The Matsya Purana says that Ganesha (lord of the ganas or hosts) was lovingly moulded by his mother Parvati out of the scented scrapings of bath-paste and oil from her own body. The Varaha Purana has it that Ganesha sprung from the radiance of his father Shiva’s luminous gaze. A popular legend recounts how Parvati’s “baby shower” for her handsome son turned into a terrible tragedy when the malefic gaze of Shani or Saturn fell upon the child, causing its head to burst into a thousand pieces. This resulted in a unique identity for Ganesha or Ganapati as an elephant-headed, corpulent personality who loves his modaks and laddoos. The elephant is regarded as wise and mature in Indian lore, hence Ganapati’s formidable intellect continues to inspire men of letters.
The story of how Ganapati came to possess the privilege of being the foremost among the devas is variously told in the Puranas but the broad consensus is that both his powerful parents granted him this boon in different contexts.
That he should be worshipped first by all humans and celestials is a dictum followed to this day by the devout as well as the ritually casual. Commencing a pilgrimage or any new venture with an invocation of him is a time-honoured tradition handed down to us by our ancestors. The first invitee to a wedding is always Ganesha.
Modern variants involve the collection of Ganesha figurines to tastefully decorate our homes.
Inherent in these practices lies an instinctive belief in the power of Ganapati to grant kaaryasiddhi or success in our efforts. He is the Vighna-nashak or remover of obstacles and is therefore famously saluted as Jai Mangalmurti (Victory to the auspicious being). Bringing Ganesha home and keeping him in it, figuratively speaking, is to usher peace and prosperity into our homes. Great powers are attributed to this lovable deity.
A hymn venerates him as parabrahma roopam or verily the Supreme Absolute:
Ajam nirvikalpam niraakaaram ekam
Niraanandam aanandam advaita poornam
(He is the unborn, formless, unique embodiment of the supreme, the absolute, the infinite and the complete. He is bliss.)
One may offer garlands and sweets to a bejewelled, richly clad Ganesha at a large temple this Ganesh Chaturthi. Or one may dip one’s head in hasty obeisance to a vazhi pillaiyar (Tamil term for the roadside Ganesha peeping out of niches in boundary walls).
Our prayerful sentiments are beautifully captured in the celebrated hymn, Bhadram Karnebhih (from the Ganapati Atharvashirsha): May we always hear and see auspicious things; may we live our entire lifespans healthy even as we praise the lord, who guides our thoughts and deeds and protects us from evil.