Significance of the festival
Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated to mark the day when Lord Ganesha comes down to earth to give blessings to his devotees. This is a 10-day festival that commences on the Shukla Paksha Chaturthi of Bhaadrapada month. This festival is also known as Vinayaka Chaturthi.
Devotees install Lord Ganesha’s murtis in their homes or in mandirs or public pandals. This is called Ganapati Sthapana. Prayers are offered to Lord Ganesha every day of the festival. Finally, on the eleventh day, devotees take Lord Ganesha on a procession accompanied by dancing, singing and fanfare. Lord Ganesha’s murti is immersed in a body of water (pond, river or ocean). This ritual is called visarjan.
The main sweet dish during the festival is the modak which is a dumpling made from rice flour/wheat flour and stuffed with fresh or dry grated coconut, jaggery and dry fruits.
Lord Ganesha is the remover of obstacles and the God of good fortune. Devotees worship Lord Ganesha at the beginning of any prayer and auspicious occasion. Lord Ganesha is one of the most popular Gods and can be traced historically to the Rigveda. This festival of Lord Ganesha is celebrated all over India with pomp and fervor. Even though this is a religious festival, it is also one that binds the entire community irrespective of religious beliefs. Indian freedom fighter and social reformer Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak popularized this festival in order to bind the community and oppose the British government. This festival is most popular in Mumbai where it is reported that over 150,000 murtis of Lord Ganesha are immersed annually.
शुक्लाम्बरधरं विष्णुं शशिवर्णं चतुर्भुजम् ।
प्रसन्नवदनं ध्यायेत् सर्वविघ्नोपशान्तये ॥
Shuklaambara Dharam Vishnum
Shashi Varnam Chatur Bhujam
Prasanna Vadanam Dhyaayet
Sarva Vighna Upashaanthaye
Meaning: We meditate on Lord Ganesha - who is clad in white (representing purity), who is all pervading (present everywhere), whose complexion is gray like that of ash (glowing with spiritual splendor), who has four arms, who has bright countenance (depicting inner calm and happiness) and who can destroy all obstacles (in our spiritual and worldly path).
Why the cycle of Ganesh Sthapana and Visarjan
Traditionally, the idol was sculpted out of mud taken from nearby one’s home. After the festival, it was returned to the Earth by immersing it in a nearby water body.
This cycle was meant to represent the cycle of creation and dissolution in Nature. The ritual signifies that no one should get attached to any person or thing. Clinging even to Gods is inappropriate and with this sense of detachment the ritual of Ganesh Visarjan is performed.
Hindus believe in becoming one with the universal soul. The problem arises when they are unable to worship the ‘formlessness’ of this cosmic spirit. To overcome this obstacle, idols are made of clay and water to give a physical entity to the Gods.
When these clay idols of Ganesh are lowered into any water body, slowly the mud dissolves and blends with water, thus becoming one with the components of the universe. Similarly, our body, which is made up of five elements, has to return back to its source. The body perishes, only the soul stays eternal. This is supposed to be a cosmic law that nothing and no one can surpass.
This ritual reveals the ultimate truth that everything in this universe is in a constant state of change. Anything that has taken form will become formless again. No physical element sustains forever, not even the images/idols of Ganesh.
Submergence of Ganesh is also a way of understanding that God is omnipresent and omnipotent. He stays with us throughout our lives and no temple or pandal is his permanent abode. Even though the physical form of Ganesh perishes, his presence can be felt always. He belongs to your soul and nothing can keep Him apart from his devotees if their belief is strong and unshakable.
With this belief, followers of Ganesh hope for Him to return to their homes every year recurrently, bringing peace and prosperity. Ganesh is also known as vighnaharta, one who is the vanquisher of obstacles. When Ganesh proceeds towards his abode Mount Kailash, he takes away your sins, diseases, troubles, and sorrows and replaces them with happiness, health and enlightenment. Not only physical but spiritual barriers are destroyed too. After the procession, you feel spiritually awakened and enlightened. The old mutilated self is dispelled, thus embarking on a new journey of purity and righteousness.