Ganesh Utsav perhaps provides a platform for the biggest display of God symbolism on earth.
The ten day Ganesh Utsav is probably the only festive period when we see most idols of any Hindu deity. In Hinduism, art & sculpture has been traditionally employed from Veda Vyasa’s time to help us discover the hidden meaning of subtler truths. Given this Hindu methodology of communicating the greater truths through arty idols, Lord Ganesha with the elephant head on a human body also relay something deep and esoteric. What is the heart behind the art of Ganesha?
Every year, Mumbai and Maharashtra in general goes bananas with the ten day Ganesh Utsav. The cities of Maharashtra get inundated with creative Ganesha idols that are sculpted to delightful perfection. Experts say that during this festival Mumbai alone eats up as much as 500 tonnes of the milk based modak sweets in just 10 days (something for the New Zealand based milk giant Fonterra to take note who are expanding in India).
It is well known that perhaps no other God except Lord Ganesha has been depicted in as many varieties of forms and depicted in every conceivable form, anywhere in the world. Every year several Ganapati mandals (groups) in India fully use their artistic license to showcase Lord Ganesha in many themes including contemporary ones. So, it is no surprise that some groups have chosen Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement to capture the imagination of a dynamic India during this year’s Utsav.
Historically, the community Ganesh Utsav was started by Lokmanya Tilak in 1893. However such celebrations were also prevalent in ancient India. According to historian Shri V.K.Rajwade (1863 – 1926), the earliest Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations can also be traced back to the reigns of dynasties like Satavahanas 230 (BCE–220 CE), Rashtrakutas (753–982 CE) and Chalukyas (543–753 CE). These dynasties also offered royal patronage to temples which used many sculpted idols to tell a story to the sensitive thinkers.
It is commonly understood that an idol serves the same purpose for a devotee as a flag does for the army. In Hindu traditions the idol or the pratima is symbolic of higher truths just as a country’s flag is symbolic of the country’s ideals. In esoteric traditions of India that continues till today, visual art and sculpture were employed to give a spiritual message. Through the myriad idols of Lord Ganesha, the artists with their clever art of God symbolism try to reveal something that we are unable to grasp through our senses. So what is it that the Ganesha idols and art try to tell us? What is the symbolism that Ganapati Bappa is calling us to?
Though there are symbolic meanings attached to each aspect of Lord Ganesha like the elephant head, the mouse, the belly, the trunk, the noose, the goad, the modaka etc the single most reality about Lord Ganesha is about a transcendental nature of reality that sustains creation.
So why is a symbol used to point to the Ultimate truth? What is at the heart of god symbolism? Swami Chinmayananda explains “It must evidently clear to all sensitive thinkers that the representations given in the various symbolisms are not as many different deities, but that they are vivid pen-portraits of the subjective Truth described in the Upanishadic lore.”
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar confirms “Our ancient Rishis were so deeply intelligent that they chose to express Divinity in terms of symbols rather than words, since words change over time, but symbols remain unchanged. Let us keep these deep symbolisms in mind as we experience the omnipresent in the form of the elephant God, yet be fully aware that Ganesha is very much within us. This is the wisdom we should carry as we celebrate Ganesh Chathurti.”
Swami Krishnananda of the Divine Life Society adds “The Mahaganapati Purana, the Ganapati Atharvasirsha Upanishad, the Ganesha Gita and several anecdotes occurring in the Mahabharata and the other Puranas glorify an aspect of the Supreme Almighty which requires our submission at His feet, and expects us to recognise Him as the sole power that can remove all obstacles on the path of the spiritual seeker towards the attainment of Godhead. This seems to be a part of the meaning hidden behind the holy worship of Sri Ganesha.”
In the traditional invocations of Lord Ganesha, there are some popular Sanskrit shlokas that presents a portrait of subjective truths personified in Lord Ganesha. In the Sri Ganapati Atharvasirsha or the Ganapati Upanishad from the Atharvana Veda, the seer invokes Lord Ganesha as the embodiment of the ultimate truth, in this way: “You are the divine truth. You are the only creator of the world. You are the only protector of the world. You are the only destroyer of the world. You are the ultimate supreme divine power. You are the only soul which is present partly in each and every living form.”
The other popular invocations are:
Vakratunda Mahakaaya, Suryakoti Samaprabha
Nirvighnam Kuru Mey Deva, Sarva Kaaryeshu Sarvada
Lord Ganesha with a curved trunk and a mighty body. He who has the brilliance of a million suns. I pray to you Oh Lord to remove all the obstacles from all the actions I intend to perform.
Tanno Danthihi Prachodayaat
We meditate on that super power,
We invoke the single tusked boon giver, Ganesh.
Ganaanaam Twam Ganapathi Gam Havaamahe
Kavim Kaveenaam Upamasra Vastamam
Jyeshta Raajam Brahmanaam Brahmanaspatha
Aanashrunvanna Oothibhi Seedha Saadanam
The Lord of spiritual faith, son of Lord Shiva, is the wisest among the wise. Ganesha has no comparison. He is the senior Lord of the Vedic mantras, who listens to the devotee's prayers. I invite Lord Ganesha to visit my home with prosperous things and be seated here.
Wishing you a happy and auspicious Ganesh Chaturthi.
Ganpati Bappa Morya.