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Celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi

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Vinayaka Chaturthi or Ganesha Chaturthi marks a big occasion on the Hindu calendar-the birthday of the adorable elephant headed god Ganesha.

The festival is observed in the month of Bhaadrapada, starting on the shukla chaturthi (fourth day of the waxing moon). The date usually falls between 19 August and 20 September. The festival lasts for 10 or 12 days, ending on Ananta Chaturdashi.

All across India and indeed around the world Hindus celebrate this occasion with great pomp and piety. However the biggest and the grandest party takes place in Maharashtra where the preparations for the day begin months in advance.
                                                                                                        

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Thousands of skilled artisans spend months sculpting elaborate and beautiful clay idols of the god which people then buy to bring home or place them is specially erected tents (pandas) in the streets and squares.

These idols which could be anything from a few inches to nearly 100 feet tall and are a joy to behold. Often interpreted in the artist’s own vision, Ganesha takes on various avatars from the traditional to the contemporary and each one is unique.  

                                             

Image taking a taxi home or a van!

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Once home, Ganesha is placed on a beautifully decorated altar and worshipped    with love and devotion. Every morning and evening a pooja is performed with incence and flowers and he is offered his favourite foods like the sweet modak. Friends and neighbours come calling to see him and pay their respects.

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On the streets, people go around town with their families from pandal to pandal checking out the colourful lights and decorations and of course the various Ganeshas.

It is a time of coming together and rejoicing in the company of this Lord of the People. The god of wisdom and compassion, the remover of obstacles.

During the independence struggle Lokmanya Tilak started the practice of communal celebrations of Ganesh Chaturthi to bring the masses together. To this day the legacy lives on. Although the celebrations seem commercialised like everything else in our times, it is still an occasion for festivities and joy.

After ten days of festivities it is time to bid farewell. Ganesha is carried through the streets in a procession accompanied by dancing and singing, to be immersed in a river or the sea. A symbolic ritual see-off of the Lord as he sets back on his journey towards his abode on Mt Kailash while taking away with him all the misfortunes of man.

ImageAll join in this final procession shouting “Ganapathi Bappa Morya, Purchya Varshi Laukariya” (O Ganesha, come back soon next year). After the final offering of coconuts, flowers and camphor the idol is immersed in the water

It is a sombre event and people return to their homes quietly looking forward to next year when Ganesha will be back again.

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Kali the Fierce Mother

Parvati watched her son, Skanda, struggling to defeat the demon Raktabeej on the battlefield. The demon was winning. A worried Parvati knitted her brows. From the centre of her brows emerged Kali, dark as death, long disheveled hair covering her naked body. With bloodshot eyes and her enormous tongue hanging out, she rushed to strike terror in the hearts of  all the demons.kali 2

Kali is thus the terrifying face of a loving mother. But so often she is mistaken for the terror she portrays.

The Encylopedia Britannica describes Kali as the “ Major Hindu goddess whose iconography, cult and mythology commonly associate her with death,sexuality,violence and paradoxically in some of her later historical appearances, motherly love.” This description is an ill-informed, gross misinterpretation of a sublime idea.

To understand Kali, we must get to her roots, look beneath the dark veneer.

Kali comes from the Sanskrit word Kala meaning time. Time is ultimate leveler. Nothing escapes the all-consuming march of time.The Mahanirvana Tantra says,”Just as all colours disappear in black,so all names and forms disappear in her.” Kali is All and Nothing. Everything ultimately dissolves in to infinite Nothingness.

For Kali is none other than Parvati, the timeless Shakti, the creative energy that is constantly manifesting around us.

Just as Shiva destroys so that he many create, so does his consort Kali. As Mahakala and Mahakali ( the masculine and feminine principles of the Great Time), they are the regenerative forces of Nature. Nature, both within and without.

In Hindu mythology demons often represent the evil with us. Parvati could not see her son losing in his fight against the demons so she came to his rescue. So does Ma Kali, the dark mother, help her children who seek her refuge. But a mother’s love is tough. She will let her children fall and be bruised so that they may learn to walk.

So yes, in a way Kali brings death but by way of transformation. She destroys the ego, the illusory view of reality. We are more than just this body, she reminds us by wearing garlands of skulls and dismembered limbs.

Hence there is the practice in some fringe cults of offering animal sacrifices (goats) to Kali by her devotees who seek to be liberated. Then there are those devotees who have shunned society and rejected everything to do with the material world and are found praying to Shiva and Kali on cremation grounds. With ashes smeared on their bodies, they meditate on the impermanent nature of the world.

This is not to say that they worship Death. In none of the stories or scriptures is Kali associated with cannibalism as some non-Hindus believe. Nor is Kali associated with human death in any stories or scriptures. Contrary to common belief, Kali is not the goddess of Death. Yama is the Hindu god of death.

Kali’s naked form and the tantric practice of worshiping Shiva and Kali as the divine couple are often associated with sexuality but Kali’s nudity is primeval and her connection with Shiva is fundamental, like nature.

Kali is first mentioned in the Vedas as one of the seven tongues of the fire Agni. She was described as the black tongue of Time.

In time, Kali herself has evolved and transformed into the fierce Mother, timeless and all encompassing, who with her compassion destroys our veil of ignorance.

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 Creates Ganesha

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Up on Mt. Kailash while Shiva sat lost in meditation, Parvati his wife was getting lonely.  She had Shiva’s subjects for company and his faithful attendant Nandi took good care of her. Yet, Parvati longed for someone to call her own. She longed for a child.

Once when she was bathing, scrubbing sandalwood paste on her body, Parvati decided to make herself a child. She mixed the scrapings from her body with the clay from the river and lovingly created a young boy with it. He was so fair and beautiful that she breathed life into him.

Many months passed and one day while Parvati was in her cave and Ganesha stood outside guarding the entrance, Shiva returned home. Ganesha had strict instruction from his mother  to not let anyone in, so he forbade Shiva from entering the cave.  Furious at being stopped from going into his own home and unaware that the young boy was Parvati’s son, Shiva in a fit of temper cut the boy’s head off. When Parvati came out and saw what had happened she was overcome with grief and rage. She summoned all the goddesses to avenge the death of her son. A terrible war ensued and Shiva soon realized his mistake. He tried to calm Parvati down but she demanded he bring her son back to life.

Now Shiva didn’t know what to do so he approached Brahma, the Creator, for help. Brahma suggested they get the head of the first animal they find which is lying down facing North.  Shiva’s servants went into the forest looking for such an animal and returned with an elephant’s head. Shiva then placed the head on Ganesha’s lifeless body and resurrected him. Parvati was overjoyed but soon her heart sank at her son’s plight. “What kind of life will my son have stuck with an elephant’s head?” she asked Shiva.

Shiva promised Parvati that their son would be called Ganapati, Lord of all beings. Loved and adored by all, he would be worshiped first, before any other god.

And so we’ve come to love and adore this playful, clever little potbellied boy, darling of his parents and guardian of all beings. He is the remover of all obstacles. We chant his name before any auspicious work is begun and before any kind of worship. To him we pray for peace and harmony.

Historically however, it was only around  the fourth or the fifth century that Ganesha rose in prominence. It was during the reign of the Gupta dynasty when Hindu traditions shifted towards Brahmanism that Ganesha was established as one of the five prime deities.

Nonetheless, he is today one of Hinduism’s most favourite gods. He has truly become Lord of the People. I wonder if the rather charming anecdotes of Ganesha’s life have been largely responsible for his popularity. Or, is it because humans have a strange affinity towards elephants? We love elephants because they are so much like us. Or perhaps we just like someone who is not so perfect but wears his imperfections so well. Well, whatever it is, no Hindu home or life is complete without Ganesha in it.

Ganesha’s is also worshipped as the remover of obstacles by Jains and Buddhists. As Hinduism gradually spread to south east Asia so did the worship and iconography of Ganesha. Modified forms of Ganesha continue to be worshipped in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Burma Thailand, Combodia and in some Buddhist sects of China and Japan where he is known as Kangiten.

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5th century “image of Ganesha, consecrated by the Shahi King Khingala.” found at Garddez, Afghanistan.

I look forward to exploring some of the  symbolism behind Ganesha’s birth and form in my next post.

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.

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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)

Brahma Creates the Universe

Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh( Shiva) are the three main Hindu gods. A Hindu Trinity of sorts.

Brahma creates the Universe, Vishnu sustains it and Shiva destroys it, so that it maybe created again.

To get to know these gods better, we have to understand the key roles they play.

So let’s begin with Brahma.

Brahma Creates….

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Like all religions and cultures, Hindu texts are also full of Creation myths. Some more well known than others.

The Puranas ( Collection of God Stories) tells us that in the Beginning there was Nothing. All existence was hidden in the un-manifested waters of the Great Deluge, the Mahapralaya.

Vishnu lay in deep sleep on the Serpent Ananta( one without beginning or end), who was floating on these waters. In his dream, Vishnu dreamed of this Creation and a lotus sprouted from his navel. Sitting in the lotus was Brahma.

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Brahma opened his eyes and was very surprised to find himself there, alone, in the middle of Nothing. He tried to find where the lotus was stemming from but it appeared to have no starting point. Just then he heard a voice asking him to create a universe.

Brahma was confused. He thought about many different forms and shapes he could create and then finally settled on the symmetric form.

He created the four Kumar Rishis, Sanaka, Sanatan, Sanata and Sanat, from his mind and asked the to help him with the Creation. But as children often do, they had a mind of their own. They wanted to do their own thing. So,instead of getting stuck with the job of creation, they  gave up the world and went looking for salvation.

This angered Brahma and he frowned. From this spot between his brows a fifth son was born, wailing as babies do when they are born . Brahma named him Rudra, (Rud, meaning ‘a wail’).

Brahma asked Rudra who was filled with fear of the world and born in the shadow of his anger, to go dwell in all things. The sky, the air, the water, the sun and moon.

Brahma created ten more sons from his body. Angira, Atri, Bhrigu, Daksha, Kratu, Marichi, Narad, Pulastya, Pulaha and Vashista.

Then Saraswati was born from Brahma’s mouth.

Seeing the beautiful and wise Saraswati, Brahma forgot she was his daughter and began to pursue her. This upset Saraswati so much that she  got up and left. Brahma came back to his senses and realised his serious folly. He was  so ashamed and filled with such remorse that he dissolved himself into space.

Having messed up the first attempt at creation Brahma decided to try again.Properly.

He first created a brilliant body for himself and then divided it into two, the primordial man, Manu and woman, Shatrupa.

They were  married and had two sons Priyavarta and Uttanpad and three daughters:Aakooti, Devhooti and Prasuti.

Aakuti was married to Ruchi Prajapati, Prasuti was married to Daksha and Devhooti was married to Kardam rishi. It is their children who went on and populated the Earth. This creation came to be known as ‘Maithuni Shrishtai’. Maithun is Sanskrit means, the union of male and female.

Brahma also sprouted the four Vedas from his mouth and created such things as Dharma( righteousness or Truth) and Adharma( un-Truth ), anger, desire, fear, attachment, joy and suffering.

He then grew so proud of all that he had created, he began to think he owned Prakruti( Nature ). Then he began to fear the many forms that Nature took. The whole process of creation seemed to be spinning out of control. Brahma sprouted four heads looking in four directions in an attempt to control Prakruti. He forgot that Nature had created him in the first instance. She was his mother and she would not be controlled by him.

So full of himself  was Brahma that he sprouted a fifth head, his Ego. With Brahma growing too big for his boots, the very balance of nature was threatened and Shiva had to step in. He chopped Brahma’s fifth head off.

Without his ego gone, Brahma no longer associated himself with Prakruti. He neither feared her nor wanted to control her.

Prakruti( Creation) was now left to follow her own natural course and obey her own natural laws.

This is the reason why not many people worship Brahma anymore.

PS: A delightful version of this story is narrated by Joseph Campbell in his wonderful documentary, Power of Myths. It is from the point of view of Indra. I may post it at another time but meanwhile here it is….

http://www.wisdomportal.com/Enlightenment/IndraUniverses.html

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