By sheer coincidence, we arrived last week in Mumbai the night before a major Hindu holiday: the celebration of the birth of Ganesh, one of the most prominent gods in West India.
“Do you know the story of Ganesha?” our host Deepak asks me and Kim as we join him on his morning walk.
“Lord Shiva cut off the… Do you know who Lord Shiva is?”
We admit that we don’t.
“Lord Shiva, the god of death and destruction, had as his wife Parvati. Their son was Ganesha. One day Parvati was in the bathroom taking a shower and she asked Ganesha to guard the door. Lord Shiva came and wanted to enter, but Ganesha wouldn’t let him. Shiva got very angry and cut off his head.”
“Ganesh’s head? His son’s head?” I ask to make sure I’m following.
“Yes,” continues Deepak. “But Shiva soon regretted this, so he took the head of an elephant and placed it on Ganesha’s body. That way Ganesha could live again. That is Ganesh. The body of man, the head of elephant.”
Although I’m very familiar with the image of Ganesh, I never knew the story behind the icon. Probably because before coming to India my exposure to Hinduism consisted of one chapter of 9th grade history.
“Do you see the lights?”
Deepak points to long strands of colored lights that hang from the trees and telephone wires throughout his neighborhood.
“These are for the festival. The birthday of Ganesh. Tonight there will be a procession of his statue through the streets. People will dance and sing… It is a big celebration.”
If I were a dog, this would be a moment I’d wag my tail. I am always eager to experience different religious practices. And who doesn’t love dancing in the streets?
The holiday is called Ganesh Chaturthi, and it lasts for 10 days. According to custom, each community erects its own Ganesh statue. On the first day of the festival, the statue is paraded through the streets and led to its temple. That’s this particular day, our first in Mumbai.
The processional festivities begin at sunset. By the time we sit down to dinner the neighborhood is absolutely buzzing. We eat to the rhythm of the rising celebration – drums, firecrackers, bells. Pandemonium seeps into Deepak and Asha’s flat even with the windows closed. We finish our meal, then hit the streets to join the fun.
On a float-type vehicle at the back of the parade is the Ganesh statue, easily 20 feet tall and incredibly ornate; the star of the show. In front of the icon is the bustling procession – young men beating drums, male and female dancers performing a mix of traditional and freestyle dances, children throwing red powdery chalk at each other. The ground is literally pulsing from the banging of the drums; I can feel the vibration reverberate in my chest and limbs.
The joy is so contagious that I can’t help dancing in place as I watch from the sidelines. It strikes me that everyone is sober. Alcohol is neither a part of Hindu celebration nor a pronounced feature of Indian culture, as far as I can tell. It’s refreshing to see such abandon without the liquid confidence that usually helps us let loose.
“Do you want to come pray?” Asha shouts to me above the ruckus.
“I don’t know… Is that respectful? You know, since I’m not a Hindu?”
“It is good,” she quickly affirms, and wastes no time in grabbing my hand and leading me to the foot of the statue, still covered in plastic on the float behind the procession. She guides me through the ritual, and together we pray.
After an hour or so, we’re all drenched with sweat and decide it’s time to head home. But we can still hear the drums in the flat, so we dance together in the living room for awhile before heading off to bed.
Although the undercurrent of this whole day was religion, at no point did Deepak or Asha ask me about my faith, nor did they try to encourage me towards theirs. They welcomed my participation in their rituals even though they knew I didn’t share their beliefs. Why?
My best guess is that culture and religion are so entwined here that inviting me to pray is almost like inviting me to dinner, metaphorically speaking. Allowing me to participate in their rituals is a way for them to share their traditions, to take pride in their customs. My presence in a Hindu temple or my head lowered at the foot of Ganesh’s statue is not an unholy offense; it is a sign that I respect their culture, which is almost impossible to separate from their religion.
Of course, not all Indians are Hindu, and I’m sure as we continue our journey I’ll become privy to the many religious nuances in this country. My perceptions about Ganesh Chaturthi will no doubt morph and develop as my lens on religion in India widens.
But I’m sure I’ll remain grateful that we were able partake in this joyous celebration. I wonder who the god of coincidence is.