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Contemplating Ganesha

ImageGanesha the elephant-headed god, one of Hinduism’s most well known faces, is steeped in symbolism.

Over the ages, the story of Ganesha’s unusual birth and his unique form have been interpreted in various ways. For the purpose of this post I have taken the most widely accepted versions and in the true spirit of Hinduism given you my own intuitive understanding of them.

Ganesha is said to be the physical form of the symbol Aum. Aum is the symbol of Creation. It represents the unmanifest Shakti which manifests as Prakriti or Nature. Thus Ganesha born of Shakti represents all Creation.

The mantra Aum is also Pranava, the prime mantra through which all existence is known. ‘Pra’ means Prakriti and ‘nava’ is the boat which helps us navigate the endless ocean of Creation called Prakriti. So it is through her son that we may know the mother.

Hence, Ganesha is also associated with the Muladhara Chakra which is the seat of Shakti. By meditating on Ganesha the Kundalini Shakti is realised and awakened to remove all obstacles and transform us.

As Parvati created Ganesha by herself with no help from Shiva, he is our direct link to Nature of which we are also a part. Ganesha leads us to ourselves.

Parvati created Ganesha so that he may guard her honour. Hence Ganesha is portrayed as the typical mother’s boy who adores her and above all protects her.  Thus he is ‘Ganesha- Guardian of all Beings’. In protecting all of Creation, he protects Prakriti his mother.

Adi Shankaracharya who established Ganesha as one of the five main deities said this of Ganesha,

“Though Ganesha is worshiped as the elephant-headed God, the form (swaroop) is just to bring out the formless (parabrahma roopa).
He is, ‘Ajam Nirvikalpam Niraakaaramekam.’ This means Ganesha is unborn (ajam), he is without attributes( Nirvikalpa), he is formless (Niraakaar) and he symbolizes the consciousness which is omnipresent.” Which brings us back to why Ganesha is associated with Aum.

As for Ganesha’s form, the big elephant head symbolizes intelligence and wisdom. His big ears pick up on the softest of prayers whispered by his devotees. His small shrewd eyes miss nothing and his trunk represents discretion. An elephant may use his trunk to fell trees or pick up a blade of grass depending on the situation.

He is Ekdanta, the one with a single tusk. This stands for single mindedness.His big belly holds all the knowledge of the Universe.

An elephant is not hindered by any obstacle in his path. He simply steps over it or goes around it. Hence Ganesha is the remover of obstacles and of his four arms one is raised in the Abhaya mudra, which says to his devotees, ‘fear not I shall protect you.’

The second hand holds a noose to rein in the wandering mind while the third has the goad to push people onto the path of righteousness. Finally, the fourth hand holds a sweet modak which shows his eternal childlike nature.

 Om Gan Ganapataye Namah !!

Parvati -Daughter of the Mountains

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We‘ve looked at the bountiful Laxmi, then the learned Saraswati and now let’s cast our eyes on the bold and beautiful Parvati-Daughter of the Mountains and the consort of Lord Shiva.

In a way, Parvati is the ultimate Goddess.  All Hindu women want to be like her and all Hindu men worship her.

For she is none other than Shakti, the Cosmic Energy at play. Just as Shakti is experienced through her manifestations in Nature, so too is Parvati best understood through her various names and forms.

The stories of Parvati form a big chunk of Hindu mythology. Their charm and their ability to inspire has endured over many millennia. Parvati is worshipped in countless different forms and names all across India from the tiniest villages to cities. Devotees will scale high mountains and go deep into dark forests to seek her. She is the Mother Goddess and from her being spring myriad other goddesses.

I can’t possibly tell all her stories here in one post . Each one needs to be elaborated at length and relished slowly.  I look forward to writing them in separate postings at a later stage.

But  here, just as an introduction, are brief sketches of her most popular and widely worshipped forms.

Sati-Sati was the first wife of Shiva. His first love. She had married Shiva against her father’s wishes. One day hurt by her father’s insulting behaviour she immolated herself plunging Shiva into deep despair. Unable to bear her loss Shiva withdrew from the world into a cave. There he remained lost in meditation till Pravati came along and broke his trance.

Parvati-Shiva ParvatiSati was reborn as Parvati, the daughter of Himavan-Lord of the Himalayas. Parvati means ‘daughter of the mountains’. Strong willed as the mountains she won Shiva’s heart through many years of severe penance and deep devotion.

Gauri-Shiva and Parvati were married in a beautiful ceremony watched by everyone on heaven and earth and celebrated by gods and asuras alike. Parvati moved to Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas to live as his wife Gauri.

Gauri awakened Shiva’s interest in the world by questioning him on various issues. As he spoke, Shiva revealed the secrets of the Tantras and the Vedas to Parvati. Shiva the foremost yogi then taught his wife yoga and through her passed on the teachings to mankind.

Shiva enamoured by Parvati’s beauty sang and danced to the delight of the gods who named him Natraja, the Lord of Dance.

Parvati is literally Shiva’s other half, fused to him in his half man half woman form of Ardhanareshwar.

Shiva and Shakti – As the cosmic couple, they are worshipped together. While Shiva is Purusha, the latent masculine energy of the universe, Parvati is Prakruti, the vital feminine energy. The Ying and Yang of Hinduism. And, although they appear to be distinct they cannot be separated, just as one cannot separate heat from fire.

 

maaDurga smallDurga-Invoked by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to wage a war against the asuras and to kill the demon Mahishasur, Parvati becomes the powerful Durga.  Riding a lion and wielding weapons, she single-handedly vanquishes the entire asura army and restores peace.

                                                                                                                                                                                 Durga

Kali- To help her son kill the demon Raktabija, Parvati assumes the form of the dreaded goddess Kali. Dark as death, gaunt with sunken eyes, her enormous tongue hanging out, and with long disheveled hair covering her naked body, Kali strikes terror in the very heart of evil.

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Kali

Jagadamba –In this form Parvati is the guardian of the Universe. She is the Divine Mother who protects and nurtures her children, her devotees. Anyone who seeks her attention shall have it.

Mother of Ganesha and Karitkeya-Parvati is also the mother of her two sons Ganesha and Kartikeya. One she fashioned from her own self and the other was born from Shiva’s seed but not her womb. She raised both with loving care and attention.

Festivals

The Goddess is celebrated during Navratri all over India in different ways. For nine nights India revels in her power and energy.

Gangaur is another major festival, dedicated to Gauri and is celebrated in Rajasthan for eighteen days, starting from the last day of Holi.

Speaking of which, It’s Holi tomorrow. And it’s a whole other story which you can read about tomorrow !

Shiva’s Dance of Destruction

Shiva, the Lord of Dance, is forever dancing his Cosmic Dance.

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You’ve seen him as the Nataraja, lost in a trance, keeping the rhythm of the Universe with his dumroo( drum) and dancing to its beat.

Holding a trident in one  hand, a deer in another, he is seen striking a beautiful pose with one leg lifted, the other placed on a dwarf. His matted locks, unfurled,  spread out like rays reaching the outer edges of the  Cosmos. As Nataraja, he shows us the cycle of life and death, Beginning and End.

There are times however, when Shiva will take on his Rudra avatar( Harsh Self) and dance the Tandav Nritya, the dance of destruction.

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He dances at a furious pace,to the beat of his drum. Bom, Bom it vibrates, causing wild thunder storms all around the universe, even shattering the sun, the moon and other stellar bodies.

Brandishing his trident, he destroys Tripura, the three worlds. He tramples upon the  dwarf of ignorance and conquers death, displaying its skull on his head.

But, for those  who are dare to look at this terrible sight, he raises his right hand to say ‘be fearless’; for what is being destroyed is only your ignorance, you ego; the illusion that you are just this.

And then, if you pay close attention you will see a crescent moon shinning on his forehead, and you will know it is going to be light again  and darkness will be gone. As your ignorance is destroyed,you will find enlightenment .

Thus, while Brahma creates the Universe and Vishnu drives it, Shiva destroys it, both within and without, so that it may be created again.

( The Tandav dance is often performed in Classical Indian dance forms. Here is great clip of Meenakshi, an Indian actress dancing it in a Bolywood movie)

Vishnu Sustains the Universe

Vishnu is the second of the Trimurti( Brahma, Vishnu,Shiva) and he sustains and protects the Universe. His role is a lot more complex than Brahma’s.

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“The world rests as the lotus in the palm of my hand, the cosmos revolves around my finger like a discus. I blow the music of life through my conch and wield my mace to protect all creatures.” – Krishna Upanishad

While Brahma creates the Universe, Vishnu is the source of all Creation.

Vishnu is the All-Pervading One. His name is derived from “vis’ in Sanskrit which means both ‘to spread’ and ‘to be present everywhere’.

Even when there was Nothing, there was Vishnu, present as a nameless, formless, dormant energy. In this un-manifested (nirguna) state, even Vishnu was not aware of his own being. He just was. Just because he was not perceived, does not mean he did not exist.

In this Nothingness, when the first ripple of awareness stirred , spontaneously and of its own will, the formless energy became Vishnu, the Supreme Being, Parabrahman.

As Parabrahma, Vishnu lies in a dream like state on the serpent Adisesha Ananta who is Time, without beginning or end. Ananta floats for all eternity on the waters of the Ksheer Sagar ( the ocean of Cosmic Consciousness).

When Brahma begins the process of Creation, it is Vishnu who expands into everything and becomes part of everything. Now he is Brahman, the Cosmic Consciousness.

As if he is seeing a dream, Vishnu watches Brahma create the Universe. By the act of watching his dream, Vishnu sustains the Universe. When Vishnu wakes from his dream one cycle of Creation ends.

Vishnu who dreams up the Universe must also now protect it. To maintain the order of Creation, Vishnu becomes The Protector. He takes the form of Ishwara or God.

This form of Vishnu looks very different from the one reclining on Ananta. He is standing,radiant as the sun and has four arms. In his hands he holds the Conch, The Discus, The Lotus and The Mace.

From the Nirguna Brahman( formless energy) Vishnu thus becomes Saguna Brahman, a God with forms and attributes. Vishnu is now the Supreme Lord, Parameshwar.

At times, when world descends into total chaos, Lord Vishnu comes to its rescue in the form of an Avatar, or incarnation.

The ten incarnations of Vishnu in the physical world are:

  1. Matsya (fish)
  2. Kurma (turtle)
  3. Varaha (boar)
  4. Narasimha (man-lion)
  5. Vamana (dwarf)
  6. Parashurama (warrior-priest)
  7. Rama ( man who was like God)
  8. Krishna (God who was born as man)
  9. Buddha (the enlightened one)
  10. Kalki (horseman, who has not yet appeared)

References to Vishnu are found even in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the scared texts.

Almost all Hindus worship Vishnu, either in his original form or as one of his Avatars. Chanting the Sahasranama, the thousand names of Vishnu, describing his thousand attributes, is an ancient way of worshiping him, and  is still used today. A way that has no doubt re-enforced the  greatness of the Supreme Lord on the Hindu psyche since the early ages.

 

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