Ganesha: the Auspicious…the Beginning
The book, Ganesha: the Auspicious…the Beginning, written by Shakunthala Jagannathan, who passed away in 2000, and her daughter, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, is about the elephant-headed God, Ganesha, who is beloved by all Hindus.
In general, a prayer to Ganesha preceeds all occasions of Hindu worship and all events of any importance, such as the dedication of a building or a new business.
Ganesha is jovial, kind, and good-natured – he brings success and good fortune to all endeavors. Like the elephant who makes a way through the dense jungle so that other animals can follow, Ganesha overcomes all obstacles, he finds a way where there seems to be no possible way. He is the very essence of positivity and possibility.
One of the sects of Hinduism, the Ganapatya sect, worships Ganesha as the ultimate form of God, as Brahman, who is the ultimate reality, as the One Truth, who is Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva – the One from whom the entire universe was born.
Because, with the proportions of an elephant, he is very big, he contains within him the entire cosmos and all that exists.
A more widely held perspective within Hinduism, however, places the triad of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva as being the three primary Gods who were present at the beginning, with Brahma having been given the task of creating the universe. From this viewpoint, Ganesha is the son of Shiva and his consort, Parvati.
There is no conflict though between these two views. Hinduism has a way of reconciling and including many divergent ways of seeing things. It is rather like the old parable of nine blind men describing the elephant – one who has felt the elephant’s legs says he is like four pillars, one who has felt the trunk says he is long and tubular, one who has felt only the tusks says he is sharp, curved, and pointed, and so on. No one is right or wrong – all are describing reality as they perceive it. Since reality is vast and infinite beyond our imagining, all the different stories that are part of the Hindu tradition serve as ways to add to one’s understanding.
Ganesha is the sacred syllable Om, the first sound and the first word, from which all created things spring forth. Ganesha appears at dawn, in joy, dancing in the first light. The mystic syllable Om encompasses the entire universe, extending beyond the boundaries of time and space, and this is the reason it is spoken at the beginning and end of meditation or prayer.
The book, Ganesha: The Auspicious…The Beginning is a profound and delightful book, which gives one an insight into the nature of this wonderful God, Ganesha, who brings peace, calm, knowledge, freedom from burdens, and success – who is at once infinitely complex and beautifully simple.
Image: “This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.” From a painting done around 1800 by an unknown artist. / Wikimedia Commons / “The five prime deities of Smartas in a Ganesha-centric Panchayatana: Ganesha (centre) with Shiva (top left), Devi or Durga (top right), Vishnu (bottom left) and Surya (bottom right).”
To see Ganesha: The Auspicisous…the Beginning on Amazon, click here.
© Sharon St Joan, 2014
Ganesha: The Auspicious…The Beginning
Review by Sharon St Joan
The book Ganesha, The Auspicious…The Beginning, written by Shakunthala Jagannathan and her daughter Nanditha Krishna, opens with a scene of cosmic dimensions – cosmic, infinite, and yet profoundly charming and down-to-earth.
It seems that among the world’s faiths, only Hinduism can span the farthest reaches of the universe while remaining close to home and endearing, all at the same time.
The book opens with the long, long night of Brahma. The previous world has ended, in an event of great destruction, and Lord Brahma has been sleeping. There was total darkness and infinite, undisturbed peace.
Then, with a faint rustling, the beginning of a new dawn arrived. In the Hindu way of thought, creation is eternal and time is cyclical; every ending is followed by a new beginning.
Through the peace of the night, suddenly there emerged a sound — an immense, beautiful cosmic sound, followed by a soft, gentle light. The sound was the single syllable OM, which is itself the holy presence of the Great God.
The Great God called a meeting with the three Gods of the Hindu Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, and he appointed Brahma to be the creator of the new world. However, Brahma was confused and did not know how to go about such a monumental task. He meditated on the Great God, in the form of OM. Out of the sound of the syllable OM, the Great God brought forth the four Vedas, the four early sacred texts of the Hindu faith. Brahma, receiving the knowledge contained in these great books, was then empowered to create the present world in which we live, and many other worlds besides.
Those who especially worship Ganesha believe that it is the God Ganesha who is the embodiment of the syllable OM. He is the first Word and the first Cause. Ganesha is the much-beloved elephant-headed God, who brings good fortune, success, a happy, blessed life, and who overcomes all obstacles.
As the first light of the New Age began to shine, Ganesha appeared against the horizon, blowing on his conch the powerful sound of OM, and dancing a wild, joyful dance in celebration of the new dawn. Then Ganesha explained to the three assembled Gods that he was the Universe itself. They understood that they must first meditate on Ganesha before praying to any other deities, and this practice is still followed today by the faithful.
The three Gods then sang praises to Ganesha as the Ultimate Reality, who is Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva – and who is the Supreme and Eternal Brahman. Then the present universe dawned.
This book about Ganesha gives a beautiful, enlightening, and inspiring view of this delightful God, who is adored throughout India, in all regions and among people of all backgrounds.
Shakunthala Jagannathan was born on January 11, 1927 and passed away in 2000.
As Deputy Director General and Regional Director of the Department of Tourism, she extended to India’s visitors and tourists the same warm and welcoming atmosphere for which she was so well known to her friends and family. Her writing also exemplifies a kind and loving presence, as well as a deep, spiritual understanding.
Nanditha Krishna, her daughter and an art historian, has written a great many books and articles about India’s art, culture, and society. As Director of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, she has set up the C.P. Art Centre, the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Institute of Indological Research, the Saraswathi Kendra Centre for children, the Grove School, the CPR Environmental Education Centre, as well as being involved in the governance of several other schools and institutions. For more complete information, please visit http://www.nandithakrishna.in/
Ganesha The Auspicious…The Beginning is available on Amazon. Click here.
Top photo: Wikimedia Commons / Original uploader was Buddhipriya at en.wikipedia. / Four-armed Gaṇeśa. Miniature of Nurpur school, circa 1810. Museum of Chandigarh. / “This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.” / http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ganesha_Nurpur_miniature_circa_1810_Dubost_p64.jpg
Second photo: Photographer: Quadell / “Seated Ganesha 12th-13th century Hoysala dynasty Chloritic schist H: 88.6 W: 53.7 D: 33.7 cm Halebid, Karnataka, India. This sculpture displays the ornate carving and exuberant decoration characteristic of art created under the Hoysala dynasty (1042–1346).”
Making his way among the rained-on, green leaves and brush, the great elephant walks through the forest, clearing a path for all the other forest animals as he goes. He pushes aside obstacles with ease. A being of immense power and strength, he never uses force to oppress others. Indeed, he is kind and beneficent, a protective power. Among the gentlest and wisest of beings, he is a vegetarian, though it must be admitted that he does gobble down a huge quantity of plants – sometimes nearly half a ton each day.
Ganesha, the beloved and most popular God of the Hindu people, is an elephant God, with an elephant’s head.
There are many variations of stories told to explain how Ganesha has the head of an elephant – some of the stories are a bit bizarre and depict other Gods behaving rather badly – chopping off Ganesha’s head when he was a young boy, and then finding another one to replace it. However, they are allegories, not meant to be taken literally, and they reflect deeper cosmic realities.
In whatever way Ganesha obtained it, his new head worked out really well, and he couldn’t have asked for a more propitious head. It was endowed with the wonderful natural qualities of the elephant – gentleness and strength, great wisdom and intelligence, a keen enjoyment of life, along with overflowing generosity that bestows good fortune, peace, blessings, and success on all who seek his help.
His huge elephant ears signify his willingness to listen to all those seeking his help.
All Hindu prayers begin with an invocation to Ganesha, who is never too far away and is always within reach of the person who prays.
The celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi, which marks the birth or re-birth of Ganesha, lasts for several days and takes place during the lunar month of Bhadrapada (mid-August to mid-September). In 2013 the celebration runs from September 9 through September 18.
Traditionally, as part of the festival, large clay statues of Ganesha were made out of mud or clay, carried through the streets and then ritually immersed in bodies of water. In recent years however, the practice grew up of making these statues out of plaster of Paris, a harmful substance that pollutes streams and lakes. Now there are efforts to return to the original practice of using natural clay instead, which does not harm the environment or the birds, animals, and fish in the water.
Sadly, over time, people have tended to forget that wild animals, including elephants, should not be taken out of the wild, where they are meant to be and where they are happiest. Today there are elephants kept captive in many temples in India. Worshippers who pass by ask blessings of the temple elephant, never thinking that it is uncomfortable for her to be standing on the hard pavement hour after hour.
In honor of Ganesha, it is to be hoped that soon temples can set aside some acres of land, covered in grass and trees, with a pond – to be a sanctuary for elephants. Though these sanctuaries wouldn’t be the same as being in the wild, they would nonetheless offer a comfortable shady spot, a quiet place for the elephant and her elephant friends to rest and be at peace, where they can still bless devotees from a distance. Their blessings, given from a place of comfort, will no doubt be all the more effective and auspicious.
Ganesha is not only a God of great power, he is also warm, jovial, and friendly. He is the God of knowledge, well-being, and success — in short, of positivity. Depicted as a plump, rather roly-poly being who loves life; he is often shown playing the flute or dancing. In Hindu homes and temples, he graces people’s lives with his presence. The vehicle that he rides on is an animal without pretentions of grandeur — his vahana is a simple mouse.
Early on, around two thousand years ago, the worship of Ganesha spread from Hinduism to Jainism and to Buddhism. When Buddhism was carried from India by missionaries, worship of Ganesha took hold in Japan, Tibet, China, and throughout southeast Asia.
According to a system of worship formalized by the saint Adi Shankar, in the eighth century CE, Ganesha is one of the five primary deities of Hinduism. The others are Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, and Surya. There are many thousands more deities too, and each one may have thousands of names, so it is quite complicated.
Ganesha’s elephant head symbolizes the soul, while his human body signifies the earthly existence of human beings. His trunk represents the syllable om, the eternal sound of cosmic reality.
Ganesha is a scribe, and he wrote down the whole epic poem, the Mahabharata, as it was being dictated to him by the sage Vyasa. It is 18 volumes long, so it took a lot of writing. Ganesha was using a quill pen, but at one point it broke. He didn’t want to stop, so he broke off one of his own tusks to use as a pen, so he could continue to write. Now he is always shown with only one complete tusk, and the other one is broken. His one tusk has another meaning too. It stands for Advaita Vedanta, which is the predominant, non-dualistic form of Hinduism. It recognizes the soul and all beings as being part of God and returning to God. In other words, there is One Eternal Power in the universe, not two competing ones. Evil does exist, but it is not permanent and has no ultimate reality.
Many volumes have been written, and many more could be written, about the beloved Ganesha. So this is only the briefest of introductions.
In prayers and rituals, Ganesha is addressed first before other Gods because he opens the way for the soul on its journey towards the divine; he provides the bridge between earth and heaven – and also the pathway from heaven to earth, by which blessings descend.
Ganesha: The Auspicious…The Beginning by Nanditha Krishna and Shakunthala Jagannathan To view this book on Amazon.com, click here.
Sacred Animals of India by Nanditha Krishna To view this book on Amazon.com, click here.
Top photo: Author: Quadell / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / “Seated Ganesha 12th-13th century Hoysala dynasty Chloritic schist, Halebid, Karnataka, India This sculpture displays the ornate carving and exuberant decoration characteristic of art created under the Hoysala dynasty (1042–1346). The decorated floral arch surrounding the sculpture suggests that it once occupied a cell or niche in a temple. Housed in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.”
Second photo: Sharon St Joan / Elephant on the wall “Descent of the Ganges” at Mahabalipuram
Third photo: Sharon St Joan / On the first day of the holiday Ganesh Chaturthi in 2010, these elephants lined up on the river that runs through Samburu in Kenya, as if to wish Ganesha Happy Birthday.
Fourth photo: Wikimedia Commons / “This image… is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to Australia, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years…You must also include a United States public domain tag to indicate why this work is in the public domain in the United States.”/ “Basohli miniature, circa 1730. National Museum, New Delhi” / “Original uploader was Buddhipriya at en.wikipedia” / “Ganesha getting ready to throw his lotus.”
Elephants celebrate Ganesha’s birthday.
Lord Ganesha, big-bodied, with a curved trunk, and the brilliance of a million suns, remove all obstacles from all my endeavors, always.
Dr. Nanditha Krishna has written the Sanskrit words, at my request, and explained them, on the occasion of Ganesha’s birthday.
Ganesha, the elephant God, is a being much loved in India. He is the bestower of knowledge, wealth, good fortune, and as mentioned in the prayer above, he removes all obstacles.
Ganesha removes all obstacles just as the elephant himself does in the forest. He clears the way for other animals. He even digs water holes, into which the rain can collect so that all the animals can have water to drink. He is kind and beneficent, and, as we all know, a highly intelligent and sensitive being too.
Normally, all Hindu prayers and rituals, begin with a prayer to Ganesha.
Ganesha Chaturthi is a ten-day festival that falls between August 20 and September 22, culminating on the fourteenth day of the waxing moon. Chaturthi means fourteen.
In the Samburu National Park, in Kenya, where several of us were traveling after attending the Africa Animal Welfare Action Conference in Nairobi, I had no knowledge of this festival, until I first heard of it on Saturday, September 11.
On a drive through the park — they are called “game drives” (though that seems an unfortunate name since it reminds one of hunting and doesn’t seem like a respectful way to refer to animals) – we came again, as we had the day before—to the beautiful river that runs along Samburu –the Ewaso Ng’iro. The name of the river can be spelled in a number of different ways; it means muddy water, and is a good-sized river for this arid area, providing all the birds and animals with water.
There are many bushes and acacia trees here, some with weaver birds’ nests dangling from them, some covered in vines, some with just the skeletons of tall branches or trunks reaching up to the sky. The foot-high grass in between the trees is yellow, and it seems to rain rarely, so the river is essential, originating on the heights of Mt. Kenya which, at 17,000 feet high, is the second tallest mountain in Africa (after Mt. Kilimanjaro).
Kenya takes its name from Mt. Kenya. Located in the center of Kenya, it is covered in glaciers and provides water for the entire area. From the road to Samburu, it can be seen in the distance, encircled in clouds.
The Ewaso Ng’iro river is perhaps 100 feet wide, with a swift current. It appears shallow, but really there is no way to tell. There are crocodiles, and the first day, we watched two Marabou Storks chasing one of the crocodiles from the bank into the water. Obviously, they didn’t like him much.
The first day also, we watched a whole parade of elephants making their way down to the river, including some young males that seemed to spend most of their time fighting or playing (or both at the same time) with each other. There were baby elephants too, who were adorable.
They paused before going down to the water’s edge, and it seemed that the matriarch elephant had sensed some sort of danger, because there was a bit of a delay. Then the coast was clear, and they all trooped down to the water.
The next day, on the morning of Ganesha Chaturthi, as we drove down near the river, there across the water on the other side, we were greeted by a most amazing sight. 27 elephants, all ages and sizes were lined up in a row on the opposite bank, with just their toes in the water, all exactly in a row, facing pretty much straight ahead—though one little baby was facing in the opposite direction.
Clearly, this was a special, formal occasion for the elephants, and we concluded that they must have been lined up to celebrate Ganesha Chaturthi!
Though these are African, not Asian elephants (there are some differences—African elephants ears are huge and tend to go out sideways from their head–also both the males and females have tusks in Africa), still an elephant is an elephant, whether African or Asian. Clearly, all have an affinity with Ganesha.
Dr. Nanditha Krishna, an authority and an author who has written many books on Indian culture and tradition, tells us that on this festival, traditionally, Indian people make a statue of wet clay of Ganesha, using two bright red seeds to make his eyes.
Ganesha is a God who is much loved. The elephants are remarkable, and in this land, in Africa, so far removed from the hustles of modern civilization, they seem to have a profound connection with the peace and innocence of the original earth.
Photos: Sharon St Joan
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