he internationally acclaimed novelist Shashi Tharoor takes us to the land of Indian gods and goddessess where Lord Ganesh reigns as the beloved of not only his parents, Lord Shiva and Parvati but millions and millions of people.
The remover of all obstacles and bestower of wishes, he is worshipped in myriad expressions of form and material -wood, terracotta, bronze, clay, silver and stone. He is easily recognized by his elephant-head and curving trunk resting over his enormous belly.
Om maha Ganapathe namaha
Sarva vignoba shantaye
Om Ganeshaya namaha.
Every morning, for longer than I can remember, I have begun my day with that prayer. I learned it without being fu1ly aware what all the Sanskrit words meant, knowing only that I was invoking, like millions of Hindus around the world, the name of the great elephant-headed god to bless all my endeavours to come.
Ganesh, or Ganapathi as we prefer to call him in the South, sits impassively on my bedroom shelf, in multiple forms of statuary, stone, metal and papier miche. There is nothing incongruous about this; he is used to worse, appearing as he does on innumerable calendars, posters, trademarks and wedding invitation cards. Paunchy, full-bodied, long-trunked (though with one broken tusk), attired in whatever costume the artist fancies (from ascetic to astronaut), Ganesh, riding his way across Indian hearts on a rat, is arguably Hinduism’s most popular divine figure.
Few auspicious occasions are embarked upon without first seeking Ganesh’s blessing. His principal attribute in Hindu mythology – a quality that flows from both his wisdom and his strength – is as a remover of obstacles to the fulfilment of desires. No wonder everyone wants Ganesh on his side before launching any important project, from starting a factory to acquiring a wife. My own courtship violated time-honoured Indian rules about caste, language, region, age and parental approval; but when we got married, my wife and I had an embossed red Ganesh adorning the front of our wedding invitations.
I have since developed an even more personal connection to Ganesh. The great 2,000-year-old epic, the Mahabharata was supposedly dictated by the sage Vedavyasa to Ganesh himself; since then, many a writer has found it helpful to invoke Ganesh in his epigraph. When I recast the characters and episodes of the Mahabharata into a political satire on 20th-century Indian history, The Great Indian Novel, I had it dictated by a retired nationalist, Ved Vyas, to a secretary named Ganapathi, with a big nose and shrewd, intelligent eyes, who enters with elephantine tread, dragging an enormous trunk behind him. Such are the secular uses of Hindu divinity.
For in my Hinduism the godhead is not some remote and forbidding entity in the distant heavens. God is immediately accessible all around us, and He takes many forms for those who need to imagine Him in a more personalized fashion. The Hindu pantheon includes thousands of such figures, great and small. Ganesh is the chief of the ganas, or what some scholars call the “inferior deities”. He is not part of the trinity of Brahma (the Creator), Shiva (the Destroyer) and Vishnu (the Preserver), who are the principal Hindu gods, the three facets of the Ultimate First Cause. But he is the son of Shiva, or at least of Shiva’s wife, Parvati (one theory is that she shaped him from the scurf of her own body, without paternal involvement).
As a writer I have always been interested in the kinds of stories a society tells about itself. So part of the appeal of Ganesh for me lies in the plethora of stories about how this most unflappable of deities lost his (original) head and acquired his unconventional appearance.
The most widely-held version is the one my grandmother told me when I was little – about the time that Parvati went to take a bath and asked her son to guard the door. Shiva arrived and wished to enter, but Ganesh was firm in his refusal. Enraged by this effrontery, Shiva cut off the boy’s head. Parvati, horrified, asked him to replace it, and Shiva obliged with the head of the first creature he could find, an elephant.
The perfect son
This was a salutary lesson in the perils of excessive obedience to your parents, though I don’t think my grandmother intended me to take it that way. My mother, who always tried unsuccessfully to resist the temptation to boast about her children, had another version: a vain Parvati asked Sham (Saturn) to look at her perfect son, forgetting that Shani’s gaze would reduce the boy’s head to ashes. Once again, an elephant’s was the head that came to hand.
Parvati asked her two sons,
Ganesh and Kartikeya, to go
around the world in a race.
Kartikeya set off at once.
Ganesh took a few steps around
his mother and sat down.
Parvati reminded him of he
Source: The Taj Magazine