Ganesh Utsav provides a platform for the  biggest display of God symbolism on Mother Earth. The ten day Ganesh Utsav is probably  the only festive period when we see most icons of any Hindu deity. In Sanatan  Dharam, art & sculpture have been traditionally employed from Veda Vyāsa’s  time to help us discover the hidden meaning of subtler truths. Given this Hindu  methodology of communicating the greater truths through arty idols, Lord  Ganesha with the elephant head on a human body also relays something deep and  esoteric. What is the heart behind the art of Ganesha?

Every year, Mumbai  and Maharashtra in general go bananas with the ten day Ganesh Utsav.  The cities of Maharashtra get inundated with  creative Ganesha idols that are sculpted to delightful perfection. Experts say  that during this festival Mumbai alone consumes as much as 500 tonnes of the  milk based modak sweets (something that New Zealand based milk giant Fonterra  to take note who are expanding in India).

It is well  known that perhaps no other deity in the world except Lord Ganesha has been  depicted in as many varieties of forms and every conceivable  form. Every year several Ganapati mandals (groups) in India use their creativity  to showcase Lord Ganesha in many themes including contemporary ones. It comes  as no surprise that some groups have chosen Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption  movement. This way they relate to the common man during this year’s Utsav.

The community  Ganesh Utsav was started by Lokmanya Tilak in 1893. However, such celebrations  were also prevalent in ancient India. According to historian Shri V.K.Rajwade  (1863 – 1926), the earliest Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations can be traced back to  the reigns of dynasties like Satavāhanas 230 (BCE–220 CE), Rāshtrakūtas (753–982  CE) and Chālukyas (543–753 CE). These dynasties also offered royal patronage to  temples which used many sculpted idols to tell a story to sensitive thinkers.

It is  commonly understood that an idol serves the same purpose for a devotee as a  flag does for the Army. In Hindu traditions the idol or the pratima is symbolic  of higher truths just as a country’s flag is symbolic of the country’s ideals.  In India’s esoteric traditions visual art and sculpture are employed to give a  spiritual message. Through the myriad idols of Lord Ganesha, the artists with  their clever art of God symbolism try to reveal something that we are unable to  grasp through our senses.

So what is it  that the Ganesha idols tell us? What is the symbolism that Ganapati Bappa is calling  us to?

Though there  are symbolic meanings attached to each aspect of Lord Ganesha like the elephant  head, the mouse, the belly, the trunk, the noose, the goad, the modaka etc the  single most reality about Lord Ganesha is about a transcendental nature of reality  that sustains creation.

So why is a symbol used to point to the  Ultimate truth? What is at the heart of god symbolism? Swāmi Chinmayānanda  explains “It must evidently clear to all sensitive thinkers that the  representations given in the various symbolisms are not as many different  deities, but that they are vivid pen-portraits of the subjective Truth  described in the Upanishadic lore.”

Sri Sri Ravi  Shankar confirms “Our ancient Rishis were so deeply intelligent that they chose  to express Divinity in terms of symbols rather than words, since words change  over time, but symbols remain unchanged. Let us keep these deep symbolisms in  mind as we experience the omnipresent in the form of the elephant God, yet be  fully aware that Ganesha is very much within us.   This is the wisdom  we should carry as we celebrate Ganesh Chathurti.”

Swāmi Krishnānanda of  the Divine Life Society adds “The Mahāganapati Purāna, the Ganapati  Atharvasirsha Upanishad, the Ganesha Gita and several anecdotes occurring in  the Mahabharata and the other Puranas glorify an aspect of the Supreme Almighty  which requires our submission at His feet, and expects us to recognise Him as  the sole power that can remove all obstacles on the path of the spiritual  seeker towards the attainment of Godhead. This seems to be a part of the  meaning hidden behind the holy worship of Sri Ganesha.”

In the  traditional invocations of Lord Ganesha, there are some popular Sanskrit  shlokas that presents a portrait of subjective truths personified in Lord  Ganesha. In the Sri Ganapati Atharvasirsha or the Ganapati Upanishad from the  Atharvana Veda, the seer invokes Lord Ganesha as the embodiment of the ultimate  truth, in this way: “You are the divine truth. You are the only creator of the world. You  are the only protector of the world. You are the only destroyer of the world.  You are the ultimate supreme divine power. You are the only soul which is  present partly in each and every living form.”

The other  popular invocations are:

Vakratunda Mahakaaya, Suryakoti Samaprabha
    Nirvighnam Kuru Mey Deva, Sarva Kaaryeshu Sarvada

    Meaning:
    Lord  Ganesha with a curved trunk and a mighty body. He who has the brilliance of a  million suns. I pray to you Oh Lord to remove all the obstacles from all the actions I intend to perform.

Tatpurushaaya Vidmahe
    Vakratundaaya Dheemahe
    Tanno Danthihi Prachodayaat

    Meaning:
    We meditate on that super power,
    We invoke the single tusked boon giver, Ganesh.

Ganaanaam Twam Ganapathi Gam Havaamahe
    Kavim Kaveenaam Upamasra Vastamam
    Jyeshta Raajam Brahmanaam Brahmanaspatha
    Aanashrunvanna Oothibhi Seedha Saadanam

    Meaning:
    The  Lord of spiritual faith, son of Lord Shiva, is the wisest among the wise.  Ganesha has no comparison. He is the senior Lord of the Vedic mantras, who listens to the devotee's prayers. I invite Lord Ganesha to visit my home with  prosperous things and be seated here.

eSamskriti  wishes you an auspicious and enjoyable Ganesh Chaturthi.
  Ganpati  Bappa Morya.

Also read:
1. All articles on Ganesh Chaturthi