Celebrating Lord Ganesh, evoking the ‘Remover of Obstacles’ in these Covid times

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A Hindu priest wearing a protective face mask conducts a puja in front of idols of Hindu God Ganesh,
the deity of prosperity, before they can be taken home ahead of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Mumbai,
India August 21, 2020. Photo: Reuters- Francis Mascarenhas

Dressed in our fineries, women in Mysore silk saris and men in dhotis, my friends and I seated ourselves on the floor with a banana leaf in front of us. In the middle of the room, varieties of traditional South Indian dishes, which make a full “saapadu” meal, was placed. With most of us seated, some volunteered to serve and have their meal in the next shift, as is traditionally done.  The meal was cooked by each of us in our group.  It included the “modaks” an essential element of the Ganesh Chaturthi utsav (recipe included).

We had just completed our Ganesh Chaturthi puja invoking the divine aspect of removing obstacles in our lives.  And now were ready to celebrate with our feast, prepared with so much love in an environment of camaraderie and fellowship.  In this time of COVID, now that we were all vaccinated, we were cautiously meeting once again, recognizing that removing obstacles, the Ganesha principle is even more important for all us than ever before.

Indian-American family of ordained Hindu priest Anju Bhargava, center, enjoying ‘Saapadu’ to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi the traditional way. Seen on left, Anurag Dwivedi, and on right, Ajit Warrier. Photo: courtesy Anju Bhargava.

I looked around and wondered am I in America? Or in a time-capsuled Chennai or for that matter anywhere in Southern India? I wondered how has this festival, this Utsav, which started as a regional celebration in Western India in the 1600s, captured the imagination of not only the whole of India, but of the global diaspora.  How are we observing it now, with the Covid related constraints, here in America?

A platter showing traditional South Indian dishes served during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations in an Indian-American home. Photo: courtesy Anju Bhargava.
Ganesh idol being placed in a bucket of water to simulate the ‘visarjan’ ceremony. Photo: courtesy Anju Bhargava.

Ganesha or Ganapati, is mentioned in the Rigveda, and his image with an elephant head, has been in existence for thousands of year.  He is the presiding deity residing in the first chakra (muladhar) at the base of the spine. Ganesha is a pan-Hindu deity worshipped by all, and is now invoked universally by the growing yoga community as well. The name Ganesha is a Sanskrit compound, joining the words gana, meaning a ‘group, multitude, or categorical system’ and isha, meaning ‘lord or master’ and is generally referred to as the leader of senses.

Ganesh Chaturthi utsav on the other hand seems to be of relatively recent vintage. Though the origin is not known, what is known is that in the 1600s Ganesha Chaturthi was celebrated publicly, in and around Pune, and possibly other parts of Western India. However, under the British rule, without state patronage, it became a private celebration, as did most utsavs. In 1893, Lokmanya Tilak, Indian freedom fighter, transformed this annual Ganesha festival from private family celebrations into a grand public event. He did so “to build a new grassroots unity” in his nationalistic strivings against the British in Maharashtra. Because of Ganesha’s wide appeal as “the god for Everyman”, Tilak chose him as a rallying point for Indian protest against British rule. Tilak was the first to install large public images of Ganesha in pavilions, and he established the practice of submerging all the public images on the tenth day. This way, people from all walks of life came together, in a public way, and were united in the utsav celebration. Today, Hindus (and even some non-Hindus) across India and the diaspora celebrate the Ganapati festival with great fervor.

This year, the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations across the country are more subdued.  Most people are celebrating it privately, in small groups, as we did, rather than elaborate ceremonies in the temples.  I visited the Anjaneya temple and found a handful of devotees present in person, whereas the event was broadcast live to many.

And, here in America, the Ganesh Chaturthi utsav has taken its own social justice flavor, for example, focusing on the climate change impact. Some temples across the country, like the Siva Vishnu Temple, now encourage children (and adults) to “Build your own Ganesh” with clay, toothpicks and a cocktail umbrella and do the visarjan in a bucket. The water from the dissolved bucket is then put around trees. Due to Covid restrictions, the event was conducted virtually with the temple providing the kit and live streaming instructions on how to make it.

Ganesh Temple on Devon Avenue, Chicago, the ‘Little India’ of the Windy City, celebrates Ganesh Chaturthi in a traditional way. Photo: courtesy Anju Bhargava.

“On Devon Avenue in Chicago, we have a Ganesh Temple.  The owners of this Temple celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi in a traditional way.  For seniors who live around Devon Avenue, this celebration is a true blessing.  The Hindu Temple is too far for them to travel. They get to participate in the festivities that go on for several days and conclude in the Visarjan parade!  This year, however there was minimal food distribution. Distance was maintained with most people wearing a mask.”  Ranjana and Vijay, long term residents of Chicago and one of the community leaders talked about the changes that they are now seeing in the celebration.

The strength of the Dharmic culture is the multitude of ways in which the Puranic (ancient traditional) stories and epics are brought to life through colorful festivals and selfless service (seva). These stories and epics bring to surface the deep philosophical truths of the ancient Hindu scriptures, known as the Vedas. The Festivals often express the common Vedic tenets of Hinduism, and of other Dharmic cultures, making them accessible to people from all walks of life.

A festival is a joyful synthesis and expression of spirituality, religion, philosophy, culture, service and social values. The spiritual aspect is founded on the human instincts of joy and happiness. The philosophical aspect is grounded in the struggle between the forces of good and evil, the removal of obstacles, with the ultimate triumph of the former. This struggle and ensuing victory of good, a celebration of the Ganesha principle, is to be celebrated and used as a reminder to us, and future generations, that selfless service and giving are an interwoven part of the traditions.

Festivals form a lifeline that binds the Hindu and Dharmic cultures to family, the community and to the country where they reside. Festivals connect and bring people together in camaraderie and service. Hindu festivals also reflect and sustain the underlying pluralistic values for diverse people to coexist harmoniously. Festivals unite people and propel them towards social change and justice, as illustrated so well by Lokmanya Tilak. May we continue to gain strength to remove obstacles that come our way as we move forward in our lives to create and nurture a just and sustainable planet for all beings.

— Anju Bhargava, founder of Hindu American Seva Communities, is an ordained priest and was on President Obama’s Inaugural Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Sweet Modak recipe provided by Aanandhi Venkatadri

Sweet Modak, a traditional dish for Ganapati festival. Photo: courtesy Aanandhi Venkatadri via Anju Bhargava.

1 cup rice flour

1-1/4 cups water

pinch of salt

1-2 tsp vegetable oil or Ghee (I use ghee)

For the Jaggery Coconut filling (Vella poornam)

1 cup fresh coconut, grated (fresh is recommended, though you can use frozen too)

3/4 cup Jaggery, powdered

pinch of cardamom powder (or as per taste)

Methods:

  1. To prepare the filling: Add jaggery and coconut together in a skillet. In low heat, sauté until the jaggery melts and the mixture thickens. Add the cardamom to the mix and toss well. While still warm, take a small piece of this filling (it will be sticky, you can grease your palms with ghee) and make a small ball. Repeat for all the filling.
  2. For the Cover: Sift the rice flour well – even two to 3 times and set aside. The quality of rice flour will vary and so will the amount of water used (instead of 1-1/4 cups). It might need more or less. So try this trick to find out what works best. Bring the recommended amount of water to boil along with salt and Ghee. When water is boiling, remove 1/4 cup of water and set aside. Take this skillet off heat and set it in a counter. Add the rice flour to the 1 cup of boiled water. Using a wooden spoon give it a stir. It will be hot. It should come together into a mass all clumped together.

Tip 1: If you find that this is too dry and not sticky, then add the additional boiled water you set aside, drop by drop, until it comes together.

Tip 2: If you find this too sticky and not pliable, you can use additional rice flour/maida (all purpose flour) until it does. Make sure to not add too much flour.

  1. Let it sit for few minutes until its warm enough to touch. Don’t let the dough get cold. Set aside two small bowls – one with oil/ghee, another with warm water. Grease your hands with Ghee and start kneading the dough. The idea is to make it pliable – into a smooth consistency like that of chapatti dough. The difference is that while chapatti dough has gluten and will stretch, rice flour lacks the gluten and will not be stretchy. The dough will be smooth but yet slightly sticky.
  2. Grease your palms well and break off a small piece from the dough. Using your thumb and other fingers, make a small crater in the ball you made. Like an inverted cone. You should be using both your hands for this one Slowly rotate and go around making this crater until it looks little bigger like this one. Drop the sweet filling you made into the depression. Very slowly brings the ends together over the top of the filling. Be gentle. Bring it together so that you can pinch the top, sealing the filling.  Pinch to make a small horn.  You can always pinch off excess dough. Repeat with rest of the dough. Now steam them for about 10-15 minutes. You know it’s done when the color slightly changes and the cover becomes little translucent.
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