Hindus Celebrate the Birthday of Ganesh

The 10-day festival of Hinduism's 'remover of all obstacles,' Ganesh Chaturthi.

BY: Arun Venugopal


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Penitent and seeking domestic damage control, Shiva sent his attendants out in search of a replacement head, which they took from an elephant. Ganesh's life was renewed, as was Shiva and Parvati's marriage.

References to Ganesh can be found in the most ancient Hindu scriptures, but "the belief in Ganesh increased in particular in the fifth century, and in the eighth and ninth centuries spread through Southeast Asia," said Vasudha Narayanan, a professor of Hinduism at the University of Florida and the president-elect of the American Academy of Religion.

In time, Ganesh became one of the most popular deities in the Hindu pantheon.

"It's easy for people to understand the concept of Ganesh," said Arumugaswami. "It's a god who inspires fondness so easily. Strange as it may seem, my experience is that Americans relate more easily to Ganesh. Everybody loves an elephant."

Nonetheless, it's also easy for people to get the basics wrong.

"First of all, Hindus worship one God," said Rao, "and that one God is infinite, with infinite qualities and infinite names. But some people think Hindus worship many gods. When we worship Ganesh, we worship only one God. No Hindu says Ishwara (God) is two."

In America, celebrations have been occurring in Hindu enclaves across the country. On the opening day of the festival at the Hindu Temple Society of North America in New York, hundreds of devotees watched as the Ganesh idol was hefted into the air by eight men and paraded outside. As the bearers approached a low overhang, the priest commanded like a drill sergeant, "Downnn!"

And in New Jersey, Tirupathi Srinivasan Devanathan carried out his first Ganesh puja on his own, molding a small lump of sandalwood paste into a makeshift idol, inverting the emptied half-rind of a lemon into an oil lamp.

It had been less than a year since the computer programmer had arrived from Chennai, in South India, and the experience was bittersweet.

"I felt quite sad that I was not with my family in India," he said. "But I had to perform my duty."

The relationship that followers have with Ganesh is clearly an intimate one, and is felt most strongly at the end of the festival. The idol has been immersed and the house feels strangely empty.

"You come home and you feel sad," said Menon, recalling past festivals. "You feel like you've lost somebody."

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