The ten-day Ganesh festival started from September 19 (Ganesh Chaturthi) this year. Celebrated with great devotion and festivity all over India and especially in the western regions of the country, this festival is a huge public event which sees participation of common people on a large scale.
Before 1893, the festival was a one-day affair, celebrated primarily privately within the family. It was celebrated especially by Brahmins and upper castes. But in 1893 something happened that Ganesh Utsav started taking a grand form.
What happened and who did it?
The credit for making Ganesh Puja a public festival is mainly given to the nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Tilak is also called ‘Lokmanya’ or leader of the people. In the last decades of the 19th century, a number of nationalist figures emerged across India (and some in Britain as well) who spoke openly about modern civil and political rights and the hypocrisy and exploitation of British rule in India.
In 1857, there was an attempt to overthrow the British rule. Then the Indian Army soldiers made an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the British. The British brutally crushed the soldiers’ rebellion. Following this, many nationalist figures who supported the rebellion began to consider obtaining concessions from the British rather than completely overthrowing colonial rule.
However, even then the goal of a prominent Indian nationalist leader was radical. He wanted only Swaraj or self-rule. This nationalist leader was Marathi journalist, teacher and political and social activist Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920).
Demand for Swaraj and campaigns with Hindu symbolism
In 1881, Tilak, along with GG Agarkar, founded the newspapers ‘Kesari’ (in Marathi) and ‘Maratta’ in English. They were used to spread nationalist resistance against British rule. He was fierce and fearless and used direct language. This was the reason why he also had a large readership.
In the period before the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi in Indian politics, Lokmanya was arguably one of the greatest and most radical leaders of India’s anti-colonial movement. At a time when Swaraj was a distant dream, Tilak had declared (in Marathi): “Swaraj is my birthright, and I will have it.”
Tilak began to take pride in Indian heroes for uniting the people against British rule. His political campaigns were filled with Hindu imagery and symbolism.
Purpose of Ganesh Utsav
In 1893 he started a new tradition of worshiping Ganapati, the Hindu god. In Hinduism, Ganesha is considered the god who removes obstacles and brings good fortune. Tilak started celebrating Ganesh Puja as a community festival, where patriotic songs were sung and nationalist ideas were propagated. Through his writings, fiery speeches and organizational knowledge, Tilak encouraged and advocated for bringing the Ganesh festival into the public sphere.
In Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s biography ‘Lokmanya Tilak: Father of the Indian Freedom Struggle’, Dhananjay Keer has written quoting Tilak, “Ganesh Utsav committees were established all over Maharashtra. The youth formed groups of singers. Gymnastic societies were encouraged. During the festive days, fiery orators and priests began teaching the lessons of self-sacrifice and bravery to the youth.”
Tilak started the Shivaji Utsav in 1896 to further nationalist resistance. Its objective was to spread nationalist ideas among the youth of Maharashtra. In the same year he led a campaign in Maharashtra to boycott foreign cloth in protest against the imposition of excise duty on cotton.
Tilak who gave communal color to the freedom struggle
Tilak is also criticized for giving a communal color to the freedom struggle and for his conservative stance on women’s emancipation and caste reforms. The year 1893 saw a wave of communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims across the country.
On 11 August, there was violence in the city of Bombay on a scale never seen before. Tilak, who lived in Poona (now Pune), attacked the British for stoking communal tension and accused them of favoring Muslims.
Keir, quoting Tilak in his biography, wrote, “Failing government protection, the Hindus had no option but to beat back Muslim aggression… They resort to violence only under provocation.” According to Tilak, the British sided with the Muslims because they saw that “the threat from the Hindu majority was gradually increasing.”
These communal clashes and the sentiments they created among Hindus were, in fact, the trigger for Tilak’s efforts to unify Hindus, channel their energy and create solidarity through community activities such as Ganesh Utsav.
The celebration that we are witnessing today is perhaps even grander than what Tilak himself had ever imagined. It has also undergone major changes in the last few years and has become a place where political parties are always active and businesses benefit. But at its core it is still a product of Tilak’s vision – a grand public celebration, uniting the entire Hindu community.