The accidental liberalism of our childhood years
Growing up in India in the 60s and 70s, our generation was exposed to multiple faiths, but profoundly differently from present times. Our information was gathered mostly through personal contact, visits to people’s homes rather than from institutions or public display. Furthermore, values were imbibed rather than imposed. Religious practice seemed like any other aspect of a family’s culture, just like food or language. Our experience of economic status was also limited mostly to family, friends and neighbours, who always seemed wealthier than us. We had minimal knowledge of caste hierarchy as discussions centered around identity and membership rather than difference and separation. We had larger homes, fewer objects, abundant free time but limited events, many books but few clothes. As children of a middle-class family focused solidly on education, our parents chose not to instruct us about orthodox practices. Study, that was the family mantra.
My (Nandita) memory of religious expression is that even orthodox followers would keep their rituals and symbols quite private; family affairs which you could have the privilege of participating in without fear or favour, and children were always welcome to walk in. Even among Hindus, we witnessed serious differences among families and this variation was responsible for the rather amorphous nature of our ideas about religion and religious differences. Differences among appeared greater than differences between, to invoke a statistical metaphor. Rituals were underplayed in our home, keeping ceremony to a bare (read affordable) minimum, and faith just lay around like a benign, somewhat neglected idea.
Not surprisingly, therefore, I grew up believing that everyone didn’t need to practice religion, that the religious people around us would carry the faith, releasing the rest of us to focus on other things. At that time, it was quite okay to grow up without any personal commitment to an -ism, even atheism was considered too severe. As a result, I have always found myself struggling to answer that question, believing, like what Nesrine Malik writes, that: “I’m more inclined to think of belief in God as being a spectrum, like that of sexuality, rather than binary. The land in between is not a spiritual wasteland nor a route traversed by those joining up the dots towards atheism. It is inhabited by those who at some point realise that they do not know and are honest and secure enough to say so.”
Regarding skepticism, Amartya Sen wrote about debate and dissent in India in The Argumentative Indian. Heterodoxy, he argued, is a natural state of affairs in India, and this is especially fortunate for the nation as the largest non-Western democracy. Discussing Sen’s thoughts, the author S. Prasannarajan writes that “Those words that dominate seminar papers and party polemic, words like democracy, secularism and identity, become more plural and less divisive if we are generous enough to read India’s back story, never a linear narrative.” India’s secularism was painted not as a separation of State and Religion, but a form of dignified deference to others. Pavan Varma has argued that attempts to give religion “a fundamentalist hue” by some zealots is misguided. ….”[M]y own view is that religious fundamentalists in India have been consigned to a comical nuisance-value on the fringes of the mainstream – not because Hinduism is an exceptionally tolerant religion, but because most Indians want today to swim away from the islands of religious exclusiveness to the opportunities of the secular mainland. People want to get on with their lives and have little time for those who seek to whip up religious passions for personal gain. In fact, it can be argued that even though Hindus have a record of not being hostile to people of other faiths, the practice of Hinduism is tainted by a great degree of intolerance.”
In present times, we find mutual acceptance and collective respect seriously challenged, and one can only hope for peace to prevail, where not just “mutual tolerance” (that awfully awkward expression), but dignity and respect for others can flourish.
At home, with the Harsingaar tree
In consonance with the prevailing pluralism of the times, we grew up without any pressure to follow any specific belief or practice. Like many of my peers, I had the freedom to choose my own path, but believing in and showing respect for beliefs of others was deeply ingrained and non-negotiable. Everyone’s god was to be respected, whether that came from respect for the faith or its followers didn’t matter.
My parents were followers of the Ayra Samaj movement initiated by Dayanand Saraswathi in the 19th century, a pan-Indian movement to modernize Hinduism and make the scriptures available to ordinary people. My mother was a practicing Hindu and conducted her silent daily rhythms along the principles of her faith by herself. On occasion, my father would join her. There were some images of gods and gurus placed in a central location of our home, and although she would visit the space twice every day, we were neither compelled nor discouraged to participate. The only rule was that our footwear had to be removed before entering. It was a multi-purpose space working as a store and a puja room and if we needed to go in, we followed that rule as a mark of respect for her. In her quiet commitment that intensified as she grew older, she must have believed that prayer would keep the family safe and well.
In the early mornings, she could be seen shuffling silently around the house, clad in a loose sari, draped in the seedha-palla style for the morning. She would awake early, practice some yoga, bathe and dress before dawn, ready for the daily collection of fresh flowers. Her gentle demenour towards everything around her did not favour the plucking of flowers, so she would lay out a clean sheet at dawn to receive freshly fallen flowers. The sheet would ensure that only seasonal flowers offered by the plants: champa, chameli, or madhumalti would make it to the prayer area. Her favourite tree was the हरश्रृंगार (harshringaar), the Night Jasmine Tree from which delicately fragrant (small, star-shaped, white, with flash of orange) flowers would fall around the rainy season. Apart from the fact that this tree is loaded with religious significance, its flowers are gone too soon. They bloom in the late evening, drop by dawn and shrivel up by mid-morning. The rhythm of the flowers synchronised well with my mother’s steps. Each morning, old flowers from the offering a day before would be dropped into a flower-bed, making sure that the heap provided nourishment to the soil. In the prayer area, a small flame and dhoop would be lit, releasing a heavy fragrance of ghee and incense symbolically purifying our sparsely furnished home. She book-ended her days with these movements as we grew up and away from her.
It is only later that I learnt the significance of this tree, also known locally by other names, Paarijaat, Shefali, Sheoli. Inspired perhaps from the beauty of the tree was a myth that the Harsingaar is a form of Kalpavriksha, the divine tree of life, was brought down to earth by Lord Krishna as an offering to his wife who found the flowers irresistible. In some parts of the world, it is also called the Tree of Sorrow, perhaps signifying the ephemeral nature of its bloom. For me, it will always remain my mother’s tree.
Kalpana, or imagination, is a primary and unique quality of the human mind. We have the capacity for symbolic representation unlike any other species. This has facilitated the historical build-up of culture of which religion is an integral part. Devdutt Pattanaik argues that symbols have deeply meaningful associations that depict everyday situations and address a range of emotions. The Ganesha festival is a case in point. Annually during the monsoons, many Hindu households become intensely engaged in welcoming a Ganesha idol, but for a short period as the monsoon begins to abate. On the fourth day of the moon in the months of August or September as per the lunar calendar, clay idols of Ganesha are decorated and placed in designated spaces, public areas, temples or homes. For 11 days, the idols are lovingly worshiped twice a day with songs of praise for Ganesha’s form and wisdom. The transient and cyclic nature of life is invoked as idols are lovingly bid farewell by devotees to be immersed. In Mumbai, the festival is so popular that schedules of immersion between these 11 days are regulated by a central committee to protect the water-bodies. Led by frenzied drum beats, floral tributes, and dancing devotees, Ganesha is released into the sea. Here is a link to a video of the dhol beats accompanying a recent send-off! https://youtu.be/LZvqeLfnMwo In a recent speech on Ganesha by the well-known Sadguru, he claims that the Ganesha festival cycle (from creation to immersion) is testimony to the recognition that our gods are human creations! See link: https://www.facebook.com/sgisha/videos/1320697098106962?sfns=xmo
Legends of Ganapati, by Pooja and Reshu
Hinduism is abundantly inclined towards symbolism, presenting ideas of divinity in male, female, half-male half-female, human, animal or plant form, and Ganesha is a dramatic example of that. With a large elephant’s head, Ganapati is worshiped as a symbol of wisdom, strength, auspiciousness and prosperity, endowed with a thousand different names and eight incarnations. Widely revered as vignaharta (remover of obstacles), the patron of arts and sciences and the deva of intellect and wisdom, Lord Ganesha is one of the best-known and most worshiped deities among Hindus. The image can be found at the initiation of ceremonies, doors of homes, and as art objects. Ganesha and his brother Kartikeya are the two sons of Shiva and Parvati. As the story goes, Ganesha was born with a human form, but as a child, his head was replaced after a confrontation between his parents, Parvati and Shiva. The story is packed with meaning and we have referred to the story in an earlier post on sleeping arrangements, Link: https://masalachaimusings.com/2017/09/15/the-mother-who-slept-with-her-back-to-the-baby-and-other-stories/
We found instances of multiple meanings for Ganesha’s form and here are some of the common stories. The image itself is depicted as a portly form (fondness for food), a large head (a sign of wisdom), a broken tusk (there is a story behind this), with the trunk mostly (but not always) pointing to the left (searching for food) and a small mouth (less talk). He is shown riding on a mouse with a snake wrapped around his stomach as a belt. His eyes are always shown as small and gentle (generous and kind), but the ears are large (symbolising a vast capacity to listen to others). In his four arms, he is shown holding an axe, a trident, a lotus flower and a conch shell, symbolic of his strength, aspiration and a call to prayer. His vahana (or accompanying carrier) is a tiny mouse that symbolises life’s desires that, if uncontrolled, can create havoc in a person’s life.
The broken tusk
There are several accounts of Ganesha’s broken tusk, from a fight he became involved in while guarding his parents’ Himalayan abode to task as a scribe for the monumental narration of the epic Mahabharata by Ved Vyas. Legend has it that his commitment to the task, with all the stringent conditions placed on him by the priest, was so great that when his kalam (qill) began to disintegrate, he broke off his tusk to complete the writing. Both wise and determined, Ganesha’s strength and commitment are also reasons why is worshipped. The broken tusk has earned him the name Ekdanta, or the one with a single tusk.
The curse of the moon and snake belt
During the Ganesha festival, viewing the moon is considered inauspicious. The legend associated with this proscription as well as the broken tusk relates to the fall-out of a grand feast. It is well known that Ganesha had a weakness for food, that is why he is always represented with his favourite snacks, the modak. Legend has it that Ganesha was on his way back from a feast, riding on his mouse. On seeing a snake along the way, the mouse is terrified and drops the might Ganesha as he scampers to hide under a bush. As Ganesha fell and the contents of his meal spilled out, and he was angry. Seeing this, the moon that had just appeared over the horizon burst into a laugh making Ganesha angrier and angrier. Livid with the moon for its scorn, Ganesha cursed it to a future of complete darkness and broke his tusk and threw it at the moon (yet another story of the tusk). Frightened by his ire, the moon asked for forgiveness and was, it is told, permitted to have phases, but periodic darkness would prevail between the waxing and waning. Tying the snake to his stomach as a belt, Ganesha returned from the feast. As was intended perhaps, there are many life-lessons in these stories.
In even more abstract terms, the broken tusk also symbolizes the transcendence from duality. The artificial smokescreen of self-other separation interferes with the knowledge of the true, divine form of the Self, beyind body-mind dualism. The single tusk of Ganesha symbolises this non-duality, such is the wisdom gained from viewing Ganesha’s form.
Competing with Kartikeya
The fallibility of divine forms in Hinduism is an additional feature of its myths. Gods and goddesses have large egos, weak resolve, unbridled anger, envy and a range of “human” failings that embellish their character and stories. This is likely to have been strategic since the forms and legends were intended to be didactic, making their divinity more believable and approachable for worship by ordinary people. As an example, the brothers Ganesha and Kartikeya often competed for their parents’ affections. Legend has it that the race between them to circle the Universe tested Kartikeya’s agility and Ganesha’s wisdom. Rather than follow his swift brother and lose the race, Ganesha simply went around his parents three times and won. For Ganesha, Shiva and Parvati were his world.
The event was initiated by the trouble-making priest Narad visited Mount Kailash (their home in the Himalayas) with a mango in his hand. “It is for Shiva’s better son”, he stated, and both brothers were drawn to the luscious fruit. “Who is it for?” they asked in unison. “For Shiva’s better son,” replied the mischievous Narad. Shiva and Parvati realised it was a trick, but when Shiva asked: “Better son? What’s that? Sons are sons. Some are older, some are younger. Some are taller, some are fatter. Some are stronger, some are smarter. How can one be better?”
“Here is how,” said Narad, “You create a scale and you measure who is better. You can say that my measuring scale is obedience — he who is more obedient is the better son. Or you can say that my measuring scale is money — he who makes more money is the better son. Or you can say that my measuring scale is achievement — he who can do the impossible is the better son.” Shiva dismissed it as stupidity to which the priest replied “…but you are also measuring my stupidity, aren’t you? According to your scale I am stupid, but according to mine, I’m not! I am brilliant!” Conceding to the assertion, Shiva agrees to accept a contest, which is when the task of circling the Universe is placed before the boys. Kartikeya went around THE world and Ganesha around HIS world! The story is laden with meaning and lessons, about subjectivity, standards, family life, envy and competition.
Ganesha’s insatiable appetite
The family was once invited to a feast and Kuber, the host, endowed with much wealth, happily took over the task of feeding the insatiable Ganesha until everything he had in his palace was consumed. Still hungry, Ganesha turned upon his host to satisfy himself, only to be saved by his mother’s offer of a tulsi leaf. Ganesha’s portly form signifies his love for food.
The god of auspicious beginnings
Ganesha’s appetite was also used by Narad to ridicule him for being left out of a particular wedding procession, which he was missing because he had been left to guard the home of the gods. Narad was always in search of opportunity to create havoc and was always successful. Livid with the accusation, Ganesha and an army of mice stalled the wedding procession, and it was only when they were appeased that the wedding could proceed. Believers in Ganesha’s significance always initiate celebrations with a prayer to Ganesha to keep obstructions at bay.
Shiva is worshiped as a supreme teacher and Ganesha here represents the ego-bound Jiva, or living being. When divinity arrives, it is believed that as jiv-aatmas, we are unable to experience it. Our ego comes in the way and we dismiss, argue with or reject it. This relates to the story of baby Ganesha preventing the entry of his own father at the doorstep as he could not be subdued. His mother was taking a bath and he had been seated to guard the door. But since Shiva did not recognise his son, he was returning from a long absence, Ganesha’s beheading and subsequent restoration is believed to be symbolic of the transformation from ignorance to awareness. and wisdom.
Vinayaki, the female form of Ganesha
The story goes that the demon, Andhaka desired to make goddess Parvati his wife by force, challenging the mighty Shiva. Although he could be easily impaled by Shiva, the Asura was blessed with a boon that every drop of blood that fell on earth would generated a new form. The only way to kill him was to ensure that this did not happen. Parvati was aware that every divine form has male and female aspects, and the female Shakti was invoked to subdue the demon. From each god emerged his female form that absorbed the many drops of blood before they fell. Ganesha’s female form, Vinayaki was also manifested. This form is an integral part of Tantrik practice.
Parvati’s wounds and the unity of life forms
The world is believed to be a single unit, and all forms of life, a collective energy. This story emphasises this belief.
Ganesha was known to have been a mischievous child, like young Krishna who created havoc for the Yadav community in which he was being reared. One time, Ganesha came across a cat, picked it up and threw it on the ground, pulling its tail while the cat meowed in agony. On reaching Mount Kailash, Ganesha was shocked to see Parvati lying down outside the home, with wounds all over her body, and crying in pain. Ganesha rushed to her and asked her who did this. To which Parvati replied his actions with the cat had caused her the injury and pain. The cat was actually a form of Parvati longing to play with her son. A repentant Ganesha realised the meaning of this message. The unity of all forms of life.
Some of our readers would be familiar with the stories we have collected, each of which could fill several pages. In this retelling of moral instruction through story and memories from childhood, we hope to raise the issue of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. These ideas do not need to be believed in as real, in fact that question itself is misplaced. Myths can be personal or shared and they assist in the configuration of significant symbolic meanings and life lessons, thereby find an important place in our lives. The many stories of Ganesha have been invoked here to explain how intensely symbolic and laden with meaning myths can be, and, as the monsoon abates and Ganeshas leave their temporary sanctuary, the meanings will hopefully linger around us. It is our folly as people when we fail to hear narratives of unity, diversity, of debate, dissent, and peaceful coexistence. These are taken to be reasons to divide. The statistical metaphor of group differences (among and between) mentioned earlier bears repetition here. Using such expansive and profound symbolism to divide people will be the greatest tragedy of religious expression in present times. Happy Ganesh Chaturthi to our readers.
Sources for text and pictures:
The stories and images have been adapted and extracted from the following sources:
 Other names: Parijat, Shefali, Sheoli, Tree of Sorrow, Botanical name: Nyctanthes arbor-tristis