Trust Ganesha to be where the action is. In the Hindu scheme of things, Ganesha’s birthday kicks off the festive season in the latter half of the year. The celebrations end in October/November in the burst of radiance that’s Diwali, with Ganesha benignly presiding over the fun and fanfare. Considering that this festival is not primarily associated with the elephant god, why, one may ask, is he poking his trunk in?
Diwali is the Festival of Light, the name deriving from the Sanskrit word Deepawali or ‘row of lamps’. Hindus associate more than one legend with this happiest of festivals, depending on which part of India they live in. Diwali falls on a dark, moonless night. Many believe that on this auspicious night, Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and good fortune visits the earth. It’s to light up the path for this very special guest that lamps are lit.
In the Hindu pantheon, Ganesha shares no familial bond with Lakshmi. Yet, as the God of Beginnings, he shares the limelight with the goddess during Diwali (no festival, for that matter, commences without at least a respectful nod to Ganesha). As anyone knows, the path to prosperity is rarely smooth and while negotiating its ups and downs, one can always do with a helping hand. That’s where Vinayaka comes in as the Remover of Obstacles. Together, Lakshmi and Ganesha are a formidable duo; worshiping them reflects the belief and hope that the year ahead will be a fulfilling and prosperous one, with hardships easily overcome.
Ahead of Diwali, homes are cleaned to a sparkle. The idols of Ganesha and Lakshmi are given a ritual bath, first in water, then rosewater and again with water. Then the idols are decorated. They appear radiant with sandal paste and kumkum on their foreheads and bright flower garlands around their necks, ready to be worshiped. Lakshmi sits on the left, surrounded by lotus blooms and next to her is Ganesha. Milk, yogurt, butter, sugar and honey, symbolizing nourishment and well-being are placed before them, along with offerings of sweetmeats, savories, fruits, betel leaves and currency notes. Lakshmi also gets a silver coin. Families often observe the tradition of sitting together before the gods while one member reads out the Diwali story. As dusk deepens, the lamps are lit and prayers are offered, first to Ganesha and then Lakshmi.
Another possible reason for Ganesha’s presence during Diwali celebrations is his close association with wisdom. Light in any culture symbolizes knowledge. The lighting of a lamp at Diwali signifies the victory of an enlightened mind over the forces of darkness. To invoke Ganesha is to seek his strength in the battle against ignorance, greed, hatred and injustice. When these murky elements recede, the radiance of Lakshmi prevails and the earth is blessed with her munificence.