Auspicious & ridiculous beginnings are often one and the same
The form of Ganesha, with the elephant’s head on a human body, looks strange at first, but actually, it conceals another image: the shape of the symbol Om. Om represents the primordial vibration of the universe, the power out of which all energy, time, space, and consciousness emerge. Meditating on the unusual form of Ganesha—and the deeper meaning it represents—helps you overcome the obstacles that keep you from starting any good thing you want to do.
How could the ultimate power of the universe and your ability to start something be related? It has to do with the idea that auspicious beginnings aren’t about you doing anything but just being aware of your true nature, which is divine. You don’t ever really do anything but let the universe work through you. Starting is really stopping your resistance.
It means that what you want, if it is truly the right thing, also wants you and is waiting out there for you to move towards it even one step. Just showing up is enough of a start. Just saying thank you for the opportunity to show up is enough of a start. Show up and the muse finds you. Show up and destiny taps you on the shoulder and says, “I’ve been waiting for you. Let’s get to work.”
The thing to remember about auspicious beginnings, I’ve found, is that they don’t look elegant. As Camus wrote in “The Myth of Sysiphus”:
All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street-corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door.
So now when I think about doing something, especially something difficult, I look for the ridiculous beginning which I know is waiting for me.
The mythological stories about Ganesha’s birth are too complex for me to cover here. The birth of Ganesh Chaturthi as a widespread public celebration, however, is a story worth remembering, a story of overcoming obstacles to unity and freedom.
Ganesh Chaturthi, this week’s celebration of His birthday, is done in a big way in Maharashtra because Shivaji, the legendary Maratha king of the 17th century, turned a private, home-based celebration into a festival of unity among all Hindu sects. All Hindus revere Ganesha, whatever sect they may belong to. They also feel a kind of personal affection for Him. How could you not? He’s approachable, even cute.
Shivaji in the 1600s was battling incursions by various Muslim and Christian armies, including the Mughals and the English, and he knew that their success came in part by exploiting religious bigotry both among and against Hindus. Within the Maratha kingdom, religious freedom was enshrined in law. In a letter to the genocidal Mughal emperor Aurangezeb, Shivaji made his beliefs clear: “Islam and Hinduism are terms of contrast. They are used by the true Divine Painter for blending the colors and filling in the outlines. If it is a mosque, the call to prayer is chanted in remembrance of God. If it is a temple, the bells are rung in yearning for God alone.”
Ganesha Chaturthi found a second meaning in 1892, after the British colonial government banned political gatherings and revolutionary leaders turned the festival into a show of Hindu solidarity in the face of divide-and-rule policies. Like Shivaji, the revolutionary leader Lokamanya Tilak knew that Ganesha transcended sectarian boundaries.
He transcends national and cultural boundaries as well. You find Ganeshas all over Asia. When I lived in Japan, I sometimes came across old Ganesha images in Buddhist temples, drawn with elongated faces and snaky trunks by artists who had never seen an elephant. You can find Ganesha statues in non-Hindu homes and Silicon Valley offices. Some know them just as good luck symbols, which is fine for a start. The physical appearance, though strange at first, seems to make sense on a subconscious level, even to the casual observer. The large ears and small, hidden mouth remind you to listen more than you speak. The hand facing outward says, “Don’t be afraid.”
And even if all you know is that for some reason he is holding a bowl of sweets, some books, and a pen which seems to be his own tusk broken off, that by itself is an interesting set of images to contemplate. There’s nothing threatening and much that is comforting in such a personality. He’s writing something important, he’s wise, and he has something sweet to share. For a child or anyone beginning to contemplate the divinity within, it’s a friendly image to start with.
From there you can proceed, step by step, to wrestling with the idea that Ganesha is a metaphoric representation of Om, the vibration of the universe. Matter, energy, the strong, weak, magnetic, electric, and other forces, as well as the illusion of time, all manifest from this vibration. So do consciousness and love, which we manifest by our ability to see the divine in ourselves and in others as sparks from the same fire, droplets of spray from the same ocean.
But concepts like that are hard to wrap your head around. Even the universal values of loving your enemies and not giving in to anger and greed are hard to wrap your head around. Try to do it and you immediately run into obstacles, like “What if my enemy is a real @$$#&)* and also currently trying to destroy me?” That’s a tough obstacle to overcome (though people do it).
You get to such lofty goals by starting, however ridiculous that start may be. You let go of your need to look a certain way or get success early on. Perhaps it takes a god with a strange appearance to remind us that auspicious beginnings, too, can look very different from the way we thought they’d look. They may even look ridiculous to some. But we must start anyway.
Ganesha is also called vigneshwara, the remover of obstacles, because He offers a way to start. Listen well, keep the sweetness of life in mind no matter what, trust in what you know to be wise, and don’t be afraid. In this way, no matter how ridiculous a start you make, it will be an auspicious beginning, simply because you started.
That is better in any case than the alternative, which is not starting. The primordial vibrations of the universe can’t manifest themselves without a beginning, however ridiculous that beginning might seem. What’s more ridiculous is to give in to fear and not start. I can’t think of anything that got accomplished by not starting.