The most beloved god in the Hindu pantheon is surely Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is the God of Auspicious Beginnings, the one whose presence assures the success of any venture. Whether it is the birth of a child, the opening of a new business or even the buying of a new car, nothing begins without the blessings of the Elephant-headed God. He is beloved by students too because a prayer to Him ensures better grades in an exam.
In 'Eternal Ganesha', a book devoted to this special deity, Gita Mehta writers, "He is regarded as the Origin of the Universe, the Lord of Connection, of Cause and Effect, the Moment of Creation. He’s really a metaphor for a philosophical quest, an eternal search."
So it is no surprise that Lord Ganesha's birthday is a time for great joy and celebration. Ganesh Chaturthi is the 9 day festival celebrating the birth of this joyful deity and is one of the most colorful Hindu festivals.
In India, after rituals, chanting and prayers, thousands of clay images of Ganesha are taken out in joyous processions in the streets before being immersed in the ocean in a rite called Visarjna. Now even in the US, in many cities, the images of Ganesha are finally immersed in bodies of water.
The Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam, also known as the Hindu Temple Society of North America, in Flushing, New York, is the oldest temple in America and one of the prime places to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi. According to the temple literature, "One of the main purposes of this celebration is to give an extra boost of divine šakti (energy) to the main vigraha of Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati. This is done mainly through japa (repetitive chanting of a mantra) and homam (fire worship) where the divine vibrations of the mantras are infused in the water kept in the kalašas, and this water is subsequently showered on Šri Ganesha's vigraha.
There are many rituals to be completed each day, each with its rationality. Understanding their rationale would give us an appreciation of the ideology of Sanãtana Dharma, popularly known as Hinduism, and the clairvoyance of the ancient sages. This could give us Hindu awareness which in turn would help us take pride in being a Hindu."
Dr. Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, notes that Ganesha is regarded as the Lord of the Universe, and some of the Puranas even say he is the one who created the Universe. She says, "The energy that emerges from worshipping the Lord is immeasurable and thousands come to absorb this energy. We are the beneficiaries of the continuous chanting and yagnas performed by the priests and the lord blesses the devotees and helps them to move forward in their lives and succeed. He is a combination of siddhi (success) and budhi (intellect) and so we all adore and worship Him, with the view of getting his wisdom and intellect, as well as his blessing.
Devotees deck themselves in their best clothes and laden with fruit and sweets, they set out for the nearest Hindu temple. Since Ganesha is the presiding deity at the temple in Flushing, the festival is observed on a grand scale with many prayers, chanting and rituals. During the nine days, devotees chant the Moola Mantram 400,000 times morning and evening, besides many other ceremonies and rituals. There are two special puja sessions where children participate in a special kids’ Ganesh puja.
Thousands of people turn up over the course of nine days at this temple, and each of them savor the blessed food. Over 50,000 lunches are prepared with two different kinds of rice and sweets, including modak, the favorite sweet of Lord Ganesha. This vast amount of food is provided from funds donated by devotees. There is a wonderful tale from the Mahabharata behind the importance and value of Annadanam (donation of food) and is mentioned in the temple publication:
"When Karna, who was known for his great generosity, ascended to heaven he was given gold and silver for all the charity he had done, but no food. When he prayed to the God of Death (Yamadharma) he was told that it was necessary to donate food which was the highest form of charity. Karna went back to earth and fed the poor, and offered them water (tharpanam). On his return to the higher world, he received plenty of food. Indeed, annandam is one of the highest forms of charity because by giving food to others, one is feeding none other than the Lord Himself, and receives His blessings."
On the 9th day, Lord Ganesha is bathed and decorated and readied for the ceremony. On the final day of the celebration He is taken on a special vehicle for a Ratha Yatra around the neighborhood, followed by drummers, devotees and many children, and along the route cold water, snacks and juice are distributed to the crowds.