The informant – RB – is a middle-aged Hindu woman, originally from West Bengal, India. She now works as a nutritionist in South Florida, and is one of my mother’s closest friends. The following happened during a conversation in which I asked her to tell me about some of her favorite Indian folklore, particularly about holidays and celebrations.
We have another festival that is very… what should I say? It’s the main festival from West Bengal, which is where I come from. And that’s called Durga Puja. Puja is any kind of celebration that involves some kind of religious prayer ceremony. So let me start off with Dussehra. So what happens is, and as you know, our Indian calendar is a lunar calendar, not a solar calendar. So the date of this celebration varies from end of September to end of October, depending on the lunar cycle. It’s actually a nine day festival, but the main days of the celebration are days six, seven, eight, and nine. And on the tenth day, so the story goes like this:
There’s this goddess, Durga, she lives in the Himalayas with her husband Shiva. And she has two sons and two daughters. One of her daughters is the goddess of wealth, Laxmi. Her other daughter is the daughter of knowledge, Saraswati. The other son used to be the sons of fighting battles, Kartik. And then there’s the elephant god, the youngest of her sons, Ganesh.
I’ll tell you a little story about Ganesh. His mother was taking a bath and she told him that, “You know what, I’m taking a bath, don’t let anybody come in here, because I don’t want anybody to come in.”
In the meantime, his father, Shiva, comes to visit, and Ganesh says, “You can’t come in,” because, apparently, he’s never seen his father before.
His father, also a god, says “Of course I can go in, that’s my house.”
And Ganesh said, “No, you cannot go in! My mom said I’m supposed to be guarding the door and I won’t let you in.” The father gets very upset and looks at Ganesh with so much anger, that his head falls off his shoulder.
The mother comes out and sees what’s happened, and is like, “Why did you just do that to our little boy?”
So by that time, his anger has kind of subsided, and he’s like, “Oh my god, we can’t have him without a head. We have to find a new head!” So apparently, he sends people all over the world, saying, “Go find me the first living creature who’s sleeping with its head facing the East. Cut off its head and bring it to me.” So everybody goes everywhere and can’t find someone, because, apparently in India you can’t sleep with your head towards the East, since the sun rises in the East. They go all over the world, and they find this elephant. So what they do is, they cut off its head and they bring it.
And the mother goes, “What the heck! I can’t put that head on my little baby!”
The father says, “Well, I can’t change the rule, I said the first living being with its head facing the East,” so he puts the head on the child, and the child is alive.
The mother goes, “No one is going to worship him! Everyone will make fun of him! Nobody is going to respect him.” So now it is written that, before any prayer or any celebration, – anything – you have to first pray to Ganesh before you can do any official celebration. So now in every part of India, before prayer, or any celebration – a wedding, anything – you must first pray to Ganesh. Ganesh is also the God of removing obstacles, so he’s become a very popular symbol. I have a Ganesh in my house; I think your mom has a Ganesh in your house, too.
So, that is Ganesh’s story, but that is also the youngest son of Durga when she comes to visit. And so the art is her parent’s house. So she comes for those few days, with her children, and on the tenth day, she goes back to the Himalayas to be with her husband. So what happens in West Bengal where I come from, is those days are… it’s a lot of fun, all the schools, offices, colleges, everything is closed. It’s hard for me to explain. They put up all these temporary structures on the streets and stuff and then have these celebrations and, it’s like all over West Bengal. And there is food, there is music, there is lighting. So that is the story behind one of our festivals.
RB: We call it religious, but they are more social religious than just religious, because it all involves inviting people, having dinners, lunches, dressing up, having music and dances. There’s a lot of culture that is associated with these festivals, so it is not that you’re just in the temple, reciting hymns or chanting. That is a very small part. It’s all about dressing up, looking good, and eating food. That is how we keep in touch with each other. At these festivals, at these religious ceremonies as we call it, we go visit each other. We keep in touch with each other and socialize with each other. I think we use it more for socializing and less for religion, which is how it should be.
One thing I want to clarify is that Hinduism is not a religion. It is mostly a way of life. And that is why you can’t be converted to Hinduism: because, either you are born one or you’re not. And if you are born one, you are taught the way of life since you’re born. But, you can still marry into it. We do not require people to change their religion when you marry, because we just think that when you come to a Hindu household, you will learn the way of life. Hinduism does not require that you go to a temple everyday, or pray everyday. They just teach us that everything should be a part of your life: that you clean your house and take care of each other, etc.
It was very fascinating to hear about how many of the primary holidays in India/West Bengal have elaborate creation myths of their own. It seems that many of the holidays are tied in directly with the events of the religion’s mythology, celebrating anniversaries of the Gods’ actions and locations in the mythologies.
It seems as though Hindus really value large social gatherings, and use religious holidays as excuses to throw huge social celebrations. In fact, it seems that the point of many religious occasions is much more social than it is religious. I feel that this is likely the result of a seemingly much more inclusive and accepting religion, that values socializing and lifestyle over religious and social boundaries.