Hindu Feasts, Fasts and Ceremonies/Chapter 18

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18. The Vinayaka Chaturthi

VINAYAKA CHATURTHI day is set apart for the sole worship of Ganesa, the common deity of all Hindus. As he is supposed to be very fond of rice puddings, these dishes are cooked on a very large scale in every Hindu house and offered to the god, to be consumed, by the members of the family, after the worship is over. A fresh image of Ganesa in clay is made and worshipped on this day. One hundred and eight different names of this god are repeated after the preliminary ceremonies and 108 different flowers are thrown in worship over him. The origin of this worship is prehistoric. Yudhisthira, the hero of the Mahabharata, Damayanti, the queen of the Nishada King Nala, Indra, the Lord of the Heavens and even Krishna, the expounder of the Bhagavatgita are said to have devoutly worshipped Ganesa and to have obtained their desired ends. yaka or Ganesa is the eldest son of Siva and Parvati, or of Parvati only, according to the following legend, as he sprang from the scarf of her body. Siva had gone from home and Parvati was left alone on the Kailasa; she wished to have a bath and not liking the idea of any person entering the house then, she rubbed her body with her hands and from the dirt that rolled off produced a figure to which she gave life and named Ganesa. She then asked Ganesa to sit at the door and allow no one, whoever he might be, to come in till she had finished her bath. Ganesa sat at his duty and while Parvati was bathing inside, Siva returned home. He wanted to enter his house, but Ganesa would not allow him. After trying in vain to persuade him with gentle words, the great god used threats which, however, had no effect. He was at last compelled to cut off Ganesa’s head and force his way in. When the goddess who was within perceived her lord entering and when she came to know that Ganesa had been murdered, she would not speak to Siva until her attendant was restored to life. In order to do this, Siva gave orders to his army of the ganas to find the first living creature that slept with its head turned towards the north, to cut off its head and to fit it into Ganesa’s body. The Bhutas searched and searched for a very long time and at last found an elephant asleep with its head to the north and cutting off its head they brought it and fixed it to Ganesa’s body, and lo! he rose up a man in body and elephant in face. This story also accounts for the belief of the Hindus to avoid the northern aspect in sleep.

Vinayaka is the eldest son of Siva and Parvati and one of the most popular of the deities of India. He is the male Minerva and the Janus of public ways. His shrine is in every Hindu village. He is worshipped in every Hindu house. Every school boy commences his lessons after giving his usual prayers to Vinayaka. Every merchant commences his operations after first propitiating this deity. In marriages and in every kind of religious ceremony, Vinayaka is the first god whose help is invoked. Almost all the standard works in Sanskrit and the Vernacular languages begin with an invocation of the help of Ganesa. Vinayaka’s figure is represented as elephant in face and man in body. The elephant’s head is regarded as the emblem of sagacity. In his image he is always seated at his ease, with his legs folded under him on a lotus throne. He has four arms and they hold an elephant’s trunk, a noose, a mace, and a modaka (rice pudding). He wears a crown. His ears are adorned with jewels and his forehead wears the vibhuti—the sacred ashes. He wears a garland of pearls and precious stones round his neck. He is worshipped under the different names of Vinayaka, Ganesa, Ganapati, Pillaiyar, etc. As this most popular deity is worshipped in almost every village, there is a belief among certain people that he is the god of the Sudras and lower orders, who are generally uneducated. As an authority for this belief, the following couplet is sometimes quoted:—

Vipranam daivatam Sambhuh
Kshatriyanam tu Madhavah
Vaisyanam tu bhaved Brahma
Sudranam Gananayakah

The above verse means that Siva is the god of the Brahmans, Vishnu of the Kshatriyas, Brahma of the Vaisyas, and Ganesa of the Sudras. This is a most fanciful verse, which is not at all corroborated by any other authority. If any regard is to be paid to this couplet, then no Brahman can worship Vishnu and no Vaisya can worship Siva, facts which are absurd on their very face, as tested by both the ancient and modern ways of Hindu faith.

Ganesa worship is a prehistoric one and it goes without saying that the couplet sometimes quoted as an authority that Ganesa is the god of the Sudras is most unfounded. On the other hand, he is worshipped by the highest class of Brahmans. There are also special sects who are called Ganapatiyas, whose sole devotion is to this deity. Vinayaka is the deity that rules over good and bad alike—controlling the evil in every case and preventing hindrances and difficulties. As such, he is the embodiment of success and of all those qualities in short which overcome hindrances in every undertaking and of their usual accompaniments—good living, plenty, prosperity, and peace. This is the one great and real reason for the popularity of the worship of this deity.

There is always a small shrine of Vignesvara, attached to all Siva temples. In the Vishnu temples too he is worshipped as Tumbikkaialvar. alvar—the sage of the elephant’s trunk—and as Vishvaksena. Sometimes he has his own temples too. As he is the favourite son of Siva, he receives honours equal to Siva. His image is with sincere devotion adored by men and women alike. He is supposed to represent the several personifications of sagacity, shrewdness, patience, and learning. As a test of his wisdom, it is related that when he was a child and playing in company with his brother Subrahmanya, Siva promised to present a mango fruit to him who made a circuit round the world and returned first. Subrahmanya summoned his peacock, mounted it and was ready for the journey. But Ganesa calmly went round Siva, his father, and demanded the fruit. “But you never went round the world,” said Siva. "What is the world, but your own holy self? I went round you. Ergo, I went round the world," was Ganesa’s wise reply. Siva was of course convinced, praised Ganesa for his shrewdness, and gave him the promised fruit, which however, he shared with Subrahmanya. The peculiarity of this deity is that his worship is combined as it were with that of every other god. All sects unite in claiming him as their own. It is for this reason that his shrines are found generally associated with those of other deities—Siva and Vishnu. The largest temple built solely in honour of Ganesa in India is the Uchchippillaiyar temple on the top of the famous and beautiful rock at Trichinopoly.

Though this god is invoked on several occasions during the year, there is a special day in every year which is set apart particularly for his worship, and this day is called the Vinayaka Chaturthi day, which falls on the fourth lunar day of the bright half of the month of Simha. The Tamils term this day Pillaiyar Chavutti day.

Of all the figures in the Hindu Mythology, that of Ganesa or Pillaiyar must be most familiar to every European. In the bathing ghat of every river and underneath the pipal tree will be seen a figure in a sitting posture, short and stout, with a protuberant stomach and four hands, riding a mouse and with the body of a man and the head of an elephant. This is the image Ganesa or Pillaiyar, and there is not a, single village in the whole of India which does-not possess at least half a dozen of these familiar images. The elephant head has only one tusk in full and the other appears cut off in the middle, which is supposed to have resulted in a scuffle between Ganesa and Parasurama. The “ belly-god”’ is on this account called Ekadanta, or the single-tusked. Ganesa is said to have written the Mahabharata at the dictation of Vyasa—for it is said that the latter was so quick in repeating the epic that no mortal could have managed to follow him.