Usually the Hindu holiday of Ganesha Chaturdhi falls in late August or early Sept. – around the beginning of the academic year for most schools, colleges and universities. Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity also known as Vinayaka, is especially important for those seeking education and initiating academic pursuits: believed to be the author of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, prayers are offered to Ganesha at the start of the new school year, the new writing project, and any new endeavor.
That this year Ganesh Chaturdhi falls on Labor Day, the day before the start of the public school year in Michigan, is especially meaningful. It also allows Hindu families in the US to take the time to do the prayer ritual or puja typically done to honor the day – something much more easily accomplished for a Hindu family in India, where the holiday is celebrated with great splendor, and a day off is a given.
Ganesha is widely popular and not only among Hindus in India and America: I once found a small stuffed Ganesha at a fair-trade store in Omaha Nebraska! Author and religion scholar Stephen Prothero tells us in his 2010 book God is Not One, that “A pen-and-ink (picture of) Ganesha, his belly as plump as a Chinatown Buddha, greets visitors to my Cape Cod cottage.” Ganesha is easily identifiable not only because of the pachyderm’s head on a boy’s body, with a big belly, single tusk, and if observed carefully, a small mouse under him: the mouse is his vahana, his vehicle, what gets him from place to place.
This representation – as that of all Hindu representations of the Divine – is replete with symbolism: the elephant head signifies wisdom, with large ears and a small mouth to remind devotees to listen more and talk less, the single tusk representing a singular focus, the big belly signifies acceptance and generosity. But as the Art of Living site, which further details the symbolism of Ganesha, says, “though Ganesha is worshiped as the elephant-headed God, the form (swaroop) is just to bring out the formless (parabrahma roopa).”
Understanding the deep philosophy of Ganesha, also known as Ganapati, is one way to understand why the elephant-headed deity is so prevalent.
The Ganapati Upanishad, a hymn found in the ancient Hindu scripture, the Atharva Veda, provides an explanation of the complex philosophy surrounding Ganesha. He is identified as both finite and infinite; as the five primordial elements (earth, water, fire, air and sky); as the embodiment of the four stages of speech (para, pasyanti, madhyama, vaikhari); as the three Gunas (Rajas, Sattva and Tamas); as the three bodies (physical, subtle, causal); as the three times (past, present, future). Ganesha is eternal, and appeared even before creation happened:
All the universe originates from you.
All the universe exists because of you.
All the universe finally mixes within you.
All the universe exists nothing but you.
Sarva Jagad idham thwatho jaayathe.
Sarva Jagad idham thwatha sthishtathi.
Sarva Jagad idham thwayee laya meshyathi.
Sarva Jagad idham thwayee prathyethi.
But storytelling about Ganesha is what provides a more accessible platform for breaking down this underlying philosophy – and while the stories are for children, on Ganesha Chaturdhi, Hindus of all ages recount his exploits as part of the celebration. A favorite story is how Parvati created Ganesha to guard the doors to her chambers and to not let anyone enter. As Ganesha stood on guard, her husband, Shiva, a part of the Hindu Trimurti (the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), came and headed towards his room. Because Ganesha prevented him from entering, Shiva became furious and chopped off Ganesha’s head.
Hearing Ganesha’s scream, Parvati came running, pledging to destroy the world unless Ganesh could be brought back to life. Shiva brought Ganesha back to life by replacing the severed head with that of an elephant, and rewarded his courage and steadfastness in protecting Parvati: Ganesha is bestowed with divine powers and any good work is not considered complete with invoking Ganesha’s name and blessings. And Ganesh has many names – one is Vignaharta, the remover of obstacles, and so he is the first deity to be offered prayers during any puja, not just on Ganesha Chaturdhi. My fellow Patheos Hindu blogger Ambaa has provided a few more anecdotes in Ganesha: Everything You Need to Know.
For those who want to know even more, a wonderful resource is a book by Hinduism Today’s founding editor: Loving Ganesha. In the dedication, the publishers provide an answer to why this title:
Because everyone, young and old, thin and hefty (especially the latter) loves Gaṇeśa. Of course, He loves us all very, very much. He is the God of unfailing laws, such as gravity, retribution and karmic responses. In matters of less gravity, He is the lover of all things sweet. He is also the Prince of Culture and Patron of the Arts. Everyone loves music, art, drama and the dance. He, in His joyous ponderousness is the Remover of Obstacles, and that is just what He did for us—removed the obstacles we faced in publishing Loving Gaṇeśa, and in producing this second edition, and those you faced in finding it. Many months of research and effort went into this gem….
While Hindus around the world have varying levels of awareness of the stories about Ganesha, or the philosophies surrounding them, a unifying theme is that Ganesha is the deity that everyone loves, as the Hinduism Today publication points out. This year, Hindu American families can take the advantage of the Labor Day holiday to celebrate this holy day, the same as Hindu families in India, the spiritual homeland of Hindus everywhere. In North America, we make an extra effort to maintain our traditions, surmounting obstacles that come with being a minority religious community – and a coincidence like today’s is a boon. As Hindu American students young and old – and all students everywhere – begin their school year, may Ganesha grant a boon to all, by removing any obstacles and paving the way to academic success!