The last week or two in Mumbai we have seen a lot of celebrations (and a lot of chaos!) in the streets. Ganesh Chaturthi has filled the streets with processions of drummers and dancers as bappas were paraded towards their final destinations to be immersed in water. Eid has filled the streets with proud men with plump goats on strings decorated with tinsel.
The whole affair is driving my friend crazy. He is a firm believer that religion should be celebrated in private, kept off the streets and out of people’s faces. He feels that the whole show and pomp put on by the competing revelers is dissolving the meaning behind the festivals, rendering them a pointless, noisy menace.
Me on the other hand, I love a good street party. I love the colour, music, atmosphere and community spirit. I think it is important to keep cultures and traditions alive plus I always welcome the prompt to explore the deeper meanings and lessons to be learnt from these traditions.
However, several weeks in, suffering from a fever bed bound, the cacophony of the endless festivities outside was too much even for me. Poor Ganesh with his large elephant ears must have himself been half deafened.
A particular highlight of Ganpati celebration is the troops of drummers that are accompanied by a keyboard player. The keyboard is often amplified through tinny-screechy sounding tannoy speakers strapped to the top of a rickshaw or car. You can be certain that whatever they keyboard player is playing (seemingly random notes that occasionally bear some resemblance to popular Bollywood songs from the 1970s) will have absolutely no correlation with the accompanying drummers. The dancing public seem to be blissfully unaware/ indifferent to this dissonance and continue to whirl around, let off crackers and shout ‘Morya!’ with great enthusiasm. My head felt like it was going to explode.
“So now you understand?” says my friend, “the whole affair is about show-off; who has the biggest Bappa covered in the most glitter, spent the most money, hired the biggest troop of drummers, put up a mobile soundsystem. Last year there were many complaints because the DJs were playing trashy songs like ‘I’m sexy and I know it’ and ‘Gangnam Style.’ What has that got to do with religion? And with Eid – it is about coming on the road and showing off who has the fattest goat. It used to be that the meat was given to the poor but that rarely happens anymore. They just shit everywhere and cause a nuisance all for ego not god. Why can’t people keep religion in their own homes?”
While, despite my headache I did not entirely agree with him, our conversation got me thinking about a story I had read our daughter about Ganesh and Kubera. Here is my retelling of it in my own words:
Kubera was the god of wealth and he was a massive show-off. He loved to put on the most lavish parties to prove his status as the richest (and therefore most important) god around. He had the finest wines, the most gourmet food and the most opulent décor. All that was lacking to complete the perfection was the caliber of the guests.
Kubera knew what he had to do – he had to persuade Shiva and Parvati, the heads of all the gods to be his guests. He would spend so much money on them that everyone in the whole world would admire him!
Off he went to Kailash with golden invitations and a heart full of pride at his genius idea. Shiva and Parvati were busy however, and in their place sent their son Ganesh, assuring Kubera that he would be a most fitting guest for the occasion.
Undeterred, Kubera pulled out all the stops and showered his guest with compliments and expensive canapes.
“I want the main course!” Demanded Ganesh.
Kubera presented an enormous spread on a mile long banquet table. Ganesh gobbled it up in ten seconds flat. “More!” the god demanded, “I’m still hungry! I will tell my parents what a stingy miser you are not feeding me enough!”
Kubera was starting to get worried. Ganesh had eaten all the food in the palace so he sent his men out to get all the food in the city and the surrounding villages. The village people cried as Kubera’s men took away their food. “What will we feed our children?” They cried.
When all the food in all the land was presented at the palace once more Ganesh swallowed it all, without even chewing. “Still hungry!” shouted Ganesh, his belly filling half the hall.
“But Ganesh!” pleaded Kubera, “I have no food left!”
“You miser! You peasant! I thought you were rich!” Exclaimed Ganesh before starting to eat up all the guards and servants and anyone else who crossed his path. “Next Kubera I am going to eat you!” Shouted Ganesh.
Kubera ran away in fright. Outside he saw the starving people. “Oh great rich king!” they pleaded, “help us as you are so wealthy and generous!”
Kubera ran faster, he could not bear to admit he had nothing and was now as poor as them. There was only one place left to go – back to Kailash to ask for help.
When Shiva and Parvati saw Kubera’s panicked face they laughed. “How silly you are,” said Parvati kindly, “you made the mistake of thinking that people will respect and admire you more if you show off your wealth. Us enlightened gods know the truth however, if you want to impress and honor us then it does not matter how big or small your offering is – what matters is that it is done with humility and love. We have no use for these offerings of food and material riches so afterwards they should be given to the people who need them. Only then will we be satisfied.”
Kubera knew then what he had to do. He went back to Ganesh and knelt before him.
“Oh lord Ganesh! I have nothing left to offer you to demonstrate my wealth. I found these few grains of rice on the kitchen floor. It is not much but I offer them now to you to show my respect for you. They are merely a token. What I really offer to you is my heart and myself as your humble servant and my thanks for all that is good. I offer my prayers that everyone else can be rich in happiness and never go hungry.”
Ganesh smiled and took the rice. “Now I am full. In fact I am too full!” And with that Ganesh opened his mouth and out came all the people, all their food and everything Kubera had fed Ganesh. Kubera was so grateful he used to food to put on a feast for all the poorest citizens of his kingdom and made sure that in the future if he ever held a party that everyone was invited, regardless of how rich or poor they were!
I think this story teaches a valuable lesson. With my friend being a Hindu he celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi at home for three days. On the third day he took all the sweets and fruits he had offered down along with his Bappa and distributed the food to all the children who live on his road. When I say they live on his road I literally mean ON his road – in small shacks built from tarpaulin or just on the pavement. My daughter handed out the sweets and played with the children and finally understood why the sweets that had tempted her for days were not for her. Then we took his Bappa and immersed him in the purpose built pool at the end of the street where he could biodegrade and not cause any pollution. He bought him from a street-side craftsman as opposed to from a mall or supermarket and next year, inspired by a story I read last year we want to make a Bappa out of chocolate, immerse in milk and make chocolate milkshake for all the kids.
My Muslim friend at work told me how he would go home for Eid the following week and his family would take their goat to a special community place where after sacrifice, one third of the meat would be donated for the poor and needy with the remaining two thirds going to family and friends. He also mentioned how each year his family gives alms as part of a Muslim festival.
We have a duty as both individuals and the community to celebrate festivals, both religious and secular for the right reasons and in a responsible way for the environment and our neighbors. The solution is not banning public displays of religion, much as it would please my friend, but to look at the lessons those religions are trying to teach us and do our best to understand and abide by them.
Wishing you all a (slightly belated) happy Ganesh Chaturthi and Eid. !