Haven’t we forgotten Lokmanya Tilak?
Ganesh Chaturthi is the Hindu festival which celebrates the birth of Lord Ganesh, Hinduism’s most well known and widely adored figure, the supreme personification of that force we call “obstacles”. The commemoration of his birth will start on August 29th this year. Traditional Hindu homes will create a colorful clay representation of the elephant headed god, and after many ceremonies and feasts he will be dunked into a body of water and dissolve just like the obstacles he removes. While Ganesh has become one of the most popular deities of the Hindu pantheon, most Hindus know that Ganesha is a relatively new addition to the family of Hinduism, and so his public festivities must have appeared relatively recently. It should come as no surprise to the faithful that the remover of obstacles was brought to the forefront by one of Hinduism’s most heroic, inventive and vigilant freedom fighters.
It is not known exactly when Ganesh Chaturthi began as a public festival, be we do know that this celebration was limited only to certain regions of India. Shivaji Raj who fought off the Mughals and established the Martha Empire in the 1600s claimed Ganesh as his household deity and so Ganesh Chaturthi was a public event during his reign. With the passage of this aristocracy and the arrival of the British in the 1800s, Ganesh’s public festivals faded and he returned to his place as a home and family deity. But Ganesh’s power has alway attracted vibrant, truthful and courageous characters and soon his mantle was taken up by one of Hinduism’s most ardent warriors, Lokmany Tilak.
It was Tilak who in 1893 restored the public festival of Ganesh and made it a universal practice across Hindudom. It was his hope to use the festival to bridge the gap between all sects and “castes” of Hinduism and create a stronger feeling of grassroots unity and nationalism. It was he who prompted our modern ceremony of dropping Ganesha into the river as one community, dissolving away our petty differences like clay in a river. Under Tilak’s encouragement, the festival facilitated community participation and involvement in the form of intellectual discourses, poetry recitals, performances of plays, musical concerts, and folk dances.
Of course Ganesh Chaturthi has a deeper meaning than the life of one man, but it was this one man, Tilak, who brought us one of our most beloved festivals today. No matter the struggle, Tilak continued and like Ganesh he removed obstacles for all Hindus everywhere. This August when we participate in the exciting festival surrounding the birth of Ganesh, take a moment to think about how only a little more than 100 years ago, this festival didn’t even exist and the nation of India was under the yoke of British Christian imperialism. Today, this one festival is celebrated across the globe by Hindus of every race and nationality. Under Ganesh’s auspices we truly unite into one people, a spiritual nation, undivided and unanimous in our joy. If Tilak were alive today I am sure he would be proud and he would thank the Lord Ganesh for removing just one more obstacle for the human race.