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Ganesh Festival: The soft power of religion and nationality

By Satya Narayana Sahu | PUBLISHED: 25, Sep 2012, 12:14 pm IST | UPDATED: 27, Sep 2012, 12:36 pm IST

Ganesh Festival: The soft power of religion and nationality The description of Lord Ganesh by Professor Robert Brown as the Asian God underlines His religious, spiritual, cultural and artistic significance transcending the boundary of India. Hailed as the most worshipped and ubiquitous God He is being revered for ages and there has been a long standing tradition of celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi. 

While several States of our country celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi, the scale, scope and intensity of such celebrations in Maharashtra is unique compelling attention and admiration.  Participation of vast masses including Muslims in ceremonies organized to worship Lord Ganesh on Ganesh Chaturthi in that State is truly a distinguishing aspect of the religious and cultural ethos of Maharashtra.


We have had a remarkable tradition of creatively invoking the spiritual values for the cause of justice, righteousness and above all for freedom and independence. The name of Lokmanya Tilak in the context of Ganesh festival has always been reverentially recalled. It was he who gave the electrifying slogan that “Swaraj is my birth right and I shall have it” and stirred the whole nation to fight against British rule. He used the Ganesh festival as a rallying point for nationalism and independence. 

The bold and exemplary   use of Ganapati festival by him to moblise people for the cause of  Swaraj stood him out  in our history as a shining example of leader who while committed to religion promoted the cause of nationalism without in any way stoking bigotry and intolerance against other faiths.

Lord Ganesh is the only God in the Hindu pantheon whose birth anniversary and the celebrations woven around  it was masterfully used by Lokmanya Tilak for promoting nationalism among people and awakening their consciousness for Swaraj.  But why did Tilak choose Ganapati Festival for advancing the cause of Swaraj? Was it because he was deeply religious or was it because he wanted to invest nationalism with religious values so that vast masses of ordinary people could understand the religious idiom and get drawn to the  struggle for independence?

A deeply religious man and at the same time an ardent nationalist he had a finer and intelligent understanding of the decision taken by the British rulers, after the suppression of the first war of independence,   that they would not meddle with any issue concerning religion. Taking advantage of it Tilak felt that if a religious festival centering around Ganesh Chaturthi was organized and it could be used to spread among the participants and devotees the lasting values patriotism, British rulers  would not do anything to curb it.

It is entirely due to the efforts of Lokmanya Tilak that India could take pride in teaching her people the lessons of nationalism and patriotism by innovative use of religious festivals. In doing so he was providing a platform to train people so that they could become nationalists and strive for our freedom and independence.  We have, thus, a legacy of mobilization of people for secular purposes by meaningfully using idols and symbols entirely falling within the domain of religion and spirituality.

The Prime Minister of our country Dr. Manmohan Singh while releasing commemorative coins featuring Lokmanya Tilak on 23 July 2007 referred to the way in which he organized Ganapati festival to promote the spirit of nationalism and said “Lokmanya used religion to unite people, not to divide them. He used religion to seek freedom, not spread hatred. Those who use religion to divide people and to promote hatred must learn from the constructive lessons of Lokmanya Tilak’s life and work”.


If we glance the pages of our history we are educated that apart from Tilak many other great leaders of our country referred to Lord Ganesh and Ganapati festival in the context of spiritual regeneration of our country, reformation of religion, and removal of curse of untouchability from Hinduism. In surveying the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi it is found that in his prayers there were reverential references to Lord Ganesh, Goddess Saraswati and mother earth. When Kishorelala  suggested him on 2nd November 1945 for omission of verses containing  the holy names of the Gods and Goddesses he refused to do so. Yet again we get the valuable lesson from the life of Mahatma Gandhi that he used to recite  the sacred names of divine figures including the  name of Lord Ganesh for the purpose of bolstering moral and spiritual strength.
While Lokmanya Tilak used Ganesh festival for the casue of Swaraj and political awakening, Mahatma Gandhi urged people organizing  Ganesh festivals to associate with them the Harijans who suffered exclusion and discrimination. On 25th August 1946 he wrote a small piece under the caption “Do Not Forget Harijans” the contents of which are of significance for the cause of reforming our society and religion. In that letter he quotes a correspondent who wrote the following:

“Shri Ganesh-utsava started by the late Lokamanya is coming near; most of our ministers and leaders will be invited by various associations to speak on this occasion.  I desire to suggest to the speakers that they should accept such invitations, provided that the management would allow Harijans to take part in the function; they should also make it a point to take at least one Harijan with them when they go to address the congregation.”     

Mahatma Gandhi described the suggestion of the correspondent as reasonable and apt and added “If caste Hindus really want to stamp out untouchability they should have the company of Harijans in their gatherings, and especially on such occasions as the celebration of Hindu festivals they should not fail do so.”

Thus, it is evident that one year before we got independence the father of our nation reached out to the organizers of the Ganesh festival to make Hinduism more inclusive and broad based by involving the Harijans who were excluded from social, economic and spiritual domains and suffered deprivation and discrimination.

We, therefore, learn from the life and work of Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi the method of creative and constructive use of religion for championing the cause of freedom, independence and social transformation.


The nation is celebrating the hundred and fiftieth birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, one of the foremost spiritual leaders of our country, who expounded the fundamentals of Hinduism in the USA and Europe and cast a spell on the western people through his profound lectures. In one of his lectures on Vedanta delivered in Lahore in 1897 he stressed on spiritual regeneration of India in the modern age  and forcefully said that let India reawaken herself by reviving and rediscovering her spiritual values and heritage and let it happen by the blessings of the God, be it Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu or Ganapati.

In fact he understood spiritual regeneration in a broader sense and explained it to mean “understanding each other, working for each other with real love and  intense love for truth”.  A cerebral saint like Swami Vivekananda also invoked the sacred name of Lord Ganesh for spiritual regeneration of India towards the end of nineteenth century.


In fact in twenty first century world there is widespread interest on spirituality and spiritual values. Professor Mashelkar, the former Director General of the Council for  Scientific and Industrial Research, had famously stated that in twenty first century the world is turning to three things-digital, spiritual and herbal.

He added that in all these  areas India is rich. In the digital sphere it is a leading country providing leadership and expertise in the field of information and communication technology at the centre of which remains the digital knowledge. In the realm of spirituality India is the only country which has been  hailed as the world leader since the ages. And of course the experience and expertise of preparing herbal preparations in India to address the ailments affecting body, mind and spirit are well known and well acclaimed.

So if world is turning to three things-digital, spiritual and herbal- and if  India is rich in all the three, then Professor Mashelkar opined that the world is turning to India. In this context the spiritual tradition of our country of which Lord Ganesh is an integral and invaluable part and whom none other than Swami Vivekananda referred to for  the spiritual regeneration of our country, is of immense relevance for the twenty first century world which is facing host of challenges arising out of global warming and climate change.

A bold and new approach has been adopted in the western world to explore the realm of what has been called soft power as opposed to hard power. While hard power is derived broadly from military capability or financial and economic strength, the soft power is understood in terms of  the capacity flowing from variety of sources which include culture, religion, music, education, etc,. 

It is instructive to note that much before such terms were coined and understood in the western world, some of our outstanding leaders had deep insight to use our soft power for larger cause of liberating our country from foreign rule. The use of non-violence by Mahatma Gandhi and the use of Ganesh festival by Tilak are some of the examples of soft power which they successfully employed for the liberation and transformation of our society.

It is interpreted that the depth of India’s culture and spirituality is immeasurable and, therefore, the potential of our soft power is enormous and far reaching. If it is properly harnessed India would become a leading country in the world with its enduring and rich reservoir of soft power. The positive interpretation of this soft power as evidenced in the organization of Ganapati festival by  Lokmanya Tilak augurs well for our future in further rediscovering our   soft power constituting spiritual values, religious heritage and musical tradition.

The pursuit of soft power as an inevitable option to relook at the definition of power and understand it as a proposition to attract the hearts and minds of those for whom it is employed marks a significant departure  from the traditional notion associated with force and crude might based on arsenals and economic muscle. Understanding of Ganapati festival organsied  by Lokamanya Tilak in the context of  harnessing our soft power will enable us to realize the infinite source of our soft power  which is our enviable strength and which is marveled across the world.   


We, thus find that India has had a remarkable legacy of harnessing ideas and using religious symbols and idols for larger causes of freedom and spiritual upliftment. While Lokmanya Tilak relied on Ganesh festival for political cause Swami Vivekananda invoked His name for spiritual regeneration and Mahatma Gandhi wanted celebrations centering around Ganesh Festival  to make Hinduism more inclusive and eradicate the scourge of untouchability.

But we must be mindful of the fact that our spirituality has to be salvaged from the ritualism and complicated procedures. Spiritualism minus ritualism will act as a liberating force for the common people who often become victims of ritual practices and superficial aspects of religion.


While celebrating the Ganesh Chaturthi   we are painfully aware of the fact that India has the largest number of illiterates in the world. How is that our country with a time immemorial tradition of worshipping the Lord Ganesh and Goddess Saraswati, the deities of education and learning, has not been able to remove illiteracy? We claim to be inheritors of a great spiritual heritage wherein both Lord Ganesh and Goddess Saraswati are revered and prayed for blessing the devotees to acquire knowledge and scholarship.  The prevalence of wide spread of illiteracy is indicative of the fact that mere tradition of celebrating Ganesh and Saraswati pujas would not be sufficient to spread education and make people literate and learned.


Earlier a reference was made to Swami Vivekananda. When he started Ramakrishna Mission he gave importance to the construction of a library near the meditation hall. In doing so he wanted to drive home the point that spiritual pursuit can coexist with the endeavour for   study and education. We have to have such renewed and constructive interpretation of spiritualism to make it socially relevant.

In fact Mahatma Gandhi while entering a temple in Kerala along with the Harijans in 1930s had said that spiritualism would not be confined to temple entry alone and had to embrace the issues centering around social, educational and economic upliftment of the suffering millions. Swami Vivekananda had also said those who claim to be well versed in the Vedas and Vedanta would necessarily  have to have the knowledge to teach common people to do business and start an enterprise.

This is how great spiritual leaders had linked spiritual insights with the practical aspects of life. Let the tradition of worshipping Lord Ganesh and Goddess Saraswati actuate us to make India a fully literate country and equip  our people  with skills to play meaningful role in a society which is fast emerging as   a knowledge society.


There is a deeper significance of Lord Ganesh in our modern age marked by avoidable disintegration of family and family values. Across the world and particularly  in the western societies, the breakdown of families is posing danger to stability of society and social, emotional and mental health of individuals. The structure of families in other continents is not free from this problem.

The life of Lord Ganesh as narrated in our mythology teaches a vital lesson to us to preserve family values. When Lord Ganesh and Kartik were asked to go around the universe both got ready and Kartik immediately set on course by flying on his peacock. Lord Ganesh went around his parents and declared that his journey around the universe was completed. That story of our mythology has a deeper modern significance. By going around his parents Lord Ganesh was proving the point that in the finite sphere of the family he was in tune with  the infinite dimensions of the universe. The family as unit to realize the varied and numerous dimensions of life was validated by Him.

At a time when the time honoured tradition of family is coming under pressure and the family as the basic unit of society is collapsing, it is important to preserve, protect and   defend it. The mythological narrative of Lord Ganesh circling around His parents educates the modern generation that the family has to be respected for the all round development of its members and the society.


Apart from understanding the enduring significance of Lord Ganesh within the scope of the Hindu religion, we need to acknowledge the admiration of the Ganesh idol as a wok of art by people cutting across  religious boundaries. During my visit to Japan I was told that Ganesh idol is very famous in that country where people liked it and have a high regard for  its artistic features. Existence of temples dedicated to Lord Ganesh has been detected in China and several countries in South East Asia.

I recall that when late President of India Shri K.R.Narayanan undertook a State visit to France he presented the idol of Ganesh to the then President of France Mr. Chirac who was so impressed with it that he proudly displayed it  in his personal drawing room. There are many scholars from abroad who have extensively written about Lord Ganesh and extolled the form and shape of the idol which combines the human and animal forms.

Professor Robert Brown whose name has been mentioned earlier in his book “Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God” that Lord Ganesh “ wrote that the deity “is favoured with a singular affection. Part of this popular appeal has to do with the way he looks. He has an elephant head and a human body”. Wendy O’Flaherty insightfully wrote, “Ganesh has everything that is fascinating to anyone who is interested in the religion or India or both: charm, mystery, popularity, sexual problems, moral ambivalence, political importance, the works. One can start from Ganesh and work from there in an unbroken line to almost any aspect of Indian culture.”


The manner in which the significance of Lord Ganesh has been understood in our history and mythology bears significance for diverse aspects of life  and society. It is not only of abiding relevance for the deeply religious and spiritual people but  also of great relevance for those who want to change society along progressive lines. The Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations must inspire us to use religion for the good of society and nation.

At a time when some divisive forces use religion to promote hatred among different faiths it is important to use religion as a unifying force and for the reconstruction of society by harping on its humanistic and spiritual aspects. This is how we must understand the deeper meaning and significance of Ganesh festival in the twenty first century world.
# The author was OSD and Press Secretary to the late President of India Shri K.R.Narayanan and served as Director in the Prime Minister's Office. He is currently Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The text of the article is based on the speech delivered by the author at a Ganesh Festival in New Delhi on 19 Sepetember 2012. Views expressed by the author are his personal views.