earth and fashioned it into a little boy. Being the creative energy of the universe, all she had to do was blow her own breath into him, and he instantly came to life as a darling boy.
Together, mother and son played together all afternoon. In the evening, she decided she wanted to take a bath, and told her son to keep an eye out and not let anyone in.
A short while later, Lord Śiva returned and was looking for his beloved goddess. As he tried to enter the bath area, this little boy stood firmly in his way and said “Go away! I won’t let you pass!”
Śiva asked him to step aside, but the little boy refused to move. Finally, Śiva, frustrated, threatened to fight the boy.
Unfazed, the boy merely re-asserted his ground. He valiantly fought off all of Śiva’s attendants and guards, and finally faced Śiva himself.
Unbeknownst to each other, father and son dueled. Lord Śiva, the Supreme Being, couldn’t understand how this boy seemed to have all the power in the universe within him. It was like fighting against is own self!
Finally, he took out his axe and chopped off the boy’s head. At that exact moment, Pārvatī-devi came out of her bath, and rushed towards the scene, horrified.
“My lord, what have you done?! That is our SON. I gave him life just a few hours ago!!”
Lord Śiva now understood why the boy had so much strength – he was born of Mahāśaktī Herself! As he was looking at the limp body of the body, and at his furious wife, an elephant passed by. He took off the elephant’s head and placed it on the boy.
This time, He willed life into him. As the boy with the elephant-head opened his big eyes, Lord Śiva gazed at him with great love and respect.
He said, “My son, I am proud of your bravery and your loyalty to your mother. From here onwards, you will be worshipped first amongst all the gods. I also place you in charge of the gaṇas, [deities representing categories of creation] and you will be known as गणेश Gaṇeśa – lord of the gaṇas.
Having had his proud, ignorant human mind removed and replaced with the much greater wisdom and understanding of an elephant, the boy finally recognized his father as the Lord, and bowed humbly. As he did so, Lord Śiva embraced him, and the three returned as a happy family to their divine home.
As we learned from this story, Lord Gaṇeśa is worshipped first before all the other deities (in almost every dharmic Hindu lineage), and he is the Lord of Categories. While that may seem somewhat strange or abstract, remember that Gaṇeśa is associated with memory and wisdom (the qualities of the elephant) that can remember what category everything belongs to and how things are connected to each other. He is the embodiment of wisdom and upholds the cosmic order.
Another quality of his that we adore is that he is अानन्दमूर्ति, ānanda-mūrti, the embodiment of joy. Śrī Gaṇeśa is not ordinary pleasure, but deep innate joy – the kind that bubbles up from within and has no cause or limit. It is not dependent on getting or not getting what we think we want – it flows from our beingness itself. He is literally the fruit of the union of God and Goddess – of pure divinity – and the natural experience of this oneness is deep and abiding joy.
He is also known as the one who removes obstacles and disruptions (vighna), the power of natural (सहज sahaja) and simple/easeful (सरल sarala) flow. When we are fully connected to the flow of divine grace, there is the experience of everything happening at the right time and in the right way, very naturally and auspiciously. This is the energy of Lord Gaṇeśa.
And, being aware of the presence of the divine fills us with the experience of innate joy – which in turn makes everything seem doable, manageable, and even enjoyable. What we previously perceived as obstacles and disruptions are now seen as joyful adventures and blessings – this is another way that the presence of Śrī Gaṇeśa removes our obstacles.
When we invoke him, we are not invoking some being with an elephant head who shows up and bulldozes our challenges, clearing the path for us. We are invoking the sacred power of wisdom and discernment that can recognize the divine presence, we are invoking the deep joy and auspiciousness that is contained within the divine presence, and we are invoking the pure grace and blessing that flows from the divine presence… the grace that nourishes, protects, and guides us on our path. Truly, what’s not to love?
The core practice of this celebration is to worship Śrī Gaṇeśa in a very special and sweet way.
Traditionally, families would all go down together to the riverbank and gather clay. Then, they would make their own mūrti, their own icon, of Śrī Gaṇeśa and worship him at home for each day of the festival.
Finally, on the full moon, with deep gratitude and an atmosphere of joyful celebration, they would lovingly carry this natural mūrti back to the river or lake and offer it back to the water, and to the earth.
In places where clay was not readily available, it is also common to make him out of turmeric or other natural substances.
There are many different reasons why we do this. A simple one is that this is our chance to experience profound and personal devotion and intimacy with God – that instead of going to a temple and watching a priest worship on our behalf, this is our chance to bring God into our own home, and worship him through our own love and devotion.
It is a chance to bring ordinary earth to life as a tangible embodiment of divine power. It was also particularly sweet because in the old days, it was not easy to acquire a metal or stone statue to worship with, especially if you were just a simple villager or farmer.
But now, for 10 days, people had a way to fully express their love and devotion within their own home – by performing pūjā and making offerings of sweets, fruits, flowers, and anything their heart longed to give. Through this practice, we understand that our relationship to God can be intimate, personal, and direct – we do not need someone else to mediate our connection to the divine.
Another understanding is that we are recreating to some extent the story of Gaṇeśa – we first fashion him out of clay, with our own hands like Mā does. We bring him home, and we bring him to life through our offerings and our love. Finally, we dissolve his form, but it is in this moment of dissolution that he actually becomes fully transcendent and divine.
An even subtler understanding is that this is actually a yogic journey from manifest to transcendent. We start with God in the form of earth, fully manifest. Through each day of practice, and outer offering, we actually cultivate a deeper and deeper inner experience of wisdom, joy, and alignment with divine grace and flow. We keep installing him and worshipping him inside our hearts. On the full moon, this inner sādhanā is complete, and we can surrender the outer form back to the field of manifest creation.
Instead of making the icon with our own hands, it has unfortunately become popular in the modern era to buy increasingly larger icons out of artificial and often toxic materials that are poisonous to the environment and the life contained within it. While humans are social animals and have a tendency to want to gather together, the purpose of this particular festival is to have a private and personal connection to God, and to both create and dissolve his form in perfect harmony and balance with nature.
However you choose to celebrate, we urge you to do so in a way that is nourishing and honoring of our earth mother.
We can not stress enough how important it is that you use natural, biodegradable substances for your mūrti – if you don’t have access to mud or clay, use turmeric or kumkum. Or just about anything that will dissolve naturally in water, and still maintain the auspicious flow of life.
This celebration is more than just a way for all the generations of the family to practice together, it is also intended to connect us with the cycles of nature – of creation, sustenance, and dissolution. We need to recognize that these are all aspects of the supreme power.
Additionally, this act of creating and dissolving the icon teaches us that it is not the icon itself that is inherently powerful; it is our devotion and faith that can turn ordinary mud into varada-mūrti, a giver of blessings.
– Set up a pūjā, a traditional altar for Lord Gaṇeśa. Ideally, make your own icon out of clay or turmeric. If that is not possible, use a statue or image of him, and offer fruit, flowers, flame, incense, sweets (modaka – which you can learn how to make in Lesson 2 are his favorite), clothing, money, durva grass, etc. If possible, do this with your family or other members of your household or community.
-Sing songs of praise. An ancient Vedic hymn for him is the Gaṇeśa-Atharvaśirśa, and there are also many more contemporary chants and songs.
-Silently repeat his mantra: Oṃ Gaṃ Gaṇapataye Namaḥ, or his Gāyatrī Mantra, which you can learn in Lesson 3.
-Pay attention to any encounters with mice or rats – they are his animal vehicles/symbols.
-Visualize his form and presence in your mind’s eye and offer your inner worship and gratitude for all that he embodies. Let yourself experience the joy of being, and allow the force of that joy to free you from the paralyzing grip of inner and outer challenges.
-On the full moon day, carry your icon out in a happy procession to a large body of water and ritually immerse it with great joy and gratitude!
When you offer the mūrti back into the water, remember to also offer your gratitude to the goddess of the water, to all of nature, and also to the earth for the gift of the experience.
Teacher: Shivani Hawkins