Ganesha: A Ritual of Love & Loss
Arguably the most famous elephant in the world, Ganesha has traveled from his Indian birthplace in the fourth century CE to yoga studios and new age boutiques across America. Lauded as the Remover of Obstacles, no Indian god has found his way into the heart of yogis as this slightly awkward and extremely lovable vegetarian mammal. Stuffed with pre-Vedic symbolism, like any god he’s picked up attributes along the way. One of my favorites involves his enormous belly: Ganesha has a lifelong attachment to the sweet and syrupy rose water-drenched desert gulab jamun, a favorite of mine.
As much as I too love the symbolism of this elephant-headed boy who once stopped his father, Shiva, from visiting Parvati, for some reason I keep having to destroy him. And as every trickster deity is known to do, he keeps coming back.
While in no way religious, I have amassed quite a collection of Ganesha figures. I’m not sure when this gathering of statues began, but I’ve only bought one—a slick Thai warrior Ganesha wielding daggers. I purchased that gem at an import store because it was so unique and strong. I have plenty of others: a four-Ganesha clay set, each playing an instrument; a beautiful carved incense holder; a tiny traveling companion for my car; two paintings by Brooklyn artist Craig Anthony Miller, among others.
Yet the little furry creature keeps popping up in my relationships. The first woman I ever lived with carved Ganesha into a walking stick she fashioned for me; fourteen years later, he appeared on my wedding altar, decorated in a flowing red scarf and adorned with rudraksha beads. In both cases, I was left holding the elephant when the ceremonies ended, when it was time to move on.
I held onto the walking stick for many years—it was a beautifully crafted piece of art. Yet each time I eyed it in the corner of my room, a pang of longing ensued. In preparation for my first peyote ceremony, I was told that there would be a sacrificial fire before the sweat lodge leading into the ritual. I stood over the dancing flames and watched the long branch burn to ashes, sweating in the pungent smoke it produced.
Ganesha returned, however, even appearing as a tattoo on my chest. He is surrounded by a flame that wraps over my shoulder and connects with his father, Shiva in dancer’s form, or Natraj, which covers my back. I chose the flame as it connects Shiva’s role of destruction to Ganesha’s duty of removing obstacles, and fire is the quickest means to that end.
Then he showed up on my wedding altar last year. The Ayurvedic priest who took part in the ceremony offered him as a present, leading us through mantra as we circled the stoic creature perched on a round table. When divorce became imminent, I stared at Ganesha every time I walked into the living room, knowing I could not carry that effigy with me to the next chapter of my life, amazed how a book can become a footnote during the long trajectory of a lifetime.
And so, en route to Black Rock Desert to attend Burning Man, I placed the silver elephant in my backseat, burying him somewhere overlooking Mono Lake before breaching the Nevada border. Mark Twain wrote that the lake was the ‘loneliest place on earth,’ perhaps the reason this desert landscape was so appealing, given my state of mind. Walking back to my car, my hands plastered with the dry remnants of sand, I wondered why I had to keep leaving Ganesha behind.
I asked that question of a friend. Her reply:
Maybe the enormous symbolism of your destroying him is where his power lies. Even though you have tried, he can’t truly be destroyed. There really isn’t any better proof than that for the strength in impermanence.
I don’t believe an elephant-headed, desert-loving boy with one broken tusk is scribing the evolution of my love life. As a symbol of the power of regeneration, however, he’s been one hell of a teacher. Like most Hindu deities, he is not only the Remover of Obstacles; he places obstacles in the way too. Not that any of my relationships have been barriers; they have been special and important in the continual development of my understanding of who I am. The barrier has been my own inability to wrap my head around the long and often confusing arc of relationships we all deal with, perhaps to not always live up to the mythology I’ve been trying to create.
The Chinese have a word for this—yaunfen:
Even if lovers are fated to find each other they may not end up together. The proverb, “have fate without destiny,” describes couples who meet, but who don’t stay together, for whatever reason. It’s interesting, to distinguish in love between the fated and the destined. Romantic comedies, of course, confound the two.
The difference between a mythology and a romantic comedy can be hard to pinpoint. Shakespeare understood this. Our world understands this, every time we place an elephant icon on our personal altar while others slaughter the mammals for the ivory that Chinese working class folks hope will make them appear to have some form of formulated status. The distance between what we believe and how we act is too often too large a gulf to jump over.
This relationship between our fantasies and our reality is one of the bridges Ganesha helps construct. Of course, he often doesn’t show up for work when you expect him to, takes extra long lunch breaks, and enjoys hanging out with rats. There’s lessons in those qualities, too. Whether they are obstacles to put up or tear down is going to depend on where we are at the moment.
While at Burning Man, a young man stopped me after noticing the large Ganesha on my chest. After smiling loudly and informing me of his favorite website that creates elephant deity artwork, he stops and thinks for a moment. ‘Ganesha…he’s my dude. We understand one another.’
I laugh lightly and nod, responding, ‘I know what you mean.’
Ganesha artwork by Craig Anthony Miller.