Last week was Ganapati Puja which marked the beginning of the ten day festival in Maharshtra. Last year during the ten-day Ganapati festival I had covered different facets of Lord Ganapati in details and all the articles are available in the Archives, or you can go through them through the following link – http://utkarshspeak.blogspot.com/2010_09_01_archive.html
Like every year, the festival ends with various days of Visarjan, or immersion of the idols. After all the fanfare and the festivities, the idols are taken out in a procession and immersed in the sea. This is a ritual that is followed all over the country with all the idols that have been venerated, worshipped, and people go for such immersions with much joy and celebrations. In some parts of Bengal however, many women are seen shedding tears during the immersion of the Goddess Durga after the ten day festival of Durga Puja in Bengal. But this is because Goddess Durga arrives in Bengal as a daughter and the leaving of the daughter is always sad.
This leads to the basic question, why are idols immersed in water (river or sea)?
The arrival of any deity on such festivals is like the arrival of a new being. The entire process of the ceremony from the prana-prathishta to bhog to visarjan is akin to the human circle of life – birth, maturity and death. In Hinduism, death is not the end of the being, but is the beginning of another journey. Also, since gods don’t die, they just depart, immersion processions of idols become a cause for celebrations. Also for mortals, after death, the ashes are immersed in the water, depicting the return to the basic elements. A visarjan is going back to where one came from. If we leave the modern ingredients (like plaster of paris, plastics, synthetics, etc.), the traditionally idols were made of clay. After visarjan, the clay idols are returned back to where they came from, thus maintaining an ecological balance. (Our forefathers, did not need lessons on ecology, and understood it just too well!)
To take the discussion of Ganapati’s visarjan further, as per the Puranas, Goddess Gauri (aka Parvati) made Ganapati out of clay, infused life in the clay model to make a son out of the same. During visarjan, the clay is just returned back to the mother earth, the universal symbol of Motherhood.
During the Vedic times, idols were made of clay and the immersion took place within one’s own wells and water-bodies. Since Ganapati is a harvest deity, immersing the idols in one’s own water-bodies ensured that the deity remained in one’s own land to ensure prosperity. But modern times do not provide for such rituals to sustain and thus people immerse in rivers and seas.
Many would here ask, then what happens to the idols which are made of metal and installed in the temples. The entire process of installations and the objective of such idols is different from that of the clay idols that are for temporary worship. Also, the deities need regular rituals if they are to be retained which is not possible at households and mandals. Temples can ensure the regularity of rituals and are thus made of materials with a greater permanency like metals, stones, marbles, etc.
Finally, on a lighter note, guests are welcome only when they stay for a limited period of time…..and so it is with gods and goddesses also! As a child, once I asked my mother – what is the big deal of offering prasad, i.e. offerings, to gods when they don’t eat? The answer I got was – if gods started eating all that people offered them, then people would stop offering to gods too! I guess the same is with the arrival and sending off of gods too!