Ganesh Chaturthi

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Ganesh Chaturthi (Ganesh Chathurthi)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: August-September; fourth day of the bright half of the Hindu month of Bhadrapada
Where Celebrated: India
Symbols and Customs: Elephant, Modakas, Moon, Mouse


Ganesh Chaturthi is a religious festival that is part of Hinduism, which many scholars regard as the oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent.

Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is Ganesh Chaturthi

detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

Ganesh Chaturthi celebrates the birthday of Ganesha, the eldest son of the gods Shiva and Parvati and one of the five major Hindu deities. With his pot belly and ELEPHANT head, Ganesha is the god who removes all obstacles in the paths of those struggling to achieve both spiritual and worldly success. Almost every Hindu home has Ganesha's image over the doorway, and he is worshipped at the beginning of every important undertaking, whether it is the building of a new house, the beginning of a marriage, or the opening of a new account book.

After taking a bath on the morning of Ganesha's birthday, devoted Hindus go to the temple and say prayers in his honor, accompanied by offerings of coconut and sweet pudding (see MODAKAS ). The worshippers ask Ganesha to help them overcome the obstacles they are likely to encounter on the road to spiritual wisdom. Beautifully decorated images of the god are carried through the streets and later immersed in the waters of the sea or a nearby river. MODAKAS or sweet-balls are served to everyone in the house.

Bombay is the center for Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, and thousands of images of the god are made and sold there. Small images are used in the home, but life-size ones are often set up on temporary altars in the streets. These images are worshipped for three days, at the end of which they are carried in procession to the nearest body of water. In some parts of India, Ganesha is the god of the harvest, and after the immersion ceremony is over, sand or clay from the riverbed is brought back to the farm and scattered around the barns and storerooms.



According to Hindu legend, Parvati created her son out of clay and oil, and posted him outside her door to prevent anyone from entering the house while she was taking her bath. When Shiva himself was not allowed to enter, he became so angry he shattered the boy's head. Parvati was inconsolable when she discovered what had happened to the son she had created. His head was broken in so many pieces that no one could find them all. To make amends, Shiva set out in search of a suitable replacement head and came back with the head of an elephant. To this day, Ganesha is known as "the elephant-headed god." Ganesha also represents Om, which is the chief mantra or chant-word among Hindus. The belief that nothing can be accomplished without uttering this sound explains why Ganesha is invoked before undertaking a project. The elephant head is significant because it is the only figure in nature that has the same form as the Sanskrit symbol for Om. Some scholars think that the elephant's head and snout are reminiscent of a farmer carrying a corn sheaf on his head, with the lowest ears swinging to and fro. This fits in well with Ganesha's reputation as the god of the harvest.


Modakas or sweet-balls are symbolic of the sweet puddings that Ganesha was so fond of as a child. On one of his birthdays, he ate so many puddings that when the MOUSE on which he was riding was startled by a snake, Ganesha fell off and his stomach burst open. He stuffed all the puddings back in and tied the snake around his belly to hold it together. As the god of plenty, Ganesha is always shown with a round belly, symbolic of a good appetite and a plentiful harvest.

Modakas are made of rice flour, raw sugar, and the kernel of the coconut, all of which are in season in India during the month of Bhadrapada (August-September).


Hindus consider it bad luck to look at the moon on Ganesh Chaturthi because legend claims that the moon laughed when Ganesha fell off his MOUSE and his stomach burst open (see MODAKAS ). The god cursed the moon, who was forced to hide himself in shame. After the moon apologized, Ganesha lifted the curse but declared that the moon would always be in disgrace on this day. Those who do look at the moon will earn a bad name or ruin their reputations. But if they do so inadvertently, they can forestall the consequences by making sure that their neighbors treat them badly, thus punishing them for their mistake.


Ganesha is usually depicted riding on a mouse, a symbol of the conquest over egoism. Because he possesses the head of an elephant, the largest animal, and yet rides on a mouse, the smallest, Ganesha embodies the process of evolution-from small animals to large animals and finally to human beings.

Some scholars see the mouse as a field rat, the destroyer of crops, and Ganesha as its conqueror. The snake wrapped around the god's belly, which represents a barn full of harvested crops, is also capable of destroying the field rat. The root of the Sanskrit word for "rat" means "thief," which implies that Ganesha is riding over the thief of the field, or the field rat. Ganesh Chaturthi


Gupte, B.A. Hindu Holidays and Ceremonials. 2nd ed. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1919. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Sanon, Arun. Festive India. New Delhi: Frank Bros., 1986. Sharma, Brijendra Nath. Festivals of India. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1978. Sivananda, Swami. Hindu Fasts and Festivals. 8th ed. Shivanandanagar, India: Divine Life Society, 1997. Thomas, Paul. Festivals and Holidays in India. Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala Sons, 1971.


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Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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