Indian people are fond of festivals. Nearly every other day, something gets celebrated in India as a part of tradition, especially during the stretch of the year that starts in May and ends in January. Most of the major festivals occur during a 6 month long interval from May through November, which includes the 4 month long Monsoon season in India.
This festival honours and celebrates the highly popular deity, Lord Ganesh. It is a 10-day long festival, but some celebrate it as a 2-day/3-day/5-day/7-day festival as well. It starts on the 4th day of Ashwin month, which typically falls in late August or early September. The festival begins with people bringing in clay idols of Ganesh, symbolising the god’s visit. The idol is worshipped on all days of the festival. The festival culminates by immersing the idol in the most convenient body of water with the request that he returns again.
Lord Ganesh: Names and Earliest Mentions
Lord Ganesh is a child. His parents are Lord Shiva, one of the holy trinity of Hinduism, and Goddess Parvati. The name Ganesha is a Sanskrit compound, joining the words “gana”, meaning a ‘group, multitude, or categorical system’ and isha, meaning ‘lord or master’. Thus, “Ganesh” stands for the “Lord of Groups”. The old Sanskrit lexicon “Amarakosh” lists eight synonyms of Ganesh: Vinayak (leader/guide), Vighnarāj (Lords over obstacles; equivalent to Vighnesh), Dvaimātur (one who has two mothers), Gaṇādhip (Lord of Groups; equivalent to Ganapati and Ganesh), Ekadant (one who has one tusk), Heramb/Lambodar (one who has a pot belly, or, literally, one who has a hanging belly), and Gajanan (having the face of an elephant). The earliest literary mention of the word Ganapati is found in hymn 2.23.1 of “Rigveda”, which was composed at least 4 millennia ago. However, it is unclear whether that term refers to Lord Ganesh as he is understood today.
Ganesh images were prevalent in many parts of India by the 6th century AD. The 13th-century statue shown in Illustration 1(d) is typical of Ganesh statuary from 900 AD to 1200 AD, after Ganesh had been well-established as an independent deity with his own sect. Prior to 1200 AD, Lord Ganesh was used as the door protector of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. Buddhist scholars from China who had studied in India took him with them to China. It reached Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. In Bali, idols of the king and the queen used to be placed next to the idol of Ganesh upon their death.
Significance of Lord Ganesh
Lord Ganesh symbolises intelligence and the capacity to destroy obstacles. In many religious rituals, it is customary to start by first invoking and paying homage to him. Some great literary works have also started by paying homage to him: for example, Saint Dnyaneshwar’s highly influential text “Dnyaneshwari”, a commentary on Bhagavad Gita, starts out like so. As a patron of arts, he likes to dance and play mridang (an Indian drum). Ganesh is identified with the Hindu mantra “Om” — the term “oṃkārasvarūp” (Om is his form), when identified with Ganesh, refers to the notion that he personifies the primal sound. In yoga tradition, Ganesh is identified with “muladhar” chakra, further strengthening the notion that he stands for the capacity to destroy obstacles. Perhaps because this chakra is red in colour, he is believed to be fond of red coloured flowers – Hibiscus is his favourite flower.
Origins and Spread of Ganesh Festival as a Mass Festival
With the rise of Maratha power, which ruled much of what remains today as India in the 18th century, Lord Ganesh received more widespread support throughout India since he was the family deity of the Peshwas, i.e., the Prime Ministers of the Maratha Empire. Sawai Madhavrao Peshwa started celebrating the Ganesh Festival on a mass scale in his palace “Shaniwarwada” in Pune, which was the capital of the Maratha Empire. Prominent court personnel such as Dixit, Patwardhan, Mujumdar, and others participated in it. On the final day, the idol used to be put in a palanquin decorated with flowers and leaves. Then, it was taken northwards to the river and then immersed in it. Initially, it was a 1.5-day festival but then it became a 10-day festival. Apparently, the festival was limited to the city of Pune only; even in Pune, the idol for community was set up in the royal palace only. After that, India came under the British Rule and people in Pune stopped celebrating Ganesh Festival like so.
In 1893, Lokamanya Tilak helped revive the tradition set by the Peshwas and increased its scope. In 1893, the annual Ganesh Festival got started as a remedy in the face of the Hindu-Muslim riots that had taken place in Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra earlier that year. The Hindu communities had suffered heavily and these riots had claimed over 50 casualties. In response, the decision to start Ganesh Festival on a social basis was taken by Dr Bhausaheb Rangari in a meeting that took place at his residence. The decision was supported by prominent social figures such as Ganapatrao Ghotawadekar, Nanasaheb Khasagiwale, and others. Lokamanya Tilak, who soon became the most prominent face of this festival, supported it and justified their choice of Lord Ganesh as the presiding deity of such a festival by saying “Lord Ganesh is adored by everyone, from children to the elderly. He is the destroyer of obstacles and it is customary to offer him a prayer prior to starting any religious ceremony or major endeavour. So, a festival in his honour would elicit a positive response from everyone.” In the first year, several suburbs in the cities of Maharashtra set up community-wide Ganesh idols. In front of the idol, a wide range of artistic and scholastic programmes were conducted, and anyone was allowed to attend those for free. Thus, the festival became a true mass festival. It served as a platform to bring people from all walks of life together and helped Tilak in his efforts to organise India’s freedom movement. Tilak wrote an editorial in the newspaper “Kesari” on 26th Sept 1893, explaining his rationale and vision for instituting the Ganesh Festival like so. The following year, he wrote an editorial expressing his satisfaction on how the festival had taken root:
All castes and people from all trades came together to collaborate and celebrate this festival. Their collective efforts were something that was not seen before in public life. At least for these few days, people refrained from idle talks, petty quarrels, alcoholism, and cheap entertainment. They came together to sing devotional songs praising their religious roots, dance together in unison wearing smart dresses, conduct military drills and gymnastics, etc. The immersion ceremony featured many idols from the city and from the nearby villages. The idols were taken from Ray Market, Pune to Lakdi Pool, Pune in a celebratory procession. The ceremony started at 2pm and ended at 6pm.Lokamanya B.G. Tilak (Editorial in Kesari, 18th Sept 1894)
He clarified his rationale behind celebrating the Ganesh Festival as follows:
In hard times, it is the duty of people in the society to help each other – be it financially or through advisement or through consultation or through loving assistance. It is our first and foremost duty to do, and make others do, anything that brings people together.Lokamanya B.G. Tilak (Editorial in Kesari, 26th Sept 1893)
Today, Ganesh Festival has become one of the major mass festivals in India. It is celebrated by Indian expats worldwide as well. Here is hoping that the festival gets celebrated in the spirit, summarised in the above quote, with which Lokamanya Tilak had helped start it in 1893.