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Significance Of Ganesh Visarjan

Dr. Raj Pandit Sharma

The word “visarjan” is derived from the Sanskrit language and has numerous connotations.  However, in the context of worship or ‘puja’ it refers to the formal concluding rite, in which the presiding deity is requested to depart from the physical embodiment, specifically utilised for the puja (usually a murti) in which it was initially invoked.  This ‘temporary receptacle’ is then discarded, most often by submersion into running water, such as a river or the sea.  The act is not necessary for inaugurated (pratishthit) more permanent murtis (deities) as found in places of worship, unless the murti becomes damaged (khandita) thus rendering it unfit for puja.

In order to comprehend the practice of visarjan, we must first understand the concept of worship in the Hindu faith.  The worship of the Almighty in Sanatan Dharma may be through the ‘Saakaar’ (with form) or ‘Niraakaar’ (formless).  The niraakaar method requires no physical depiction, or object and meditation (dhyaan) is a form of this kind of praying.  The Saakaar method requires a ‘physical medium’ through which the Almighty is venerated and ‘Puja’ or ‘Archana’ are forms of this act of worship.

This ‘physical medium’, murti, symbol or aakaar, can be made of any of the five elements (earth, water, air, fire and ether) or a combination of them.  It could be a simple sign inscribed with vermillion, turmeric or flour on a platter (thaali) or on a raised surface, representing the celestial bodies, as seen during a Puja ceremony. A supaari (betel nut) wrapped with sacred thread can also be used.  It could be a ‘kalash’ usually comprising of an earthenware pot containing water, leaves and topped with a coconut.  The image could be drawn on paper, a wall, or even shaped from a mound of earth (pindi).

The most popular images seen during the Navratri Durga Puja and Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations are elaborate murtis made primarily from clay and straw.  There is much reasoning behind this.  Clay is formed from sediment including the physical remains of once living organisms, including humans.  The 14th century saint Bhagat Kabir describes in a couplet that although a potter proudly moulds clay with his dexterous hands into numerous objects, it could transpire that in a future life, the very clay he has fashioned will enter the life cycle chain and become a potter! The clay object could break and return to the earth and be reconstituted (through the five elements) into a human being, who could become a potter and mould clay formed from the remains of the former potter.

The involvement of all members of the community in creating this holy depiction is noteworthy and promotes cohesion in our community.  The fisherman dredges the lakebed to obtain the clay, to which the potter adds various organic materials from diverse sources.  The clay is then sculptured into the murti by the skilled artisan, for which the tailor then fashions vestments. The learned Priest invokes the spirit of the deity at the auspicious hour.  The whole process from inception to completion teaches us collaboration and reminds us that we all have important functions in society.

In the case of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, it commemorates the creation of Lord Ganapati and he is venerated for ten days with great fervour.  According to Puranic texts, the Goddess Gauri moulded his original form from exfoliate of her own skin.  She then invoked her consort, Lord Shiva to breathe life into the inanimate sculpture.  Hence, the process of creating and worshipping Shri Ganesh in the aforementioned method is highly significant and analogous to his actual genesis described in our scriptures.  The Goddess Gauri is represented as mother earth and the clay symbolises her body’s exfoliate from which Ganapati was formed. On the tenth and final day of the festival (Anant Chaturdashi), the transitory embodiment of Ganesh is respectfully requested to depart (visarjan) and then the remaining depiction (now inert) is submersed into water.

This idea is common to other belief systems, as the concept of a spirit invoked by the devotees in their time of need entering an inanimate object is found in the story of the Golem ((which means shapeless matter in Hebrew), from the Talmud scriptures.  It is related that when the devout have faced dire circumstances, they summon the Golem, formed from the earth through the power of prayer.  The Golem is thought to execute their command and rid them of the problem, subsequently returning to the soil.

There is profound importance to visarjan and this particular act of worship, Puja.

1. As explained earlier, it reminds us that for a harmonious existence, there must be mutual respect for one another and teamwork, as observed in the formation of the murti.

2. Furthermore, it is only through the collective power of our prayers and belief that an inanimate object becomes transformed into an object of devotion.  Similarly, we should learn that all humans are mere flesh and blood, however through the Almighty’s grace we may become the embodiment of spirituality and transcend all adversity.

3. We are reminded that an image (physical depiction) is not actually the Supreme Being and in fact, it is through devotion that our hearts imbibe the divine spirit where he then resides.  The murti is a symbolic intermediary through which we can channel our prayers (during puja) and simultaneously receive the Almighty’s blessing.  Puja in this method allows us to experience the spirit of the Supreme through all the physical senses.  Darshan, or beholding the depiction, Shravan which allows one to hear the praises of the Almighty, Sparsha, to touch the sacred image, Gandha, inhaling the scent emanating from the flowers, perfumes, fruits and incense offered to the deity and of course Rasanaa, when we taste the ambrosial Prasad which has been offered to the Almighty.

4. The visarjan ceremony represents the concept of Samasara, or the cycle of birth death and rebirth.  This fate befalls all living creatures including humans as life is fleeting and once the soul departs from our body, the corporeal form then perishes and returns to the natural elements, only to be reconstituted in another body in the subsequent life cycle.  Similarly, once the presiding deity departs from the murti, its physical manifestation is then returned to nature, only to be reanimated the following year. The imbibed spirit however remains in the hearts of the devotees and enriches their lives.

5. The purpose of such ceremonies is to replenish our spiritual reserves and to remind us that material wealth is transitory and is of no use to the soul.  The process of visarjan teaches us detachment and to realise that our own body, which we cherish and pamper will one day be reduced to base elements.

The predicament of the washed up discarded murtis after the visarjan is due to our own negligence.  The images depicting discarded murtis of Ganesh ji as detritus are highly distressing for Hindus, but are partly of our own doing.  It requires re-educating the masses and insisting that the constituents of the murtis (as instructed by our scriptures) should be of a biodegradable, non-toxic and environmentally friendly nature. This trend has already begun and in Mumbai, the 'Save Powai Lake Team' comprising Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay campus and residents of Powai, a northern suburb, involved in saving this lake, have held workshops to make eco-friendly murtis using Powai lake's soil. Icons of clay from Powai Lake were made for Ganesh Puja in the IIT campus and in some of the nearby schools where both adults and schoolchildren were encouraged to paint them with natural colours. The team's idea has proven successful as residents of Powai are reverting to smaller murtis rather than large ones made of plaster of Paris and painted using chemical colours.  This way the material used for the deity will naturally dissolve in water, which is the original concept described in the scriptures.

Furthermore, the discarded murtis should be completely submersed (and not just immersed) out at sea, or at that point of a river or lake where it is deep. This will prevent a humiliating fate for the remains of the revered murti.

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