New Moon vol 28: Celebrating Śrī Gaṇeśa

Living Sanskrit Newsletters

Happy New Moon! There’s a big solar eclipse today, which according to traditional wisdom is a time to turn inwards and move slowly. We invite you to really go deep into stillness and rest on this New Moon, because we’re about to enter the traditional holiday season – it’s basically non-stop until the end of October! And for this reason, there aren’t any major practices associated with today, except for the usual New Moon practice.

This week, coming up first is Gaṇeśa Caturthī on September 5th, and in fact, celebrations are already underway. Following this, we enter Pitṛ Pakṣa, the time where we honor the ancestors. And immediately following that, we celebrate Navrātri, the Goddess festival, and shortly after that, we start all the New Year festivities! (And then the Western holiday season starts… so, this time of year can really get busy).

Gaṇeśa Caturthī is one of the biggest celebrations in India, as Śrī Gaṇeśa is one of the most universally loved representations of the divine. He’s also the most iconic – when most people think of Indian deities, Gaṇeśa-ji is usually the first to come to mind.

In some regions, the celebrations actually last for 10 days, so we’re mid-way through right now. The ancient practice was that the family would go down to the riverbank together and humbly ask the blessings from the sacred water for divinity and auspiciousness to enter their home. They would collect mud or clay from the river banks, and bring it home and sculpt it into Śrī Gaṇeśa, who is the remover of all inner and outer obstacles, and is the embodiment of joy, wisdom, and all good things.

For ten days, the family would worship this totally natural mūrti (icon) together, bringing 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. Finally, on Gaṇeśa Caturthī, 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.

This was a way for all the generations of the family to practice together. It was also intended to connect us with the cycles of nature – of creation, sustenance, and dissolution – that these are all aspects of the supreme power. Additionally, it 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.

Unfortunately, in modern times, people have forgotten the original point of the practice, and it’s become a commercialized spectacle. Instead of making the mūrti with your own hands out of earth, people spend greater and greater sums of money to buy elaborate statues made of plaster and plastic, and decorated with toxic paints. These get dumped into the water, poisoning it and the life held within it. 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 without upsetting the flow of life.

Practice: Celebrate Gaṇeṣa Caturthī

On September 5th, and all the days leading up to it, you can invoke and honor Gaṇeśa in a number of ways. Let your inner joy guide you through these suggested practices:

– Set up a pūjā, a traditional altar for Lord Gaṇeśa. You can use a statue or image of him, and offer fruit, flowers, flame, incense, sweets (modaka or laddus are his favorite), money, dhruva grass, etc. If possible, do this with your family or other members of your household or community.

-Make an icon out of turmeric, soil, or organic clay and then immerse it into a body of water with great joy on the 5th!

-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

-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.

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.