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Why do we submerge idols in water?

By Kumkum Bhatia

 

Celebrated all over India but especially in Maharashtra, Ganesh Utsav is a spectacular festival honouring Lord Ganesha. Most of us have seen the colourfully decorated idols in our homes and special Pandals. After ten days of the Chaturthi celebrations, it is believed that Lord Ganesha returns to his heavenly abode.

In Mumbai, it is a marvellous sight to see the vigour and enthusiasm of the farewell procession, accompanied by singers, dancers, acrobats, priests and thousands of devotees. Sweets, coconuts, flowers and aarti are offered to the deity prior to immersion in the Arabian Sea. This ritual is known as ‘Ganesh Visarjan‘, or the immersion of Lord Ganesha.

Meaning of Visarajan

The word visarjan, derived from Sanskrit, has numerous connotations. Basically, it refers to a final rite. However, in the context of worship, it refers to the formal concluding rite, in which the god or goddess is requested to depart from the physical embodiment in which it was invoked. Such images are made primarily from clay and straw. This ‘temporary receptacle’ is then discarded, most often by submersion into a river or sea. This act is not necessary for inaugurated or permanent images found in Hindu temples.

Symbolism

Clay and water are mixed to give form to the formless. Each person brings the clay idol home. This is the Supreme Being arriving at home. After the celebrations, it is time to accept the eternal cosmic law – that which took form has to become formless again.

Each year the god or goddess arrive to teach us that forms change but the Supreme Reality remains the same. The body perishes, but the Self remains constant. Furthermore, it is only through the collective power of our prayers and belief that an inanimate object becomes transformed into an object of devotion.

The murti is a symbol through which we channel our prayers and simultaneously receive the Lord’s blessing. The involvement of all members of the community in creating the image is noteworthy and promotes unity in the community.

The fisherman dredges the lakebed to obtain the clay, the potter adds various organic materials and sculpts the clay, the skilled artisan adds colours, and the tailor fashions the clothes. The pundit invokes the spirit of the deity at the auspicious hour. The whole process from inception to completion teaches collaboration and brings the community together.

The visarjan ceremony represents the concept of samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This ritual is designed to draw attention to the ephemeral nature of life.

Concern for Environment

The sages of ancient India knew that in order to preserve fresh water in ponds, lakes and other water bodies, we need to dig out the old clay or soil in them. That is why the idols of gods and goddesses were prepared with the clay of tanks and ponds, and worshiped with turmeric and other natural herbs. Once the image was returned to the water body, the clay dissolved in the water and the herbal properties helped in the growth of marine life.

Today, the predicament of washed up discarded murtis after the visarjan is due to our own negligence. It requires re-educating the masses and insisting that the constituents of the images (as was earlier) should be of a biodegradable, non-toxic and environmentally friendly nature.

This trend has already begun. In Mumbai, the ‘Save Powai Lake Team’ comprising of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay campus and residents of Powai, have held workshops to make eco-friendly murtis using Powai Lake’s soil. Icons of clay from Powai Lake were made for Ganesh Puja in the IIT campus, and in some of the nearby schools where both adults and schoolchildren were encouraged to paint them with natural colours. Hopefully, this idea will spread throughout the country.

 

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