One of the affectionate names by which Śrī Gaṇeśa is addressed is मोदकप्रिय (modakapriya), the One who is very fond of a particular kind of sweet coconut and rice dumpling called मोदक (modaka).
The word modaka means that which brings delight, joy – qualities that Śrī Gaṇeśa Himself embodies and infuses in the atmosphere around Him. So not only does Gaṇeśa have an endless appetite for the sweetness of joy, he also embodies this same delight, he radiates this delight, and the forms of his blessings are infused with this joy.
So naturally for this celebration of Śrī Gaṇeśa, modaka is the main प्रसाद (prasāda), the food that is offered in ritual worship, infused with blessings, then distributed as a conveyor of the benevolence of Lord Gaṇeśa.
In this lesson we will learn about the story behind these simple, delicious balls of sweetness, the significance of its ingredients from the seasonal health perspective of Ayurveda, and learn exactly how they are made. We will also learn about a special seasonal offering of medicinal herbs that is made during this celebration of Śrī Gaṇeśa.
In the languages of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa, modak is the word used for this delicious sweet. In the various languages of South India, it is known as modhakam, kozhukattai, and kudumu. The names vary, but the traditional recipe is the same. Anyone who has tasted a warm modaka with fresh ghee on top looks forward to receiving this as prasāda.
The message here is not that Śrī Gaṇeśa craves sugar, but that he delights in the sweet bliss of immortality, and the sweetness of devotion and wisdom.
The ingredients are almost the same as those in the prasādas offered for the other two major festivals that occur during varṣa-ṛtu, the rainy, late summer season: coconut, rice, jaggery and cardamom. So from the perspective of Ayurveda, this delectable prasāda follows the recommendations for healthy eating during this season when our digestive strength is still low.
This perspective seems so appropriate when we are making a ritual offering with the intention of creating a deeper connection with the radiant embodiment of wisdom, Śrī Gaṇeśa.
There is a story about how Śrī Gaṇeśa came to be fond of these sweet rice and coconut dumplings. It is attributed to the Padma Purāṇa.
Lord Śiva and Goddess Pārvatī were once visited by a group of heavenly beings who brought them a celestial modaka as a gift. This sweet dumpling was infused with special powers: whoever ate it would become profoundly knowledgeable in all the sacred texts and mantras, all sciences, arts and writing.
Pārvatī wanted both her sons to receive these blessings, so she asked them to share this celestial gift. But Gaṇeśa and Kārtikeya were convinced that the blessings could only be received by eating the whole modaka, and they couldn’t agree who should eat it.
So Pārvatī created a contest to see which of them was most worthy to receive this gift. She said she would give it to the one who could give the best demonstration of true devotion. In an instant, Kārtikeya set off on his celestial peacock, and began visiting every sacred place, going from temples, to holy mountains, from sacred rivers, to the hermitages of sages. He offered worship everywhere he visited.
Meanwhile, Gaṇeśa sat on his little mouse, and reverently moved in a circle clockwise around his divine parents, Lord Śiva and Goddess Pārvatī. As he moved, he kept them on his right hand side, and remembered their divinity in his heart. This is known as प्रदक्षिण (pradakṣiṇa).
When he completed the circle, Gaṇeśa bowed before them with great devotion. With great humility, he explained that his divine parents, Lord Śiva and Goddess Pārvatī, embody Supreme Consciousness and Sacred Power, so they also embody the essence of all holy places. Therefore honoring them with undivided focus and devotion encompasses the worship of all other deities, sages, sacred rivers and mountains.
Moved by Gaṇeśa’s devotion and profound insight, Pārvatī and Śiva offered him the celestial modaka, filled with blessings. Indeed, Gaṇeśa became revered as an embodiment of wisdom, and such an excellent writer that the sage Veda Vyāsa chose him to be his scribe, when it was time to record the epic story of the Mahābhārata. And he remained tirelessly fond of eating modaka.
So the modakas we receive as prasāda during this festival are imbued with sacred possibilities and abundant blessings, in addition to being mouthwatering. Receive them with reverence, and relish them while remembering both that original celestial modaka, filled with the blessings of knowledge, and their ability to bring transcendent delight.
This celebration of Lord Gaṇeśa takes place late in the monsoon season, amidst green landscapes bursting with fresh growth. Thanks to many weeks of rain, trees, creepers, shrubs and herbs have sent out fresh shoots and are growing with renewed vigor.
There is a tradition that is not directly about prasāda, but which is interesting to look at in parallel here because of its association with Ayurveda and seasonal health wisdom. It also echoes the practice of bringing fresh mud from the riverbanks – or using powdered turmeric roots – to mold by hand into the form of Śrī Gaṇeśa. This practice in turn echoes Lord Gaṇeśa’s deep connection with the earth element and therefore the earth on which we live, his mother Pārvatī being the embodiment of Mother Earth.
In the tradition we are looking at now, people gather a fresh leaf from each of 21 medicinal herbs and trees, and offer these to Lord Gaṇeśa while chanting his names. It is called एकविंशति पत्रपूजा (ekaviṃśati patrapūjā.)
The spirit of this tradition is to make an offering to Lord Gaṇeśa of the first of these sacred, healing herbs as we cross the threshold into a new cycle of growth and into seasons when these herbs will be needed as home remedies. It is a fresh beginning, and by bringing these leaves as an offering to Lord Gaṇeśa, we seek to make it an auspicious beginning.
Some people no doubt make this offering because disease and pain are obstacles they pray to Gaṇeśa to help remove from their lives.
Another way to understand this ritual is through the awareness that Gaṇeśa is the embodiment of all wisdom, including the knowledge of nature, and every nuance of its qualities and powers. As you can imagine, this tradition is dear to the hearts of those who follow the wisdom of Ayurveda.
In the process of gathering these leaves, both from their own gardens and from the nearby forests, people identify where these important medicinal plants are currently growing, and where fresh plants have sprouted, since these herbs will be needed in the seasons that follow. Often a senior person will use this occasion to introduce a young person to the location of local herbs and how to identify them: another auspicious beginning for Gaṇeśa to bless.
The leaves that are typically offered include those from trees such as pomegranate, bilva (Bengal quince or wood apple), dhatūrā (white thorn apple, with poisonous trumpet-like flowers), āmalakī (the rejuvenating Indian gooseberry), arjuna (a well-known heart tonic), and pīpal (sacred fig). The pūjā also includes herbs such as tulasī (wonderful for respiratory health, but not offered to Gaṇeśa at other times), jasmine, and Gaṇeśa’s favorite, dūrvā or Bermuda grass, which in its wild form is a wonderful anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and detoxifying herb.
A full exploration of the medicinal qualities and ritual uses of these trees and plants would be fascinating but is too extensive to include here.
After the pūjā, these herbs are not usually offered to devotees as prasāda. They are offered to the local river or water body along with the clay form of Lord Gaṇeśa. The feeling is that these leaves will give the river a subtle healing quality. We can think of it as prasāda offered to the river.
This annual celebration of Lord Gaṇeśa occurs near the end of what is known as Varṣa-Ṛtu, the rainy season, in the Ayurveda tradition. This is the two month period from mid July to mid September, in the northern hemisphere. This season affects not only the weather conditions during this celebration, but also the kind of prasāda that is offered, since it is traditionally chosen to reflect the wisdom of healthy eating for this season.
Since we are part of the same ecology as the plants and environment in which we live, the rhythm of the seasons is reflected within us. It silently invites us to adjust our diet with care and wisdom in response to each season, so we avoid being susceptible to seasonal disorders, and aggravating existing imbalances.
Across the Indian subcontinent in varṣa-ṛtu, rain clouds burst day after day, reviving the parched environment with torrents of sweet water. In places like California though, not a drop of rain falls at this time, and the long summer continues. In yet other places, like the east coast of the United States, the continuing summer is interspersed with frequent thunderstorms and the air is heavy with humidity.
From the perspective of Ayurveda, there are common threads that run through the way we experience this season internally, and the measures we are encouraged to take to maintain the exquisite balance of good health.
As we saw in connection with the prasādas for Rakṣā Bandhan and Lord Kṛṣṇa’s birthday, whether the weather outside is hot and dry, raining constantly or intermittently, this is the time of year when our digestive fire is at its weakest, and वात-दोष, vāta-doṣa is the predominant force to balance internally. Vāta-doṣa is characteristically dry and cool, constantly moving and destabilizing. In this season, vāta-doṣa is aggravated thanks to the continued proximity of the sun directly over the northern hemisphere, and this is compounded by the seasonal weather conditions.
In order to balance the adverse effects of vāta-doṣa, we focus on specific flavors and qualities in selecting what to eat in this season: मधुर (madhura), mildly sweet in taste and nourishing, स्निग्ध (snigdha), softening and lubricating, and लघु (laghu), light to digest, and containing a balance of शीत (shīta), cooling and उष्ण (uṣṇa) warming properties.
In the recipe that follows, all the main ingredients are मधुर (madhura), mildly sweet in taste and nourishing, and स्निग्ध (snigdha), softening and lubricating. They contain a balance of cooling (coconut, rice and ghee) and warming (jaggery and cardamom) properties. Rice is particularly लघु (laghu), light to digest, and cardamom has pungent and penetrating qualities that help digest the other ingredients. Plus there is a little ghee to help boost good digestion.
While modaka is spoken of as a sweet, it is rich with nutrients, easy for most people to digest, and helps to create stability and balance in this season when vāta-doṣa is so often disturbed.
(For more details on varṣa-ṛtu, its effects in various environments, and how the ingredients in this prasāda promote health in this season by balancing the qualities of वात-दोष, vāta-doṣa, see the class on Rakṣā Bandhan prasāda.)
Traditionally, modaks are steamed, so they are light and moist. In some places people like to deep fry them so they will last longer. But as you can imagine, this undermines much of their seasonal health value. There are talented women who make an art of the way they fold the rice flour casing around the coconut filling. And there are practical people who use a mold to shape the dumplings to look like they have folds.
Since these molds are hard to find if you don’t live in India, here we will go step by step through the process of making them by hand. Even if they look a bit messy when you first try to make them, they will still be delicious and will have the ability to become vehicles for the blessings of Lord Gaṇeśa.
Devotees often get together to prepare fresh modakas, since those who offer formal pūjā to Lord Gaṇeśa during this festival will traditionally offer 21 modaks, and this can take quite some time to prepare if you are on your own.