The Symbol & the Essence
This dialogue between a Seer and three of his disciples takes place in an ashram of old. The Seer, or Rishi, guides the young disciples into the mystery of Ganesha. The Seer is addressed as Āchārya, or Revered Teacher, by the disciples. The names of the disciples live on in Upanishadic lore but the Seer, amongst those few illustrious Sages who embodied the highest spiritual Truth, remains unknown, having long passed beyond name and form.
It was the dusk before the day of Ganesha Chaturthi. The sun was an orange glow upon the horizon. Except for a soft breeze rustling through the trees, nothing seemed to move in the ashram.
The young disciples of the Rishi were all relaxing under the banyan tree while the Rishi, their illustrious acharya, seemed to be in quiet contemplation. In the distance, they could hear the bells of the cows, perhaps still grazing.
Aruni, one of the youngest disciples of the Master, folded his hands and cleared his throat. He called his acharya softly, not wanting to disturb the quietude of the evening. “Sir?”
The acharya opened his eyes and smiled at Aruni — “Yes, Aruni?”
“Is Ganesha real or a spiritual fable?”
“Aruni, what is real anyway?”
“I mean, is he really God?”
“And what is God?” asked the Rishi with a twinkle in his eye. Aruni kept quiet; he knew better than to take that bait. The Rishi waited for some time, the mischievous twinkle still in his eyes. He often loved to tease his young disciples with obvious questions that couldn’t be answered, and his disciples seemed quite used to it.
“God,” continued the Rishi in his soft, mellifluous voice, “is the omnipresence in which this entire universe floats, my child. This omnipresence is all-pervasive, eternal. So what or who is not God?”
The disciples nodded in understanding. Somehow, whenever their teacher would say something about God, they would feel a quiet vastness come upon them. They had all noticed this on several occasions.
“Ganesha is the portal, the opening, to this omnipresence, my child,“ continued the Rishi, “he is not a being, earthly or divine, but an opening into which we can all enter, endlessly! There is no end to Ganesha.”
“The elephant-god…?”, Upamanyu, Aruni’s friend, a few years older, said a bit hesitatingly, looking at the Rishi.
“Elephant-god, indeed,” the Rishi smiled, “he’s neither elephant nor god!”
The young students seemed curious now. The Rishi kept quiet for a while. The sound of the cowbells grew fainter as the sky grew darker. After a few minutes passed in silence, the Rishi spoke again: “Ganesha is known to us as achintya, avyakta and ananta. You know what those words mean?”
“Achintya is that which cannot be thought of; beyond thought.” Said Upamanyu.
“Avyakta,” said Aruni, “is the unmanifest, the unexpressed. And ananta is endless, eternal.”
“Yes, indeed,” said the Rishi, “and thus, he has no form, no attribute, no existence as you and I know it!”
“No existence?” asked Varun, the oldest student of the Rishi, and a philosopher already.
“That which is not in form is avyakta, Varun; therefore, non-existent to our human consciousness. It goes deeper,” said the Rishi, “Ganesha is known as the very form of Parabrahman, the supreme. Parabrahman rupa!”
“Parabrahman,” said Aruni, “is, of course, formless. So how can the formless have a form, Sir?”
“If you understand that, Aruni,” said the Rishi,” you will understand Ganesha and why he is represented in an elephant form.”
“Sir,” said Aruni at once, “I am most eager to know. Pray, tell us!”
“The Formless is not really formless. Know that first. The human consciousness can only comprehend the material or the psychological form: the rupa that appears externally to us or the rupa that arises in our minds and imaginations. There is a form beyond these visible forms, beyond the vyakta, which is avyakta to mind and senses but quite vyakta to the inner consciousness. This is what is known as Svarupa.”
“Can one ever know the Svarupa, Acharya?” asked Aruni.
“Yes, my son, one can know the Svarupa by becoming that. Our ancestors called this knowledge by identity — you become that which you know, just as you know that which you become.”
Then the Rishi quietly intoned, more to himself than to his students — “Ajam nirvikalpam nirakaramekam… Ganesha is unborn, unchanging and formless…. and for those who have the spiritual vision, the eye of Yoga, Ganesha is known directly as the consciousness of the omnipresence. He is the divine energy, the shakti, that moves the universe and he is the vortex into which this whole universe will dissolve… thus is he said to be born of Shiva and Parvati, the Lord and His Shakti.”
The atmosphere seemed charged with electricity, vidyut, as the Rishi sat still after his mystic intonation; his eyes were closed and he seemed elsewhere, as if immersed in Ganesha in some inaccessible dimension of being. The three young disciples all waited, almost in trance themselves.
After what seemed an eternity, the Master continued, “None can know Ganesha without the Divine Will and Grace, for to know Ganesha, the first born of the Divine Couple, is to know the Divine itself. He who meditates on Ganesha and attains to him verily attains to Shiva and His Shakti.
“I shall now reveal to you how Ganesha, created out of the very substance of the Divine Shakti, symbolized by Parvati, descends into creation. Hear carefully and reflect on these words of mine — for behind these words I speak, there is concealed the pure energy of Truth, and it is that energy that you must take into yourself, for indeed, by that energy, and not by your intellects or previous knowledge, will you come to the truth of Ganesha.”
Thus speaking, the Rishi paused and allowed the words to sink into his young disciples. Each of the students felt the vidyut enter their subtle bodies through the words of the Master. Each knew well that their Master sometimes spoke not from the mind but from a plane of consciousness where what was directly seen was directly expressed, without intervention of thought or even speech.
“Ganesha is also known as Ganapati — the Lord of the Ganas,” the Master continued, “Gana means groupings or clusters. This whole universe is made up of groupings, clusters. The atom that makes all matter is itself a cluster of subatomic particles; when you penetrate to the smallest scale of this universe where space and time all but disappear, you will see that there are only invisible vortices of energy which are themselves clusters of subtle energy-fields. As you ascend the scale, you will see the clusters enlarging, from energy-fields to subatomic particles, from subatomic particles to molecules, molecules to gases and gases to stars, and stars to galaxies. Look at the universe and you will see clusters everywhere. All space and time are clusters, some visible and most, invisible. Even your bodies are clusters of cells, tissues, organs. All life forms on earth are clusters, from the humble clusters of microbes and bacteria to the clusters of the higher animals and humans; and then there are clusters of people, tribes, villages, cities and nations.
“Within ourselves, at the psychological plane, our organs of perception and organs of action, the jnanendriyas and karmendriyas, are also clusters or ganas. The mind controls the senses. The buddhi, the discriminative intellect, controls the mind. Thus, the ten senses, the mind and the intellect together add up to twelve and these together are known as the inner ganas.”
“At every level of existence,” the Master continued, “there are clusters: this is how creation or cosmic manifestation is differentiated and organized. And Ganapati Ganesha is the Lord of all clusters: do you see the truth of this? Ganesha is the force that keeps all these multiple clusters together, he is the dharma, the binding force, of all clusters, and without him the universe as we know it will simply fall apart, disintegrate.”
The Rishi’s words were so lucid that the young disciples almost saw what they were hearing; through a power known only to these masters of consciousness, the spoken word, vak, was converted to direct seeing, drishti. The heard became the seen. Thus indeed the masters of consciousness are knowns as seers, drashtas.
“Master, is it possible to attain to the direct knowledge of Ganesha?” asked Upamanyu intensely.
The Rishi smiled widely at his disciple, apparently happy with the force behind the question. “Yes, my child,” answered the Rishi, “all things are possible when one concentrates all of one’s force of being in one’s will and aspiration. Tapas  is your force of being and sankalpa is your will and aspiration. When Tapas is concentrated in the sankalpa, then whatever is held in the mind is realized in spirit. This is the secret of Yoga, my son!”
The purpose of the brief explanation was immediately achieved: the disciples at once felt a slow and concentrated movement of energy ascending their spine, from the lower chakras upward towards the ajna-chakra, the centre between the eyebrows. The minds of all the three disciples at once became still and focused.
“Tomorrow is Ganesha Chaturthi,” the Master continued evenly, looking intently at his disciples, as if gauging each one’s inner readiness, “and you can take the first decisive step towards Ganesha tomorrow itself. My own Guru used to say that the best time to initiate a sadhana is the very moment the aspiration for it arises in one’s buddhi.” Again, the master allowed the words to sink deep into the minds of his disciples, as if carefully preparing the grounds for the sadhana, sowing the seeds with the utmost attention and care. Truly, boundless is the grace of the Guru!
“Understand, my children,” said the Rishi, “the meaning of Chaturthi. You are familiar with the jagruti or the waking state of your being, and the svapna or the dream state, and even sushupti or the deep sleep state. These states you all know by daily experience, and I have trained you in becoming deeply aware of these states and their transitions. But there is a fourth state that you have not experienced yet, a state that does not reveal itself so long as one’s inner consciousness is not fully ripened by sadhana.”
As the silence deepened in their minds, the Master continued: “Chaturthi is the state beyond the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep, the fourth state. This is the inner significance of Chaturthi, my children. To attain to the Chaturthi is the aspiration of our Yoga, to be always in that fourth state, the state of turiya , as our ancestors used to call it.”
The Master paused again. By now it was dark and the whole ashram seemed enveloped in a dense silence. It almost seemed that the three disciples were now aglow with an ethereal wisdom that was streaming from the half-opened eyes of the Rishi. Outwardly, as inwardly, all was still.
“Only when the mind in us becomes thoughtless and the whole consciousness becomes sthira  do we enter the state of turiya. This is the sadhana for the Chaturthi — make your mind utterly still, thoughtless, turned only to the Light of the Supreme, the jyotir-parasya. That Light alone will lead you beyond the veils of Maya’s maharatri  to the eternal Dawn of Truth. To reach this kind of inner silence, to make the mind free of thought, one needs to fast. This is the symbolic fasting for Chaturthi. Upavasa is not merely abstaining from food for the day but establishing yourself above the play of desire and duality, at least, and symbolically, for a day. Hear the word carefully — upavasa breaks into upa which means near, like in the upa of the Upanishad, and vasa derives from vasati, to live or abide in. Therefore, one doing the upavasa withdraws from the external world and all its distractions, inner and outer, and abides in consciousness near the one who he does the upavasa for. So I say to you, my children, keep the Chaturthi upavasa for Ganesha with the full understanding of upavasa. It matters little whether you eat food or you do not; what matters is the ‘food’ or anna, that you feed into your mind and senses. When you fast, you fast your mind and senses, and that fasting is a purification, a cleansing and a preparing for a divine consciousness. Thus all upavasa is suddhikaran or purification. To do upavasa for Ganesha is to abide in the nearness of Ganesha, to be near Ganesha in mind and heart. This is the true significance of Ganesha Chaturthi, my children!”
The Master became silent and still, and the Master’s silence seemed to overflow the boundaries of his physical presence and gently inundate the innermost beings of his disciples. The disciples, fortunate beyond measure to be in the living presence of a Rishi, seemed to drink in the silence and the grace, and become one with their Master in some small but awakened portion of their consciousnesses.
After several minutes of this inner yoga with their Master, Aruni opened his eyes and asked again: “What of Ganesha’s birth, O Master? There seems to be a deep mystery in that which we can only begin to intuit. For how can the formless and the unmanifest be born?”
The Master smiled and spoke after a pause — “You have asked wisely, my child. The eternal has neither birth nor death, neither coming nor passing, neither rising nor falling, for the eternal is also the unmoving, the changeless and the causeless. So what of Ganesha’s birth? It is said of old that he was created out of the dirt accumulated on the body of the Supreme Mother, Parvati. And because the Mother, feeling lonely, wanted a child as her companion. Obviously, the Divine Mother would not feel lonely: the loneliness is the poet-seer’s way of conveying the sense of the eternal ekanta, the absolute aloneness of non-duality. Remember that Parvati, being the wife and consort of Shiva, the Supreme, would be living in inner oneness with Shiva, for that is how the Divine’s Shakti resides in the Divine. Therefore, the Great Mother’s loneliness would really be the expression of the Divine Will for self-manifesting, the One becoming the Many. That is how Shiva himself would manifest Cosmos out of Shakti. So Ganesha is literally the first creation, the first born, who becomes this manifestation. It is not that Ganesha manifests Cosmos: the Cosmos is Ganesha in manifestation. This is what needs to be understood, my child. Then you will know how and why Ganesha is Ganapati and Ganesha himself is all-pervasive omnipresence, and why he is the portal to the Great Omnipresence itself. Knowing this, meditate on Ganesha this Chaturthi.”
The disciples received the words of the Master with deep joy, as if the words themselves were opening some deeper source of ananda in them, as if understanding itself was the divine rasa.
“Was he actually beheaded?” Asked Varun, thinking of the old story of Ganesha’s birth where Shiva, because he couldn’t recognize Ganesha as his own son, beheads him with his trishul for obstructing his way to Parvati.
The Master addressed his disciples again: “There is a mystery here to be understood. Let us explore. What does the head represent, Varun?”
“The mind, the intellect, Acharya,” Varun replied.
“Yes, indeed, Varun” said the teacher, “the head represents manas, chitta, buddhi, ahankara. This head is the root of all our problems, symbolically speaking. So beheading Ganesha was symbolic of the destruction of the root of all problems, the destruction of the personal manas, chitta, buddhi, ahankara. And remember the trishul with which Shiva beheads Ganesha… Shiva’s trishul that represents the three gunas of nature.”
“Yes Master,” said Aruni, “I can see it clearly. This is beautiful poetry, Sire!”
“What indeed is poetry but the inspired expression of Truth itself?” Asked the Rishi, “the poet, kavi, is the seer, the drashta. All our knowledge and wisdom have come to us through our seer-poets, those who saw in their divine visions the Supreme Truth and could bring down some of that Truth into their consciousnesses and convert that to shabd and vak, sound and speech. Mark the fact that it is Ganesha who is invoked by the greatest seer-poets of our tradition before they begin any of their great poetic utterances!”
“Indeed, Sire!” said Upamanyu, “Why is this so?”
“Isn’t that because,” said Aruni to Upamanyu, “Ganesha is the portal, the entry, to the omnipresence and the omniscience of the Divine?”
“And,” added Varun, “why Ganesha is the first to be invoked, before all other divinities?”
“Yes, true,” said the Master, “that is so. Ganesha is the opening, the gateway, and without invoking him, one is left to struggle against all the forces and beings that oppose our work and sadhana. But by invoking Ganesha, one cuts through all the opposition and hostility, all the difficulties, outer and inner. It is as if Ganesha’s grace and power opens all the paths of karma and Yoga and removes all the difficulties and obstacles. Thus is Ganesha also known as Avighna and Siddhidata, the remover of obstacles and the bestower of success and attainments.”
“So what happens after the beheading, Master? How come the elephant’s head?” Asked Varun again.
“This is particularly enigmatic,” said the Master, “why an elephant’s head? Besides the obvious symbolism, an elephant head being symbolic of strength and power, wisdom and knowledge, it is a deliberate poetic device of the seer to show that the severed head representing manas, chitta, buddhi, ahankara cannot be replaced with another head because it is the pattern that must be broken, the very template that must be shattered. Therefore, an elephant’s head — totally illogical, totally extraordinary and totally provocative. This is the deep and the compelling import: the head must go, and go permanently; no replacement, no substitute. The symbolic significance may be there but that is not to be taken too seriously. Take it as poetic alankar.”
“Then,” remarked Varun pensively, “the rest of the elephant-body would be similar alankar, a certain symbolic suggestion but not to be taken too seriously?”
“Indeed,” replied the Sage, “for the symbolism would appeal to certain minds and temperaments to focus the devotion on certain divine attributes of the godhead. The single tusk, for instance, that would signify one-pointed concentration, or the broken tusk that would signify the capacity to eliminate the unnecessary; the large ears that would signify deep and universal listening, the small mouth that would signify austerity of speech, and the huge stomach that would signify the ability to take in and hold everything within oneself; the ankusa or the axe that he carries in his hands signifies spiritual awakening because of its ability to cut off all the knots of bondage and ignorance, and the paasa or the rope signifies control, as any deep spiritual awakening needs deep control as tremendous energies are released during the process of awakening.
“But beyond the symbolism is the deeper spiritual truth that the formless just cannot be represented in form; the best poetic or artistic representations may convey the spiritual truth but will, in time, degenerate into mere formalism and ritualism. Those who do not have the subtle understanding will eventually cling to the form and forget the essence, the truth.
“Keep then this truth, this essence, in your hearts: Ganesha is within us, the indwelling portal to the Supreme; we just have to invoke his presence within us and enter into it…”
There was deep silence now, within and without, as the understanding opened within like a lotus in the consciousness. The darkness outside deepened as the understanding within blossomed.
The Rishi began to intone again, softly and deeply, as if drawing out the sounds from some fathomless depth of consciousness within himself:
Om namaste Ganapataye
Tvameva pratyaksam tattvam asi
Tvameva kevalam karta asi
Tvameva kevalam dharta asi
Tvameva kevalam harta asi
Tvameva sarvam khalvidam brahma asi
Tvam saksad atma asi nityam 
You alone are the manifest Truth and Essence of all,
You alone are the sole doer, You alone the sole sustainer,
In You alone does this universe dissolve in the end,
You alone are the infinite omnipresent Brahman,
You alone are the eternally manifest Atman.
Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha