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What Ganesha Wants

by Devi Spring
from newWitch Magazine Issue #10
(Originally published under her legal name)


As an eclectic student of world religion and mythology, I come across a lot of ancient &/or traditional liturgical literature from various cultures. I have studied Ancient Egyptian rituals extensively, for example, and also those from the Hindu faith. While many Pagans find it their calling to follow a Reconstructionist path, I have never felt comfortable with any form of rigid structure in worship. I have great respect and admiration for the folks that I have had the pleasure of meeting and participating in their Celtic Recon rituals. It was truly moving to see people so dedicated to serving the ancient Gods in the way that They were accustomed to at the height of Their culture’s existence.

The painstaking research, and the resulting ritual framework did not appeal to my very eclectic and freeform nature. This never proved to be too much of a problem though, and in the early stages of my Path I experimented with attuning to deities that I felt I resonated with in whatever manner felt most comfortable for me (yet still appropriate for Them) at the time. I was of the opinion that, while there were Pagan followers worshipping the Gods from the Old Religions in the Recon way, They would probably be appreciative of any effort to breathe new life into Their worship. I felt safe and cozy within my eclecticism. My faith was about to be tested.

            At this point on my Path, I was working diligently to develop a rapport with Isis and Thoth. My whole life I had been enthralled by Ancient Egypt, and now I was excited to be part of a spirituality that would allow me to honor the Neteru of Khemet! Unfortunately, despite all my best efforts - the statuary purchases, daily prayers, candle and incense burning - I was coming up fairly empty-handed. I did manage to have a one humorous encounter with Anubis (thanks in kind to one of my Reiki client’s spirit Wolf who made the brief connection) and an unsettling, but ultimately chuckle-worthy accidental invocation of Set. Outside of those spontaneous occurrences, my conscious intentions of getting the attentions of Isis and Thoth were abject failures. I was starting to wonder if maybe either I was too unworthy of the Ancient Ones, or else They expected something more complex and traditional of me that I wasn’t able to give them. After all, if the Gods who I had always thought I felt a connection to didn’t want me, then Who would?

            Around the same time I was beginning what was to become my intensive study of the Hindu religious tradition in University. I took the first class, an overview of the whole tradition, out of general interest, as I knew nothing about Hinduism at all. From the very first class I was hooked. I found everything about the history, culture and the religion absolutely fascinating. I was also in a unique position of being one of only a small handful of non-Indian students in the course. Each class I was surrounded by people who lived the tradition on a daily basis and brought a realistic viewpoint of the current Hindu observance to a studious environment of academic and theological ideals. I felt as though I was walking on air when I would return from my classes where I had just read breath-taking myths and analyzed saintly commentaries on the mind-bending cosmic complexities in the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, only to be met in my dormitory by the cold stares of my Egyptian statuary. I placated Them nightly, but continually received no response. I felt despair at my failure as a Pagan.

            One day in class we began reading the myths and religious customs surrounding the elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesha. When I looked at His icons I felt nothing short of pure unadulterated delight. His pot-bellied image made me laugh, not in a mean-spirited way, but in the way a child chortles openly when feeling cherished and entertained all at once. I felt uplifted simply by looking upon Him, and the more I learned about His nature and His attributes (He is the Remover of Obstacles, Lord of Karma and the personification of OM, the sound that created the Universe) the more I felt drawn to Him on a very deep level. At first I didn’t recognize this fascination with Ganesha as a calling. I went home, downloaded a particularly attractive icon of His, printed it out and fixed it to my binder so that I could look upon His image any time I felt I needed a lift or simply wanted to smile. I wanted to carry Him with me.

            Very soon after this, I found that I was not doing as well in one of my classes as I had hoped. The course was much harder than I had anticipated and the professor was less than genial. For the first time in my academic career I was faced with the real possibility of failing a course. In University, this is devastating to one’s GPA, not to mention one’s pride. I needed to speak with the professor in private and hope that she would make a special arrangement for me to do some extra credit work, or come up with some other alternative form of assessing my performance in the class. I was terrified because she was notorious for being unwilling to make exceptions for her pupils. As I walked toward my appointment with her, I clutched my binder adorned with Ganesha, and unconsciously said a prayer to Him. After all, He was the Lord of Obstacles. Immediately I felt a wave of calm sweep over me, and a smile crossed my lips. I entered the professor’s office, had a polite chat, and was granted all the extra room that I needed to comfortably pass the class. This was an absolutely unheard of event, and upon leaving that brief but successful interview I knew that Ganesha had interceded. I felt loved and accepted – and dare I say, blissful.

            Over the next few months I found myself happily walking down the street with Ganesha’s mantra on my lips. Things just seemed to fall into place right as I really needed them to, and I attributed it all to Ganesha. I began downloading more and more of His images and hanging them around my small room. I had found an absolutely stunning statue of Him that was both compact and affordable – perfect for dorm living! I was even ready to begin honoring Him officially in my rituals. I had respectfully removed my Egyptian images from my altar in order to make space for Ganesha and His symbols, and was wondering what He was expecting from me, ritually speaking. I knew how he was worshipped in the Hindu tradition, but what made it most confusing was the fact that Hinduism was currently being practiced in the completely authentic way by over a billion people! Was Ganesh going to expect me perform puja to Him in the current traditional manner, and was He going to be angry, upset or abandon me all together if I couldn’t?

            In Hindu worship there are many prescribed steps and offerings, not to mention seemingly endless prayers and mantras to perform in a puja. I began looking into purchasing all the necessary implements for honoring Ganesha in the proper Hindu fashion. I would need two small cups for water and a spoon for offering it, a brass container for uncooked rice that needed to be colored yellow with tumeric, flowers, an oil lamp, a smaller oil lamp for offering light to Ganesha, a bell, some incense and a holder, holy ash, sandalwood and red kunkuma pastes, fresh fruit and cooked rice for offering, a camphor burner, and a tray to hold everything![1] These items were all available in tidy sets from various religious supply outlets, but I was on a very tight budget, and the thought of being responsible for the preparation and performance of a full puja everyday was more than a little daunting.

            For about two or three weeks I made a mighty effort to approximate a proper Hindu puja every day. I substituted things that I already had in my possession for items that were required by the scriptures. I anointed the statue with sandalwood oil instead of paste, I used candles instead of the various lamps, I used Dixie cups from the dormitory bathroom for the offertory water cups and instant rice nuked in the microwave for cooked basmati grains. I circumambulated the altar as best as I could and tried my hardest to prostrate (very difficult to do either when your twin sized bed takes up the majority of the tiny space provided for you in a single dorm room). I even made a Herculean effort to say all the prayers in Sanskrit, but after ten minutes or so of that I acquiesced to the English translation. Every day I made the time to do all this before my classes…for a little while anyway. These rituals quickly became a chore and I dreaded having to perform them. I started to rush through some parts and skip others all together – and felt hideously guilty when I did. Ganesha was fast becoming a burden that I didn’t think I could bear, and I felt despair at the thought of losing Him just because I couldn’t be “traditional” enough. I no longer felt pure joy at seeing His face, I felt shame and a sense of impending loss. It seemed as though I had failed again.

            Then one morning, I thought that I’d make one last ditch effort to keep my Ganesha. I thought that I would just perform a ritual the way that I wanted to, keeping the elements that I thought were key from the traditional puja, but overall streamlining and making it fun again. I thought I might as well try it and see how He responded. I certainly hadn’t been feeling any of His joyful energy during the complex and tiring rituals I had been performing. What did I have to lose? So I grabbed a few cookies and dripped some honey over them because I knew He favored sweets. I placed them in front of Him, smiling to myself that I bet He liked cookies whether the Vedas specifically had mentioned them or not. I lit a candle before Him and waved the incense under His trunk. I bowed and just started repeating His mantra, the one that had put a skip in my step in days gone by. I didn’t keep track of how many times I said it; I just kept saying it until it felt ok to stop. I chanted “OM” for several moments until I felt a peace come over me, and then I silently asked if He would accept this much abbreviated and definitely non-traditional form of reverence. A smile played upon my lips unwittingly, and I had the overwhelming urge to eat the honeyed-cookies. (In Hinduism, like most other spiritual traditions, the devotees partake of the consecrated food offerings after the ritual ceremony. It is considered a way of taking the God into oneself and thereby being blessed. This is called receiving ‘prasad’, literally translated ‘grace’.[2]) I looked at Him and I could have sworn that He was smiling right back at me. The old sensation of happiness and acceptance that I had been missing flooded back, and I knew that He had heartily accepted my annotated ritual adorations. He was pleased when I was earnestly involved in the worship. The fact that I didn’t feel connected to very structured rituals was just part of who I was – and am - but it didn’t have to stand in the way of a remarkably beneficial relationship. Ganesha was more than willing to accept my love in the way I was most comfortable and able to give it.

            Since then I don’t think that I have approached Him in the same exact way more than once. There are elements that are always present, like the recitation of His mantra, OM GAM Ganapatiye Namaha, candles and incense. Most times though, I don’t have sweets around, and so they’ve become a special offering for such occasions as His birthday, when I have a special request, in thanks for the answered prayers or a random just because on a day when I’m feeling especially grateful in general. I do what feels natural at the time, and I don’t get hung up on the trappings. Sometimes I will sense that He wants a little extra attention just to make sure my free-form worship isn’t becoming complacent, and so I’m happy to sit down before Him and chant a full round of 108 repetitions of His mantra and then sit in silent meditative appreciation of His presence in my Life. I always trust what my intuition tells me where He is concerned, and that is a valuable lesson that extends into life in general.

            I believe that it is very easy for those new to the Pagan path to become confused and overwhelmed trying to ritualize in the “right” or most “traditional” way. Obviously, for some, it is exactly in that attention to detail that they find their connection to Deity, however I feel most people are a bit more elastic in nature than that. Before you have really tuned into or developed a real sense of intuition you may founder about, becoming more and more frustrated by your lack of spiritual “successes”. Ritual should be about creating an atmosphere that is conducive to the expression of both the participant’s and the Gods’ devotional and magickal energies. It is finding the balance of elements that are pleasing to both the Deity and the devotee.

            I also think that in the initial fervor of identifying oneself as a Pagan, many may rush to choose a patron Deity. There is no doubt that the first gut-feeling of some individuals is a true calling from the Divine, but for many others I believe that finding one’s patron is a process. Researching various world mythologies and religions is of utmost importance, for general educational reasons as well as for spiritual edification. You may think, as I did that one God/dess is right for you, when actually your Soul needs a very different energy and a very different and more suitable Deity is waiting patiently for you to come home. If intellectual reasoning has left you feeling stranded and alone, try taking a few steps back from your own pre-conceived notions of which God/desses you want to work with, and let your heart and intuition guide you to the Gods and Goddesses that want to work with you!

 I also encourage those trying to find their ritual footing to experiment with different ritual techniques, from the most structured ceremony to the loosest free-for-all and everything in between. If you had fun working with one, while maintaining a sense of reverence, perhaps that is a type of ritual structure that will work best for you in the long run…or at the very least, work the best for you at this point in your spiritual journey.  When you are ready to bring the Gods into it, research Their likes and dislikes, and then incorporate that into the ritual framework that suits you and see how They respond. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that your pleasure is Theirs as well! 

[1] Loving Ganesha, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, pg. 207, Himalayan Academy 2000.

[2] Darsan, Diana L. Eck, pg. 106, Columbia University Press 1996

OM GAM Ganapatiye Namaha! OM DUM Durgaye Namaha!

Devi Spring, author and compiling editor. Copyright Devi Spring 2006.