Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The process by which we invent new Hindu festivals

One striking thing about Hindu practices today, in contrast to my younger years, is how many new practices we have invented. For example, there was no Ganga worship in Varanasi (only in Hardwar). So how are such practices invented? One such festival's genesis, in 1985, is beautifully documented by Kauai's Hindu Monastery (which publishes Hinduism Today): "Since most Hindus do not celebrate Christmas, they often find it difficult to relate in a meaningful way to those who do. Their children are not infrequently embarrassed when asked why they don't receive gifts like their friends. Adults feel the need to give gifts and mail greeting cards as well as accept them from relatives, neighbors, friends and business associates. In 1985, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami conceived of and introduced Pancha Ganapati. With five days of gift giving at the time of year when Christmas is widely celebrated, it offers Hindu families, especially in the West, a meaningful way to participate in the holiday season without compromising their Hindu values. Their children receive and give gifts just as do their non-Hindu friends. Adults can fulfill the season's social custom of exchanging gifts and greeting cards with relatives, neighbors, friends and business associates. "While the festival occurs at Christmas time, Hindus celebrate Pancha Ganapati in a distinctly Hindu way, without Christmas trees, Santa Claus or symbols of other religions. Greeting cards are Indian in design and content, conveying Hindu wisdom from scripture. Hindu music and bhajans take the place of Christmas carols. "Pancha Ganapati includes outings, picnics, feasts and exchange of cards and gifts with relatives, friends and business associates. A shrine is created in the main living room of the home and decorated in the spirit of this festive occasion. At the center is placed a large wooden or bronze statue of Lord Panchamukha ("five-faced") Ganapati, a form of Ganesha. Any large picture or statue of Ganesha will also do. Each morning the children decorate and dress Him in the color of that day, representing one of His five rays of energy, or shaktis. Detailed instructions are available here:, and a nice video presentation is at "Worldwide Reception "We always expected the Pancha Ganapati festival to catch on. And it has, not only in the West, but in countries such as Malaysia. Kaladevi Ambalawan of Penang sent this report: "We have been celebrating Pancha Ganapati Festival for the past five years. Always at the end of the last puja on December 25, we observe a few minutes of silence and my father asks us to reflect on the past year, apologize for any wrongdoings and pray for His guidance and blessings. We always look forward to the festival, as it has brought our family very close together." ... "Pancha Ganapati is showing up in popular culture, earning mentions on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and "The Office." It was celebrated in 2011 at the National Children's Museum in Maryland: "The festival focuses on love, harmony and the importance of a new beginning. Kids can make traditional greeting cards decorated with Hindu art and verses, as well as participate in activities focusing on the holiday's values.". " I wonder if, in days when internet did not exist, we invented other such festivals simply because there was some need that was felt such a festival or practice could address? Then, within two or three generations, the origins of the festival would be lost, and some people would start imagining that the festival had "always existed" and is "part of our tradition". The advantage, as well as the disadvantage, of lacking historical records is that anything and everything we like can be accorded the respect of tradition and antiquity, whether or not such accolades are deserved. That makes it difficult to distinguish between what is genuinely traditional, genuinely historical, and what is relatively recent and "make-believe" traditional. So should we somehow stop, or at least discourage, the creation of new myths, new practices, new traditions? Or should we continue, and even encourage people in producing them, convinced that public popularity and the market are reliable guides to truth, to history, and to the values by which we should live?

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