Beliefnet News

By Ansley Roan
Religion News Service

Each morning when she wakes up in her home in Jacksonville, Fla., Davel Patel begins her day with a puja, or worship ceremony, to the Hindu deity Ganesh.
This Saturday (Sept. 15), she will begin her day in exactly the same way. Then she’ll begin a one-day fast to mark Ganesh Chaturthi, a holiday known as the birthday of one of the most popular deities in the Hindu tradition.
Although it’s not familiar to many Americans, a growing number of Hindus in the U.S. participate in the celebrations to honor Ganesh — also called Ganesha or Ganapathi — who is usually depicted with a human body and the head of an elephant.
Patel and her family will be one of many to visit a temple to honor Ganesh. Representatives from two of the U.S. temples where Ganesh is the presiding or primary deity say the numbers attending the celebrations are rising.
At the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan, Utah, 50 people attended the first Ganesh Chaturthi celebration in 1995; about 500 are expected this year. At the Hindu Temple Society of North America in Queens, N.Y., which was built in 1977, the festival has grown from three days to nine to accommodate all the worshippers.
The numbers are not surprising, said Deepak Sarma, an associate professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
“There are lots of different sects in Hinduism,” he said. “Ganesh overlaps with all of them. Everybody likes Ganesh.”
Observances vary widely according to regional or family traditions.
Celebrations can last for one day or several, and they may start before and continue after Sept. 15. There are some common elements to the celebrations.
“One way to consider Hindu worship is, they worship deities as revered guests, almost royalty,” Sarma said. “If you were to have royalty in your house, you’d offer them something nice to eat. Hindus do those sorts of things when they worship. They’ll offer sweets, because Ganesh is notorious for eating lots of sweets. They’ll burn incense and sing songs of praise.”
Patel, from Florida, incorporates many of those elements in her holiday observances, along with the fasting, which is less common and more of a regional tradition.
“Personally, I have a firm faith in Lord Ganesha, and it’s my day to remember all the blessings that I’ve had from him thus far,” Patel said.
“The fasting is a more of cleansing of my body and thoughts and any bad karma, so I can continue to receive Lord Ganesha’s blessings.”
In the evening, she and her family will gather in front of the 5-inch statue of Ganesh they have at home. They’ll bathe the image in water, then in milk.
They’ll offer flowers and special sweets, and light candles. Once the moon rises, they’ll break the fast first with the sweet, then with a celebratory family meal. Then, they will visit their local temple.
While there are different sects and types of observances, the temples in New York and Utah share an aspect of the celebration. In the weeks before the holiday, the priests make a clay image of Ganesh.
“In Hinduism there’s usually an established temple image, often made of stone, occasionally of metal,” said Timothy Lubin, associate professor of religion at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.
“There are also images that are used at home or in businesses. This particular holiday is unusual in that special, very colorful images made of unfired clay are produced.”
In Mumbai, India (formerly known as Bombay), these clay images may be as tall as 20 feet high; in the U.S., they’re more likely to be about
2 feet high. The priests invite the deity to inhabit the temporary image.
“When the clay Ganesh is made, priests will be chanting some ceremonies to instill life into it, to sanctify it,” said Uma Mysorekar, president of the Queens temple. “You invoke Lord Ganehsa into it.”
Just as Patel made offerings to the deity at her home, temple visitors make offerings, adorn images of Ganesh, and they pray and chant. At the Queens temple, devotees chant a special mantra to Ganesh more than 400,000 times during the festival.
“Each time we do that, we are invoking the Lord Ganesha, asking for his grace for us and for the world,” Mysorekar said.
When the celebrations end, believers carry the clay image in a joyful procession to a nearby body of water and leave it there to dissolve.
“At the time of the immersion, we pray, asking the Lord to give us blessing and to come back next year to be with us,” Mysorekar said.
There are different interpretations of leaving the image in the water. Some point to water as a symbol of purity. Others say it’s a reminder that the material is temporary, and the divine is transcendent.
“Some say water pervades the universe and Ganesh will pervade the universe,” said Sarma.
Just as there are different ways of celebrating and different interpretations of the rituals, there are multiple aspects to this holiday.
“It’s a colorful festival, a joyous festival,” Mysorekar said. “One side is all enjoyment. The other side is all spirituality and sanctity.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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