Ganesh Chaturthi: Recovering the Ecological Roots of an Ancient Festival


 

At
first glance, Hinduism seems like an attractive religion for the ecologically
minded. It has sacred groves and holy rivers, gods frolicking with milkmaids
and farm animals, sages on mountaintops. I traveled to India with this vague
impression of Hinduism in my mind, determined to find the intersection of
Indian religion, philosophy and ecology. After I enthusiastically explained my
mission to a professor at the University of Pune, he shook his head, smiled
ruefully, and said, "Just wait until the Ganesh festival."

Ganesh
Chaturthi, as it is officially known, is one of the biggest religious festivals
in Maharashtra, the Indian state whose capital, Mumbai, is now associated with
more violent expressions of religious feeling. A ten-day festival to celebrate
the birthday of the much-beloved elephant-headed god (Chaturthi literally means
"fourth," and Ganesh's birthday falls of the fourth day of the month), Ganesh
Chaturthi is a fascinating combination of piety and partying, consecration and
consumerism.

The festival revolves around the
worship of Ganesh idols, which are purchased just for this purpose, and — at
the end of the festival — are immersed in the nearest body of water: the ocean
in Mumbai, and the river in cities like Pune. Most households purchase small
idols, which become the object of lovingly performed devotional rituals.
Meanwhile, neighborhood associations buy huge idols, which function more like
communal Christmas trees. Neighbors band together to decorate their idols and
display them in large outdoor shrines. A spirit of friendly competition
prevails, and each year the idols get bigger and bigger.

Despite the commercialism that has
arisen around the festival, it is still a genuinely emotional, deeply
devotional event. Families form a fervent bond with their idols and with the
god the idols represent. It is this intense religious feeling that provides
grounding and continuity to the celebrations of Ganesh Chaturthi. As I
discovered, the festival has gone through many changes in its long history, but
it has been sustained by an unwavering devotion to Ganesh.

To environmentalists, one of the
most important changes to the festival is also one of the most recent. For
centuries, Ganesh idols were made of clay; the past decade has witnessed the
rise of plaster-of-Paris idols, which contain chemicals like gypsum, sulfur,
phosphorus and magnesium. They are decorated with toxic paints. Their immersion
leads to increased organic matter and heavy metal content in rivers, and the
sheer mass of thousands of idols can divert a river's flow, causing stagnation.
In short, the large-scale immersion of the idols is bad news for the flora and
fauna of river ecosystems, including the humans who depend on river water for
drinking purposes.

At first I was drawn to Ganesh
Chaturthi because of its ecological implications. I soon found, though, that to
gain an understanding of the festival, I had to study it from a number of
overlapping perspectives. Different aspects of the celebration presented
themselves in surprising ways as I wandered around Pune and soaked in the
festive atmosphere.

 

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One evening, as scorching, dusty
day turned into drizzly, thick-aired night, I took a sputtering autorickshaw to
the confluence of the Mula and Mutha rivers in Pune, a sacred site and a
favored place for idol immersions. The city government, in cooperation with
environmental groups protesting the rivers' pollution, had set up a large
rectangular tank of water in which festival-goers could immerse their idols.
The Municipal Corporation of Pune has embraced eco-friendly initiatives with an
enthusiasm unusual for Indian cities. It even set up plastic fencing to block
off access to the river. However, the entrepreneurs who facilitate idol
immersion made quick work of the fencing, thrusting it aside to make way for
the throngs of people who bypassed the tank. Two boats, operated by a small
crew of men dressed in red – a color associated with Ganesh for centuries –
ferried people out into the river where they could immerse their idols. Some
revelers shed tears as they sent their god to his watery home. Back on the
banks, families were preparing earnestly for the immersion, huddled around
their idols, chanting and praying, decorating the idols with garlands and food
offerings. Proud fathers recorded the moment on camcorders and camera phones.

Although
there was a steady stream of people arriving to immerse their idols in the Mula-Mutha,
it was not the crush I had expected – perhaps because of the light rain,
perhaps because bomb blasts in Delhi the night before had dampened the mood.
Only when I made for the center of town did I develop another theory for the
relatively sparse gathering at the river. Most of the city, it seemed, had
finished their immersion duties early and were gathering to celebrate the close
of the festival in modern, urban Indian fashion: with thumping basslines from
huge speakers, blinding lights from massive stages and wild dancing. Arms
flailing and hips shaking, the dancers – all men, as is typical of such public
demonstrations – looked more like amateur Bollywood actors than devotees. While
I liked to think that the revelers were deep in religious ecstasy (like Sufi
whirling dervishes), my local friends told me that they were more likely drunk,
or high, or both.

Festivals
in India, I came to realize, have a social function that is perhaps even more
important than their religious one. The revelers I encountered were largely
from lower castes and lower classes (the two overlap with predictable
frequency). The much-lauded economic growth of the "New India" has yet to
provide benefits for most of these people. Poverty is still alarmingly present
even in up-and-coming information technology and education centers like Pune.
The success of IT companies in Pune is driving up prices, as gyms and malls
spring up to cater to a newly-wealthy clientele; most Puneites, though, will
never have the money nor the status to enter these new temples of capitalism,
except as employees who cannot afford to live in the newly-gentrified
neighborhoods. As noted Indian cultural commentator Shashi Tharoor says, "The
rich have no shortage of opportunities to enjoy themselves by themselves,
whereas the poor have few outlets and pleasures other than the communal ones."
More cynically, one could argue that the festival serves as a bread-and-circus
exercise to distract the poor from their plight, and to divert the energy that
could become angry protest into blissful dancing. Still, there's no denying
that the revelers are enjoying themselves, and it seems curmudgeonly to deny
them this celebration under the guise of political righteousness.

No
doubt, though, the festival has been politicized: not by left-wing ideologues
critiquing its social role, but by right-wing fundamentalists who like to
celebrate the essentially Hindu nature of India. Hindutva activists (as they
are called) hold sway over two major political parties in Maharashtra, and they
make sure the Ganesh festival is tied to their version of Hindu pride. They
bristle when environmentalists question some of the more polluting Ganesh
Chaturthi rituals. The Hindutva attitude implies that questioning the current
forms of the festival is akin to questioning Hinduism itself; this in turn
implies the dubious view that plaster of Paris and mercury-filled paint are
staples of Hindu tradition. Pace
fundamentalists, who attempt to construct an idealized past and a rigid set of
rules and rituals, Ganesh Chaturthi is – in true ecological fashion – an
ever-changing, malleable, even adaptive phenomenon.

 

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Gods
have a way of changing with the times, as do religious festivals. For
millennia, elephants have been worshipped as sacred in India. Ancient Indian
mythology is marked by dense networks of associations and metaphors, and
elephants have a prominent role in these networks. The animals are often
associated with water (the element that serves as the source of creation in
many myths), with fertility, and with the Mother Goddess (who is herself linked
to earth and water). An elephant-headed deity first appeared in India as part
of the Buddhist pantheon. Brahmin priests, resentful of the upstart Buddhists
who had challenged their religious supremacy and taken their faithful,
portrayed the Buddhist elephant-headed deity as a demon: an imposer of
obstacles and a hoarder of treasure. Perhaps bolstered by the ancient cult of
the elephant, the elephant-headed deity refused to be demonized and remained a
popular god of the people. Eventually, he entered the Brahmin pantheon, first
as one of Shiva's entourage, then as one of his sons, then as a supreme god in
his own right. Thus, the god we now know as Ganesh was born.

When
trading began to take its place beside agriculture and pastoralism in the
Indian economy, Ganesh became a favorite god of the traders. No longer an
imposer of obstacles, he now removed them for enterprising businesspeople. Much
more recently, as Ganesh scholar Anita Raina Thapan reports, the
elephant-headed god has been portrayed as the father of Santosi Ma, a goddess
popular in the urban areas of northern India, and who is worshipped as the
protector of harassed modern women. More dubiously, Ganesh has been portrayed
as a guitar-playing, jean-wearing kid elephant in the popular animated
Bollywood film "My Friend Ganesha 2."

Despite
all the changes Ganesh has been through, some continuities remain. Several are
evident in the Ganesh Chaturthi rituals. The festival is celebrated on the dark
half of the Hindu month of bhaadrapada;
this association with darkness connects the god with death, the moon and
regeneration – a suitably ecological reminder that death is necessary for all
life, and that regeneration and fertility have death and darkness as their
preconditions. Even today, Ganesh is associated with water, as the idol
immersions make clear. Indeed, the only other Hindu divinity whose idols get
immersed is Durga, one of the many incarnations of the Goddess figure in
Hinduism – another subtle link between Ganesh and his Mother Earth past.

The immersion of Ganesh idols has a
history almost as long as that of Ganesh himself. Idol immersion is first
mentioned in the Svayambhuvagama, a
sacred Hindu text said to be dictated by Shiva himself, and dated somewhere
between the ninth and twelfth century A.D. It is also described in the Ganesh Purana, from around the same
period. According to Shri Vivek Godbole, the principal of a Vedic school for
Brahmins in Maharashtra, the immersion ritual – like so many ancient rituals
and festivals – has its roots in the turning of the seasons. Bhaadrapada falls towards the end of the
monsoon, which, even today, Indian farmers rely on as their main source of
agricultural water. Villagers, delighting in the monsoon rains, would go to the
river and gather bits of clay that had washed up in the deluge. Bringing the
clay into their homes, they would worship it, and then return it to the river.
It was a celebration of the fertility of earth and water, the regenerating
power of the Mother Goddess. As years went by and mythology was superimposed on
ecology, the bits of clay were molded into elephant shapes, then Ganesh shapes,
and they were kept in the home for longer and longer. Eventually, as the
centuries passed, the original, ecological meaning of the Ganesh idols was
obscured.

 

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The
communal, Hindu-pride elements of the festival have more modern roots. In the
late twentieth-century, Lokmanya Tilak, a radical freedom fighter dedicated to
bringing down the British Raj, decided to popularize Ganesh Chaturthi as a
public celebration. He was the first to call for outdoor installations of large
idols, and the first to introduce the large-scale public immersion of idols on
the last day of the festival. He even associated Ganesh, as remover of
obstacles, with the Indian nationalist movement.

Tilak can be seen as a precursor of
modern Hindutva advocates: he wanted a free India, but it would be a free Hindu India. He deliberately chose to
popularize holidays centered on Hindu gods like Ganesh, as opposed to
intercommunal holidays like Moharram, a feast of Muslim original but – at the
time of Tilak – celebrated with equal zeal by Hindus. Much like African-American
slaves transmuting their protest into spirituals, Tilak used religious
festivals to build the strength of Hindu India at a time when the British were
restricting the rights of Indian agitators to meet in public. In the process,
he opened up the festival to all castes; Ganesh became no longer just a Brahmin
god, but a genuinely pan-Hindu one. Even today, young priests at Ganesh temples
insist that there can be no caste restrictions on Ganesh worship. Tilak's stamp
on the festival is thus a complex one. He was an opponent of imperial
oppression, but also of interfaith celebration, and a deeply conservative Hindu
who nonetheless recognized the necessity of democratizing the worship of at
least some gods.

Ganesh worship is becoming
democratized in ways even Tilak might not have predicted. Although the wild
nighttime dancing is left to the Pune men, some schoolgirls here are asserting
their right to participate in the male-heavy street celebrations. Perhaps the
highlight of the ten-day celebration in Pune is the procession on the final
day. A cross between the Macy's parade and an ambulatory prayer service, the
procession showcases all of the biggest, flashiest idols. It also features
stunning performances of densely percussive religious songs, all played with
traditional instruments – a welcome break from the techno that blasts from
speakers at more raucous Ganesh events. Traditionally, these songs were only
performed by men, but this year, a troupe of girls joined the procession,
beating out complex rhythms with skill and joy.

The crowds of low-caste revelers I
encountered throughout the festival also attest to the democratized nature of
Ganesh. I got a taste of their revelry the morning of the final day of the
festival, as I biked down to the train station in an attempt to book a
reservation for a later trip. As I weaved through traffic on the clogged
highway, I noticed that the other side of road was remarkably traffic-free. I
soon saw – or rather heard – the cause of this unusual event. Polyrhythmic
drumbeats filled the air, and eventually a small army of drummers marched into
sight, followed by a large motorized platform bearing a huge Ganesh idol. I
stopped and pulled out my camera, safely separated from the procession – or so
I thought – by a large concrete divider in the middle of the road. A foreigner
in India stands out, though, especially one with a digital camera, and soon a
boy was hopping the divider and running to greet me.

I
have yet to master Marathi, the local language here, so the boy communicated to
me with a series of enthusiastic gestures. Come on, he gesticulated, join us,
take some close-ups! So I hopped the divider with him. He and his friends
hoisted me up onto the platform and posed triumphantly for pictures. I snapped
some shots while trying to shield my camera from the red powder that was thrown
everywhere as a further celebration of the festival. They then lowered me down
and brought me to the "dance floor," i.e. the strip of pavement in front of the
drums. One by one, they showed me their best dance moves, and laughed, hooted
and cheered when I did my best imitation of them. They threw powder at me, at
each other, at passersby, all the while joking, dancing and hollering. We
parted ways with a recitation of the festival's favored cheer: "Ganapati Bapa Morya!"

Roughly translated: "Oh, Great Lord
Ganesh!"

 

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Although
the ecological roots of Ganesh and his festival are largely concealed by
centuries of mythology, politics and (more recently) commercialism, some groups
in Pune are dedicated to bringing these roots back to light. One such group –
eCoexist, a company that sells ecofriendly Ganesh idols – was founded by
Manisha Gutman, a former member of Kalpavriksh, Pune's foremost environmental
advocacy group. At first, artisans were reluctant to resume the production of
clay idols; they were more expensive and more fragile. The ephemeral nature of
clay, such a strong metaphor for death and rebirth, was viewed as a liability
by the pragmatic idol-makers. When they saw the popularity and economic
viability of the clay idols, however, they returned to their traditional craft.

Besides selling clay idols,
eCoexist works with the local ragpickers' union to collect the flowers that
would otherwise be put in the river with the idols. ("Ragpicker" is the name
for the women whose job it is to sort through garbage, trying to salvage
anything of value.) The flowers are then taken to a nearby jail, where female
prisoners dry the flowers and grind them into colored powder that is then used
in the Hindu festival of Holi. The women are overjoyed at the arrival of the
flowers, an auspicious sign. Although they may not realize it, they are taking
part in a new ritual every bit as ecologically sensitive as the original
immersion of bits of monsoon-soaked clay.

The
eCoexist team presently includes three women whose religious backgrounds are
different, but who find common ground in their fundamental spiritual beliefs.
Their work helps to raise awareness of the ecological origins of the festival.
At a deeper level, the team aspires to rekindle people's love of, indeed their
spiritual connection to, the more-than-human world. Religious festivals, with
their ecological roots, are one way of reaffirming this connection. According
to Gutman, "The response from the public and the government to the efforts of
eCoexist has been phenomenal, a fact that shows that Indians are ready to make
this change of heart. It is also a sign of the return of a deeper spiritual
consciousness in India which includes a slowly growing sensitivity to nature."

The
positive approach of eCoexist differs markedly from the gloom-and-doom
strategies adopted by many environmentalists both in India and in the United
States. Further, while many environmental groups are wary of "God-talk,"
eCoexist embraces spirituality as a way to explore our bonds with the non-human
world. They believe that eco-activists must inspire a change of heart, a
feeling of deep kinship with the rest of nature. And what better venue to do
this than a joyous festival?

 

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As the ten-day festival neared its
end, I headed to a friend's house to get a bit of respite from the overpowering
stimuli of urban India. My friend lives in an area of Pune that was, not long
ago, a sleepy neighborhood surrounded by jungle; now if any jungle is to be
found, it is a concrete one. Still, her family has kept a bit of greenery for
themselves in the form of a backyard garden. All was peaceful in the garden as
we sat, sipped water, and chatted about elephants and monsoons. The fading
afternoon sun sent shafts of light through the leaves of the tropical trees:
mango, papaya, custard apple, bamboo. Then came the piercing bang of drums, the
shrill squeal of whistles, the echoing of raucous shouts. Yet another
ear-splitting parade. My friend's dog cowered in the corner. My friend sighed
and muttered, "Isn't this the country that invented meditation?"

This
is the paradox of India in general, and the Ganesh festival in particular: in
Shashi Tharoor's words, "Whatever you can say about India, the opposite is also
true." A festival first devoted to Earth's regenerating powers is now the cause
of major pollution; a festival once intensely private and sacred has become a
social gathering at times indistinguishable from a rave; a god has gone from
Earth Mother consort to Buddhist to Brahmin to pan-Hindu. But now, with the
help of groups like eCoexist, he is finding his way back to the Earth.