To Ganesha, the Great One, who has always been there
A young girl stands at a temple, eyes flooded with tears, heart pounding, screaming for her life. She refuses to be moved by her widowed mother, who out of utter hopelessness drags the young girl and her siblings towards the sea to end their lives. The father, in the throes of a financial crisis, has recently shot himself and abandoned his wife and six children to the mercy of ruthless people. The temple before which the little girl stands is a shrine to the elephant God Vinayagar (commonly called Ganesha). Hoping desperately that her mother will stop, hoping that something somewhere will save them, she refuses to budge. And then, as if the madness of despair was cast out of her mind, the widow turns around and boldly takes up the task of raising her family in the midst of a pitiless world.The elephant God Vinayagar has once more manifested his grace -he has heard the cry of a young helpless child seeking refuge at his shrine and has given life in the face of death… and in doing so, he has saved ME - for that young girl was my beloved grandmother, Shunmugavalli.
Before any representation of God held sway over my religious mind, indeed from the earliest moments that I can remember, it was this image of the elephant headed God with a human body, a huge belly and four arms that captured my love and attention. Still in my possession is a toy elephant from a zoo set I had as a child - on it is a faded bottu (a red dot on the centre of the forehead) that my grandmother placed on it, so that I would have my very own version of Ganesha to play with. While the image of Ganesha may seem strange to foreign eyes, for most Indian children brought up in a Hindu home, Ganesha is one of those images that grows on you and becomes a natural part of your religious worldview. He is the adorable, approachable, huggable God in whose presence you feel a profound sense of comfort and protection.
Here in Thiruvannamalai there are numerous shrines to Ganesha on the Girivalam road (the circumambulation path around Arunachala). At one point the mountain even gives the impression of the side-view of an elephant. My favourites which I visit regularly are the big orange Ganesha in the Arunachaleshwara temple and a smaller black granite one in the Mother’s shrine in Ramana ashram. And of course seeing the temple elephant also brings special delight to me - particularly moving is when this great beast bows before the statue of Ganesha, lifts her trunk up, and trumpets in salutation of the God who bears her resemblance.
A CHRISTIAN DEVOTEE OF GANESHA
So how do I reconcile my faith in Christ with my love for Ganesha? Well, firstly we must understand the value of symbolic language. The Divine Being is beyond any word and form that we attribute to him/her. All religions have symbolic language which the ancient seers and mystics used to convey divine truth. For example, the four living creatures before the throne of God in the Bible (Revelation 4:6-8) - one with the face of a lion, one with the face of a bull etc... are conveying divine truth in symbolic language. When we dig behind the images and the myths surrounding them, we will often find that the essence of the various religious stories and symbols are conveying the same divine truth.
“Ekam sat viprah bahudha vadanti” – “The wise call the One Truth by many names” (The Rig Veda).
Religious stories and images are signposts pointing to Ultimate Reality which is beyond any word or image. One of the beautiful rituals during Ganesha Chaturthi (the main annual festival of Ganesha) is the worship of dissolvable statues of the deity which are eventually immersed in water. This symbolically conveys the point – although we may visualise God in many forms and concepts - he remains ‘formless’ and beyond anything we can imagine.
The Christian saint, Gregory of Nazianzen, in his ‘Hymn to God’ sings:
“You who are beyond, beyond all - what other name befits you? What ode could sing your praise? – no words suffice to hymn you. Alone you are ineffable – of every voice you are the source. Alone you are unknowable… you are One, you are All, you are None… Bearer of all names how shall I name you – You alone the Unnameable?”
Most Hindus believe that there is only one God, and each characteristic of that Supreme Lord is represented by different images. So, for example, the wisdom of God is represented visually as a beautiful woman seated by a river playing a musical instrument, holding the sacred scriptures and meditation beads; or God’s providence is represented in a mother figure from whose hands flow money and rice in abundance. And when we think of God as the Strong One who removes our obstacles we naturally imagine him as a powerful Elephant-God.
THE INNER MEANING OF GANESHA
In many Hindu texts Ganesha is referred to as the firstborn son of God (Siva) and his name literally means “Lord of hosts” – leader of Siva’s attendants. In this way he bears a striking resemblance to Jesus who is also referred to as the firstborn son of God and leader of the heavenly armies.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (The Bible: Colossians 1:15).
“And the armies of heaven… were following him on white horses.” (The Bible: Revelation 19:14).
Ganesha’s elephant head is symbolic of superior wisdom, his four hands symbolic of Omnipotence, and his huge belly a reminder that all things are contained within God.
One of Ganesha’s tusks is broken, showing God's willingness to sacrifice off himself to save us and also emphasising the importance of sacrificial acts of love on the path of spirituality.
The pasa (rope) that Ganesha holds shows that the bonds that prevent our liberation can only be broken through the grace of God...
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (The Bible: Ephesians 2:8).
“O Arunachala, unless you extend your hand of grace in mercy and embrace me, I am lost” (Sri Arunachala Akshara Mana Malai).
In his other hand Ganesha carries an ankusha - an instrument used to tame and control elephants - reminding us that God allows painful situations in our lives for our own development.
“What you endure is for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as his children. Is there a son whom his father does not discipline?” (The Bible: Hebrews 12:7).
“O Arunachala tear of these robes, expose me naked, and then robe me with your love.” (Sri Arunachala Akshara Mana Malai).
Sometimes Ganesha is also shown holding a lotus and sweets, for God is constantly inviting us to share in the beauty and sweetness of a God-conscious life.
Ironically, Ganesha has a rat as his vehicle. The rat may symbolise the greed of the human-ego in this context. It is a reminder that the Infinite mystery of Divinity resides in the depths of the human heart even in spite of the greedy-ego.
“O boundless ocean of Grace and effulgence called Arunachala dancing motionless within the court of my heart”
(Sri Arunachala Ashtakam).
So, as the great festival of Ganesha approaches, I wish all those who will be celebrating, a blessed Ganesha Chaturthi.
Om Gam Ganapathye Namah
Salutations to the Lord of hosts, remover of obstacles.
Om Shri Sat Guruve Yeshu Namah
Salutations to the Guru of Truth, Lord Jesus.
Om Nama Sivaya Arunachala Siva
Salutations to the immovable light of the Supreme Siva.
With much love,