Today I would narrate the story of my first and only Ganesh Chaturthi festival, in 2003. This festival is not celebrated in the part of the country where I live. In our customs, we celebrate the Ganesh Chaturthi that falls in the Kartik month. So it was out of added curiosity and interest that I accepted the lady’s kind invitation for a community prayer and celebration of the festival. It was indeed a very colourful event as the devotees and participants came from different parts of the country who communicated with each other in Hindi, English and C. I found that the basic essentials of this festival were the same as the one we celebrate in Kartik month, except the immersion part. That means, there was the same story telling, same prayers, and same aarti.
On the first day, everything went well with all the rituals. Most of the participants were not familiar with the ceremony and eagerly waited for what would come next. Finally the time for aarti came. And with that the unforeseen problem. None of us knew the aarti! Some of us knew the prayer for Hanuman, some for Vishnu, some for Lakshmi. Yet, nobody seemed to be familiar with the prayer for Ganesh! OK, in childhood we used to start writing our exam papers with his name, but that were only three words! So we looked at our host with a guilty expression, and a question in our eyes – ‘Hey! You are supposed to know it, aren’t you?’
“Of course I know it”, she answered, “But in Telugu. I would prefer something so that everybody could participate in.”
And the argument stopped there. Then the hero stepped forward –
“I know an aarti, but in Marathi. That would be easier than Telugu. And it is very popular. I am sure everyone would be able to join in.”
Someone said, “Ya ya, Marathi is written in the same way as Hindi.”
Another passed on his own wisdom, “Its grammar is similar to Gujarati.”
The first one retorted, “That doesn’t make sense. But anyway who cares!”
So everyone agreed on this wonderful idea. It was settled that the hero would sing each verse and then everyone would repeat after him. Easier said than done! Those who were commenting on similarity between Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati languages were standing there with blank faces when the hero started singing in his sweet voice —
With a satisfied smile on his face, the hero continued singing. Soon the aarti went in full tempo with everyone’s participation. Did I say participation? Well, this is what we did –
ho ho ho ho Jai Dev Jai Dev
Well, the hero was very kind. Next day he brought printout of the aarti in English fonts so that those who were not familiar with Devnagari script could also join in. There were no further problems on the remaining days of the festival.
On the final day, our small group went to the Sabarmati river for the immersion ritual — shouting slogans, singing songs and prayers in Hindi, Telugu and Marathi.
As we reached the river, all of us stood at one side, and let the lady complete the final prayers and rituals. Then she called us to join her in the immersion ceremony. The hero looked a bit serious and hesistant. When he could not resist, he asked the lady if it was necessary to immerse flowers and garlands too. The lady immediately understood, shrugged her shoulders and said, “No, it’s the idol that is important.”
The hero gathered further courage and asked the most difficult question –
“Is immersion of the idol necessary?”
Now the lady was confused and looked at everybody else. It was certainly a big question and everybody had left the decision on her. She turned her head and continued with the rituals. The hero came back and everybody assembled around the lady with folded hands. When the rituals were complete, the lady collected all the flowers and garlands, and put all of them in a bag and handed it over to one of us. Accompanied with great cheers, the idol was immersed — she gently placed it in the waters, stayed there saying prayers for a couple of minutes, then took it out. Then she looked around and walked up to the bank, and placed it at a clean and dry place from where the municipal staff would collect it the next day. All the while she kept muttering something in a low voice — most probably some prayer to excuse any mistakes . . . We looked with surprise that her idol was not the only one sitting there; in fact, several other Ganesh idols already sat there with smiling faces and graceful gestures. Of course, we were not the first one to have thought on those lines, we were not the only one. And believe me, nothing bad happened to anyone of us, heavens did not break loose, the divine wrath did not destroy us. All of us are perfectly healthy and happy in our lives. The Lord understood us as He always does. You know, God is actually very kind — far more than we human beings.
It might appear as a small gesture and nothing extraordinary. What struck me as wonderful was that even in all that excitement, the hero did think of things that people usually take for granted. Secondly, and more importantly, he did not stop at the thought itself, instead he took the initiative and put forward the suggestion. Also noteworthy was the lady’s consent to the big change and adjustment. She displayed absolutely no rigidity in following the customs and tradition. Instead, she was quite flexible with her rituals and ceremonies. Absolutely nobody objected or protested. Nobody’s religious feelings were hurt, nobody’s culture came under threat. The suggestion was welcomed and immediately implemented.
So friends, there is always a middle path. Religious ceremonies need not be at the expense of environment. We can always find a harmonious and balanced approach. Couple of years ago, I read about green Ganesh in a Sanskrit magazine. The underlying idea was to remove the Plaster Of Paris content used in making idols and to use clay instead. This small change enormously reduces water pollution. That idea has already gained popularity and momentum.
Few years back Allahabad High Court had ordered construction of an artificial pond near Ganga for similar immersion ceremony at the end of Navaratri. The court decision was not implemented and was getting postponed year after year, partly because of protests and partly due to difficulty in implementation. Finally, everybody could see sense. and the order was followed. But you would agree that it was not necessary to involve the court in this small issue. Public could have acted on its own wisdom and conscience.
Time has passed, and a new generation has come up. These young boys and girls have been exposed to a global culture, specially due to rise of internet and the social media. They weigh, value and judge each event of their lives from a global perspective. Rituals and customs should make sense to them before they can follow. Youth forever have the courage to refuse to continue with tradition. There was a time in the 1990s when environmentalists, who had come to clean the Ganga, were pushed back by sadhus and babas who shouted – “It is not the Ganga that is polluted; it is your mind which is polluted.”
Now that I have mentioned the Ganga, I recall another small incident narrated by my mother. She had gone for a holy dip in the Ganga on the occasion of some Hindu festival. After taking her bath, she sat on the ghat, looking at the river and the people around her. It was then that her eyes fell on an extremely old woman walking slowly towards the river. When the woman reached the river, she removed the cloth bag from her shoulder and kept it on the bank. She washed her face, and joined her hands in prayer to the holy river. Then she bend and opened her bag. From that came out a broken photograph — photo of her deity with its glass frame broken. In Hindu customs, it is forbidden to offer prayers to broken idols, so the old woman wanted to immerse it in Ganga. My mother was shocked to see it – Glass?! She stood up to go to the woman and stop her. But what she witnessed filled her heart with respect and admiration for that old woman. The lady kept the photo on the ground, and collected all the glass pieces, put them back in the bag alongwith the frame, and floated the paper photo in the waters.
Mother was calm – “May be. But I was impressed by the concern she showed for other people and also for the river.”
“Yes, it might appear to be a small gesture, but very few people take trouble to do even this much. If only you had seen what we came across during this clean Ganga movement — human excreta, plastic bags, garbage dump, half-burned dead bodies. And see, when such is the sight in Haridwar, wonder what would be the condition in Allahabad, Benaras or beyond. Small gesture, yes, but it is such small gestures that must be encouraged and highlighted.”
Today we are standing at a very crucial juncture, and our response would decide the lives of our future generations. What is your response to it? In this and the coming festivals, would you be praying to the Divine to bestow riches upon you? But what have you done with the riches that were already given to you? Were you able to protect them and use them wisely? Your answer would show your love for the Divine and the Creation.
Also See: Ganesha idols to be immersed in artificial ponds, The Times of India (Kanpur edition), 19 August 2017.