Reprinted with permission of Hinduism Today.

In December 1997, I found myself in Sri Lanka at Mihintale, a site of immense importance to Sri Lankan Buddhism. Wandering near the principle Dagoba, I saw a simple hand-painted sign, pointing down hill behind the main site, which said "Lord Ganesha Grotto." Despite the fact that I had considered myself a militant atheist for years, I had always had a fascination with Ganesha, the Hindu God whose lovable elephant's head was perched improbably upon a corpulent human body.

When I entered the grotto and saw the icon, I became, for a brief moment, both fully conscious and completely unconscious. It was like being struck by lightning, only completely positive. I do not know how long I spent in that grotto; I only know that I stumbled my way back up the path and tried, grinning, to explain what I had experienced to my wife. I had found my chosen Deity. I resolved that, upon my return to Europe, I would pursue every piece of information I could about Ganesha and bring Him more meaningfully into my life.

The first major publication I obtained was Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami's "Loving Ganesha." I read and re-read this seminal book countless times. I further developed a considerable library of "Ganapati-alia" and studied many of the major scriptures of Hinduism. I immersed myself not only in the God who revealed Himself to me in that mountain cave in central Sri Lanka, but extended my study to take in Hinduism in general.

It soon became obvious that reading alone was not going to enhance an increasingly spiritual approach to life. All the major Ganesha literature spoke of the Ashtavinayaka Yatra, the holiest Ganesha pilgrimage in all of Hinduism. I fully resolved to undertake this pilgrimage.

Ashtavinayaka Yatra is Sanskrit for "Eight Vinayaka (i.e., Ganesha) Pilgrimage." It consists of visiting eight temples surrounding Pune, in western India, not far from Mumbai. Even with a car, it requires two or three days of gruelling travel over about 1,000 kilometers to reach the eight villages of Morgaon, Siddhatek, Theur, Lenyadri, Ozar, Ranjangoan, Mahad and Pali. All of the icons at these temples--except one--are swayambhu, or "self-emanating," murti. That is, these murtis were all discovered naturally in the form of Ganesha and were not the product of a sculptor's work. It is a difficult pilgrimage but, beyond the normal hazards of local traffic, lacks the dangers of high Himalayan ventures.

In December 2000, my wife and I set off at 7:00 am from Pune. This Maharashtran city is centrally located to all the eight temples, and is one of the launching points for the pilgrimage. As with the famed six-temple pilgrimage for Lord Murugan in South India, there is a traditional order, though few follow it, as it means backtracking. We did as most pilgrims do, and after three hours of rough roads arrived at Sri Oreshwar, which is the first temple of the traditional order.

It is considered the holiest and most awakened of the Ashtavinayaka temples. The swayambhu murti is lovely, in a sitting posture, facing east with a trunk turning left. Diamonds have been embedded in its eyes and navel. As with all the Deities of this pilgrimage, it is covered in a thick coating of sandalwood paste which is re-applied several times a day. This builds up over time and then cracks open every century or so--reportedly last in 1788 and 1872--revealing the much smaller, perfectly formed swayambhu murti underneath. The anointing with sandalwood paste then starts all over again. I offered prayers to Lord Ganesha, circumambulated the sanctum and broke a coconut, the traditional offering. By comparison to South Indian temples, all those we encountered on the pilgrimage were relatively modest, and this one was vaguely reminiscent of Mogul architecture.

Several more hours on country roads brought us to the banks of the Bhima River, whence we were to board a boat to the opposite shore to reach the village of Siddhatek and the Sri Siddhivinayaka Temple, second in the customary order. You can drive all the way to the temple, but the boat trip is a time-saving, if harrowing, shortcut. The boat was filled with people, animals and motorbikes. If we had been any lower in the water, well, we would have been in the water. But this was business-as-usual and the competent oarsman rowed us across safely.

The small temple is a short walk up a hill. The Ganesha here has His trunk turned to the right, a feature calling for extra care in worship, and as such, this is the one Ashtavinayaka temple where individuals cannot perform their own pujas. Circumambulation was possible, but I wasn't prepared for a three-mile walk barefoot around the hill. Blessed by Sri Siddhivinayaka, our trip back across the river was uneventful, even though our boat was even more packed.

Our third stop--and the last of this first day--was the closest of the Ashtavinayakas to Pune, Sri Chintamani at Theur, the fifth temple. Ganesha here is heart-shaped, and decorated with diamonds in His eyes and navel. Chintamani means "Jewel of Consciousness," and worship of Him is said to free one from all worries and calamities. Indeed, one night, not long thereafter, my wife Monica muttered in her sleep, "Chintamani is the pilot." When she awoke I asked her what she had been dreaming. She couldn't remember, but it seemed so appropriate that this beautiful representation of Sri Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and worries, should be the pilot of one's destiny. "Chintamani is the pilot" became the catch-phrase of our journey thereafter.