Guest Author - Sangeetha Ekambaram
Ganesha, the Hindu deity identified by his characteristic elephant head, is one of the most popular and beloved deities among Hindus. He is found in most worship places, no matter the geographical location or sect. As is true for most Hindu deities, multiple origin narratives, physical representations and rituals exist for Ganesha. Among His many traits, Hindus revere His role as a remover of obstacles and therefore, worship Him when beginning activities related to both the spiritual and the physical realm. More precisely, one of the many names for the deity is Vigneshwara (Lord of Obstacles), implying that Ganesha in addition to removing obstacles also places obstacles in the path of the worshipper. However, He does so for the higher good of steering the worshipper in the right direction. As a result, Hindus consider him to be the Lord of Beginnings, remembering to pray to Him first.
As a Hindu growing up in the United States, I was taught at an early age that any religious activity must start with a prayer to Ganesha, whether in a temple or at home, where many rituals take place. The worship of this deity in these religious contexts demonstrates the belief that he removes obstacles in a spiritual sense, aiding the devotee in receiving the full benefits from the prayer and rituals that will follow. However, for many Hindus, these obstacles are interpreted on a physical level as well. When my family bought a new car, they first made sure to take the car to a Ganesha temple to bless and protect the vehicle and its passengers. Any new undertaking such as a marriage, the opening of a new business or the start of a voyage is inaugurated by a ritual or prayer to Ganesha.
Revered also as the God of wisdom, Hindus worship Him as a grantor of blessings for such intellectual activities as the start of a new school year. This wisdom is also interpreted at a spiritual level, as the worshipper's mind and soul are prepared to receive the wisdom bestowed from the religious activity. The first prayer I learned when I was three years old, was a prayer in Sanskrit to Ganesha. In our particular family tradition, gently tapping the forehead with the knuckles of our closed fists accompanies the recitation of this prayer, physically demonstrating mental preparation of the worshipper.
Worship of Ganesha is a vital element in Hindu devotion as it prepares the path in this world and beyond. As a result, He is associated with a variety of undertakings and his image is found in most places of Hindu religious practice as well as in locations of everyday activities such as the office or in the car.