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Spiritual Import of Religious Festivals

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Chapter 11: Lord Ganesa – The Remover of Obstacles


Ganesa Chaturthi message given in September, 1981.

Human life is beset with obstacles. We face oppositions and encounter difficulties galore, and the whole of our daily activity may, in a sense, be considered as a struggle against all odds which come in different forms as the sorrows of life. The moment we wake up in the morning, we have to face the obstacle called hunger which we try to obviate by cooking and eating food, the obstacle called thirst which we have to get rid of by drinks, and the obstacles called disease, exhaustion, fatigue, sleeplessness and the like, which we endeavour to remedy by the introduction of various types of medicines. The very presence of people around us is an obstacle and the human individual suddenly becomes restless, and both consciously and unconsciously puts on an attitude of self-defence, as if one has found oneself suddenly in a terrific war field.

The difficulties of life are, to a large extent, the very substance of life itself. The whole of life is a bundle of difficulties. It is a mess of oppositions, which calls for a continuous counteracting force which is what is called human enterprise. If the whole earth were filled with milk and honey, and if there was no fatigue, no old age and death, no hunger and thirst, no opposition and nobody to utter a word, then there would be no activity, no necessity to do anything and no incentive in the direction of any movement. The quantity, the expanse and the magnitude of the opposition which comes before us in life is such that no single individual will be able to face it. This whole world is too much for a single man, and considering the incongruous, disproportionate relationship between a single human individual and the vast world outside, there is very little hope of man's achieving anything in this world, successfully, because we cannot bail out the ocean of waters with a spoon, though our effort may be laudable. We are, no doubt, very sincerely industrious in emptying the ocean of its waters with a little spoon or a ladle. Notwithstanding the fact that this effort on our part is praiseworthy, it is not going to lead us to any success, and the expected result will not follow. The ocean cannot be emptied by any amount of bailing out with a spoon. Such seems to be the type of world into which we are born, and people who are acutely conscious of this situation become humble enough to accept that even an inch of success cannot be expected in this world without the miraculous grace of God. So, even the little success that sometimes seems to come to us is a kind of undeserved promotion, as it were, granted to us by the mercy of the Almighty. Our efforts are only a puny child's whining and weeping with a helpless weakness of body and mind. The traditional annual worship of God in this role, as the remover of all obstacles, as Vighna Vinayaka, is known as Vinayaka Chaturthi or Ganesa Chaturthi. It is the day on which we offer special adoration to the Remover of obstacles.

We are terribly afraid of obstacles. There is no other fear in this world except of obstacles. So, we always cry, "Remove the obstacles, clear the path, cleanse the road." On the fourth day of the bright half of the lunar month of Bhadrapada (August-September) every year, the great Lord Ganapati, called the Lord of Hosts, is worshipped throughout India, and perhaps in many other parts of the world also. There is no Hindu who does not recognise the pre-eminence of the worship of this mysteriously conceived deity called Ganapati whose name occurs right in the beginning of the Rig Veda itself, the earliest of scriptures, where pointedly the name is taken in a Mantra, "Gananam tva ganapatim havamahe..."
The fear of God is supposed to be the beginning of religion. A person who has no fear of God also has no religion, because religion is respect for God. The fear of God goes together with the acceptance of the greatness of God and His Power. Wherever there is power, we are afraid of it. An ocean, a lion, an elephant are all powerful things, and we dread the very sight of them.

Tradition conceives this great Remover of Obstacles, Ganapati, as the son of Lord Siva, with a proboscis of an elephant and a protuberant belly, with weapons of various types and with His right hand in a benign gesture of goodwill, grace and blessing. The family of Bhagavan Siva is of a peculiar setup. The Lord of all the worlds lives as one possessing nothing! This manner of living in Mount Kailasa by the great Master of Yogis, Lord Siva, is perhaps a demonstration of the great definition of the glory of Bhagavan, the Supreme Being as possessed of all-knowledge, all-power and all-renunciation. What is Bhagavan and what are His characteristics? 'Bhagavan' is one who has six characteristics. "Aisvaryasya samagrasya viryasya yasasah sriyah; jnana-vairagyayoh chaiva shannam bhaga itirana" – these six characteristics mentioned are all called Bhaga. One who has Bhaga is called Bhagavan. All prosperity, all wealth, all treasure, all glory, all magnificence is Aisvarya. Entire Aisvarya is there. Virya is tremendous energy, force and power. Yasas is fame and renown. Srih is prosperity. Jnana and Vairagya are the pinnacle of wisdom and the pinnacle of renunciation, respectively. Knowledge is supposed to be a benediction from Lord Siva Himself. In the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, at the commencement of the second Skandha, Sri Suka delineates the names of various deities who have to be adored for various purposes. "Jnanam mahesvaradicchet": All knowledge is to be expected from the great Siva. They say that the ocean of Siva is incomprehensible; a part of it was contained in a pot by Brihaspati, and a spoon of it was taken by Panini who is the promulgator of Sanskrit grammar.

You may know the interesting story as to how Panini, the originator of Sanskrit grammar, received knowledge from Lord Siva. He was supposed to be the dullest of the students in a group that was studying from a Guru in Taxila, Taksha Shila. The other boys were very intelligent. Panini was the most stupid, the least intelligent, very much belittled and made fun of by the students in the class. He was deeply hurt that he was being cowed down by other students and that he could not understand anything that the teacher said. Almost in a desperate mood of disgust with everything, he went to the forest and deeply contemplated on Lord Siva. He prayed, "O Lord! Bless me with Knowledge." It is said that Lord Siva appeared before him, danced and revolved His Dakka or Damaru fourteen times, and the following fourteen sounds were made: 1. Aiun, 2. Rlrk, 3. Aowng, 4. Ai ouch, 5. Ha ya va rat, 6. Lan, 7. Na ma nga na nam, 8. Jha bhanj, 9. Gha dha dhash, 10. Ja ba ga da das, 11. Kha pha chha tha tha cha ta tav, 12. Ka pay, 13. Sa sha sar, and 14. Hal. All this constitutes the very essence of Sanskrit grammar. These sounds, meaningless as they may appear to us, became the foundation of Sanskrit grammar and Sanskrit literature.
So, God can teach us without books and without the usual medium of instruction, by a thought, a sound, a look, a touch or a benign gesture.

Such a Master's son is Sri Ganapati, Sri Ganesa. We have endless stories about our Gods, all partly humorous and partly highly illuminating. The usual belief is that Lord Ganapati is a celibate and He never married, though there is a belief in North India that He has Siddhi and Buddhi, two consorts, behind Him. There is a humorous story about His marriage. He was about to be married and the bridegroom's procession was moving with great gusto from Mount Kailasa, evidently, to the bride's palace. We do not know who that contemplated bride was. We know only that there was a procession of the bridegroom. And His potbelly, it seems, burst on the way due to eating too much, and He took a snake, which is sometimes identified with Subrahmanya, tied it around His stomach, and again ate. It seems Chandra, or the moon, looked at this scene and laughed, saying, "Look at this man who is going for his marriage! His stomach has burst and he is tying it up with a snake!" This took place on the fourth day of the bright half of the lunar month, Bhadrapada (August-September). Ganapati was irritated very much. He cursed the moon: "You fellow, you talk about me like this. You have insulted me. Well, whoever looks at you on this day will also be similarly insulted." So, people dread to look at the moon on that day. Chauthi Chandra, the moon on the fourth day of the bright half of the lunar month, is considered very inauspicious, resulting in Apavadam or censure and reproach for the one who sees it. Apavada means undeserved blame and scandal. You might have done nothing, yet somebody will go on telling some evil against you. This is the result of looking at the moon on the fourth day, because it has the curse of Ganapati. But they say, in our tradition of curses, that there is also what is called Sapamoksha, or a kind of remedy. The moon said, "Please excuse me. Why do you curse me like this?" The moon pleaded for some remedy. Then Ganapati, in reply, said, "OK, alright, I pardon you. Whoever looks at you on the first day after the new moon will be relieved of this curse." I have seen people running to terraces and climbing trees and trying to see the little streak of the moon appearing like a thread on the first day after the new moon, to be rid of all the evils that might have grown around them even by an unconscious look on the fourth day because on that fourth day, especially, the moon is just before our eyes and is very clear. He is located very peculiarly in a position in the sky where one cannot avoid seeing him. So then, when our eyes fall on the moon on the fourth day, we rub our eyes and say, "Oh, very sorry, some mistake has taken place," and we expect some trouble afterwards. Somebody will say something against us. Anyhow, the remedy is seeing the moon on the first day after the new moon.

The philosophy behind all these traditional worships and Puranic allegories is that the path of spiritual Sadhana is a mystery by itself and it is not a heroic activity of the Sadhaka, as sometimes he may imagine. No heroism will work there. Even the so-called heroic attitude, which we sometimes put on, is an entry of divine force into us. Just as a child's or a little baby's walking is the strength of the mother who is holding it with her hand, whatever intelligence we have, whatever satisfaction we enjoy in this life, whatever strength we possess, whether physical or psychological, whatever security we have, whatever is worthwhile in our existence, is a modicum of the reflection of God's power. The worship of Maha-Ganapati, with the Mantra "Om Gam Ganapataye Namah", is a humble submission of the true circumstance of oneself before the might of God's glory. Who can open one's eyes before God? Who can utter one word before Him? Who can boast of one's learning, greatness, etc., before Him? We would be ashamed even to present ourselves before Him. Consider the might of the Creator, the magnitude of His power, the depth of His Wisdom, His Knowledge and His Omniscience, and our present condition! Compare it and contrast it. What Sadhana, what meditation, what Yoga can we do? The moment we begin to take one step in the direction of this holy movement towards God, the world pounces upon us with all its army, because the world is quantitatively larger. We live in a world of quantities. We require quantitative food, quantitative drink, quantitative physical appurtenances, and everything we require and ask for in life is only a quantity rather than a quality. The quantity of the world being larger than the quantity of our physical personality, we cannot face it. So there is this humble acceptance of submission and a prayer to the great Almighty as manifest in Ganapati.
There is another story as to why He is worshipped first on all occasions. It appears Parvati, the consort of Lord Siva, went for a bath, maybe in the Ganga. She scrubbed her body, and out of the dirt of her body she made a small image of a boy, gave life to it by her touch, and ordained him not to allow entry to any person while she is bathing in the river. Accordingly, that boy stood guarding. At that moment, the great Lord Siva Himself came and the boy prevented His entry, because he could not recognise Lord Siva, whom he had not seen. He had only the order of his Mother that nobody should enter. He immediately objected to the entry of Lord Siva into the vicinity where Parvati was bathing. We can imagine the feeling of Lord Siva. "What is this? The little chap is standing and preventing me from seeing my own consort!" He immediately chopped off Ganapati's head, and he fell down dead. When Parvati came up, she was aghast and said, "Oh Lord, You have killed my boy. He is my own child, and I am deeply hurt. What have you done! Oh, my Lord!" She bet her breast and would not speak. She started weeping. The Lord Siva said, "Do not weep. I shall give life to him." But ironically enough, He would not put the same head back. We do not know the reason why He did this. He said, "Bring the head of someone who is sleeping with his head towards the north." This is why it is said that we should not sleep with our heads towards the north. Otherwise, Siva will search for us! And they found nobody except an elephant lying with its head towards the north. Its head was severed and brought. The elephant's head was attached to the trunk of this boy and life was given by the great Siva. He became alive and was named as Ganapati, which designation was bestowed upon him by Lord Siva Himself, maybe to pacify Parvati or to bring about a peaceful atmosphere around. Lord Siva not only gave him life, but also made him the leader of His hosts. Ganapati is, therefore, the leader of the hosts of Lord Siva Himself. There is a large audience before Lord Siva, consisting of varieties of Ganas. Ganas are demigods; they are neither human nor superhuman, but are a peculiar type. Sometimes they look like astral beings. These Ganas are ruled by Ganapati under the order of Siva. So Ganapati means the generalissimo, as it were, of the hosts who always live in Kailasa. Apart from making Ganapati the Leader of his hosts, Lord Siva bestowed another blessing on Him, saying, "You shall be the first one to be worshipped on all occasions." So this is the order or the ordinance of Lord Siva. The ordinance stands forever. It is a permanent ordinance from the Great Master: "No one will be worshipped before you – not even me. After you are worshipped alone, anybody else will be worshipped." We will not worship Lord Siva or Lord Narayana without first worshipping Ganapati. "Om Gam Ganapataye Namah", is a Mantra to propitiate Ganapati.

The human mind is elated and enthused by hearing stories. Images, paintings, music, idols, dance – any kind of picturesque presentation of religion and spirituality or philosophy – is generally more appealing than cut and dry logic, as we know very well. The Puranas and the epics bring home to us the idea of the necessity to accept the power of God as the only medium by which obstacles can be removed. So, He is called Vighnesvara, the God who is not merely the Ganapati or the ruler of the hosts or Ganas, but also a Remover of all impediments on all paths.

When I was a small boy, I heard a story told by a neighbour. There was a person who never believed in the gods, and when his daughter's marriage was to be performed, someone said, "First of all you must worship Ganesa. Do not be in a hurry." He replied, "Let him be Ganesa or his grandfather; I do not care for anybody." He took the Murti of Ganesa and threw it into the tank. And suddenly, they say, there was a fire and the whole marriage Pandal was aflame. People bet their breasts, cried, ran to the tank and brought back the image. And then, it is said, there was rain after Ganesa was worshipped. These are all stories, and we have to take them for what they are worth.

But there is something mysterious about things. Everything is not clear to the minds of men. There are great secrets. And as I began by saying, the spiritual path is itself a great secret. The little Japa that we do, the scriptures that we read, the audience that we hold and whatever we appear to be doing, is only an outer crust of the mystery of life. The mystery is finally in ourselves. We ourselves do not know who is goading us to think in this manner. That goading principle is the mystery. If we recognise this mystery within us which mystifies even our intelligence and our efforts, we will be humble, simple and small before God, because spiritual Sadhana is an art of becoming smaller and smaller. It is not to become bigger and bigger. A person becomes smaller and smaller as he approaches God, just as a candle flame becomes dimmer and dimmer as it goes nearer and nearer to the sun; and just before the sun, it is not there. We cannot even see its existence. It vanishes. Likewise, when we approach God we become smaller and smaller, humbler and humbler, littler and littler, until we become nothing. In this nothingness, we will find God Himself filling us. When there is total emptiness created by an abolition of ourselves, in this emptiness or vacuum created, God fills it Himself. "Empty thyself and I shall fill thee," said Jesus Christ. The Mahaganapati Purana, the Ganapati Atharvasirsha Upanishad, the Ganesa Gita and several anecdotes occurring in the Mahabharata and the other Puranas glorify this 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 Bhagavan Ganapati or Sri Ganesa or Mahaganapati. A dread enters our minds when we think of His Name on account of the feeling that any displeasure on His part may be doom to us. People are even afraid to forget taking the holy Prasada of Sri Satyanarayana Puja because of the story behind it. Do you know what will happen to you if you do not take the Prasada? It is mentioned in the story that the whole thing will be finished – all your wealth, property, wife, children, etc., will go to the dogs in one second. The fear of it makes us bow down and wait for the Prasada, even if it is late in the night. These stories are not meaningless narrations of cock and bull incidents. They instil into our minds a divine urge and a fear of the Divine Presence. After all, we are human beings who are ruled more by sentiments and feelings than by our reason or our so-called understanding. This psychology of the human being is taken advantage of by the writers of the epics and the Puranas to instil faith in our hearts through these stories. This is a little tribute to the glory of Maha Ganapati.