Once again, it is Ganesha Chaturthi, or puja, that honours Lord Ganesha who symbolises god as the remover of all obstacles — be they obstacles that hinder worldly progress and happiness or those that hinder spiritual evolvement.
Over the past decades, Ganesh puja has emerged as an increasingly popular and exuberant celebration in Fiji — so reminiscent of the mini-mela (fair) atmosphere of such celebrations in India.
In India, the monsoons are a most welcome time when great black clouds roll across the skies pouring out their precious loads on a land parched by the searing summer heat.
While the monsoons bring the earth back to life, they also bring with them a “god time” — a host of religious festivals that replenish Hindu spiritual life.
First comes Krishna ashtami, then Ganesha Chaturthi, Navratri and Diwali, followed by Sankranti in January, Saraswati puja, Kumbh mela, Holi, and finally Ram Naumi in April. During the hot summer there is a conspicuous absence of such festivals.
These major festivals are interspersed with many others that are regional and community specific — indeed in the Hindu calendar, there are more holy days than there are days in the year.
Many of these festivals are celebrated on a grand scale in temples and other public places.
Of these festivals, only Ganesha Chaturthi, Durga puja and Saraswati puja are celebrated with the installation of the murti for the prescribed number of days, and its immersion in water at the end of the stipulated period. Murti is the Hindu term for the statue that is a representation of God.
As a child growing up in Bengal, I used to love the celebration of Saraswati puja and Durga puja. These are the two most important festivals of Bengal and are celebrated publicly with splendid display and deep devotional fervour.
In the weeks preceding the festivals, we would see hereditary artisans creating the basic shape of the deity with straw and stacking them in neat rows.
Subsequently, the straw shape was covered with clay and shaped into the most alluring and charming forms of the goddesses. Finally, the murti was painted in intricate detail to delineate each facial feature, ornament and symbolic accessory.
Saraswati, so exquisitely serene on her white swan, would be clad in white attire, with her essential symbols — the mala, the Veena and the book. Durga, with her great all-seeing eyes, would be dazzlingly beautiful in red and gold. Mounted on her lion, wielding her numerous weapons, she bristled with a kind of static energy. These two deities — Saraswati and Durga, are a singular and striking expression of god in the feminine form.
During the puja, the murti is set up under a pandal (a colorful Indian marquee) for a prescribed number of days. The celebration begins with the sthapana ceremony of a murti. At the auspicious hour, the priest invokes the spirit of the deity to be present in the murti. Thus the murti is invested with divine energy for the duration of the festival.
Prayers and prescribed rituals are carried out daily. In this way, the numerous beautiful murtis which are at the heart of these festivals are a channel to connect us to the Divine.
The wisdom behind the festival
During Saraswati puja in Bengal, students would place a tilak of sindhur on their books, which are a symbol of the goddess, and place them at the feet of Saraswati, who is the goddess of learning. They would also touch the feet of their teachers, honouring them as living forms of Saraswati.
Many schools in Fiji have retained this practice of Saraswati pooja and fortunately, others are reviving it.
As a teacher with long experience, I recognise the wisdom underlying this festival and believe we would do well to propagate this observance — it will provide a correct orientation towards education, resources and teachers in both the educators and the students.
Competitions, quizzes and displays are also part of the celebrations during such festivals. These are designed to encourage religious knowledge, conserve and promote traditional and modern skills and arts, and provide a forum in which individuals can showcase their abilities and talents.
In this way all segments of the community — children, women, men, artisans, the rich and the disadvantaged — are involved in activities that enhance and refine the positive aspects of human culture.
This kind of program is also followed in the Ganesha Chaturthi celebrations in Fiji.
Hundreds of students, men and women participate in various competitions and activities that cater to varied abilities and interests. They even win small prizes.
Most importantly, it is a new experience and an enriching one at that. This fun and work revolves around the deity — unquestionably, this is “god time”.
And all of this takes place in a splendid setting — there is the enchanting murti in the richly decorated shed or mandir, there is the scent of incense and the soothing sound of devotional music, and there are people dressed in their festive finery. Indeed, the entire experience is what it is meant to be — an aesthetic spiritual feast.
At the end of the pooja, the murti must be taken for visarjan. Visarjan is a traditional Hindu ritual following all sorts of pujas, weddings and such celebrations. All the flowers, leaves, grasses and certain other condiments must be ritually immersed in running water.
Prior to visarjan, there is a ceremony in which god is requested to depart from his transtory embodiment. Just as god had been invited to come down and be present in the murti during the puja, he is requested to depart and the physical remains of the murti are then ceremonially disposed in water.
The murti is taken to the nearest visarjan place by a procession of devotees who farewell the deity with singing and dancing.
Visarjan is not only a ritual. Like all other rituals, it expresses a number of significant religious truths. Primarily it shows that the murti itself is not god, but a medium to commune with god. Visarjan represents samsara, the cycle of birth and death.
The earthly materials that the murti was made of dissolve back into the earth just as our physical bodies will return to the earth someday.
This is a humbling reminder of the ephemeral nature of human life in contrast to the “real” and indestructible aatma.
After visarjan, one is left with a renewed sense of the spiritual quest — which can only be pursued in the human form.
In India, the visarjan of millions of murtis has led to environmental concerns as traditional clay murtis began to be replaced by non-biodegradable materials.
Fortunately, there is now increasing public awareness as well as legislation to encourage the use of eco-friendly materials for murtis.
While Ganesha Chaturthi is observed all over India, it is celebrated in a very elaborate way in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa and Kerala.
Over the last few decades public celebrations have become increasingly popular among Hindus not only in Fiji, but also in the United States, Canada, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Fiji, Trinidad & Tobago, and Guyana. All festivals are an exuberant celebration of god’s bounty that bring together people from every strata of society — artisans and priests, children and adults, students and the aged.
In Fiji, the last two decades have seen a kind of religious renaissance which is gloriously obvious everywhere: it is evident in the so-lovingly decorated tiny little temples in peoples’ compounds, in the shops bursting with puja materials, in the glittering lights that cover almost every inch of the home and garden at Diwali, and in the robust vigour of the processions on the way to visarjan (immersion of the murti) after Ganesh puja. Unquestionably, modern technology has rejuvenated traditions.
* Minakshi Maharaj is the HOD Language and Literature, School Communication, Language and Literature, Fiji National University.