The Hindu Festival of Ganesh-Chaturthi
To learn about the festival, which celebrates the birth of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and focus on celebration, new beginnings, overcoming difficulties
by Caroline Donne
Suitable for Whole School (Pri)
To learn about the festival, which celebrates the birth of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. To focus on the festival's central themes of celebration, new beginnings, and overcoming difficulties.
Preparation and materials
- Background: Be aware that children will have varying depths of knowledge of this story since the celebration of this festival and accounts of the story of Ganesh vary in different parts of India and among Hindu communities around the world. The story adapted for this assembly draws on one of the mainstream versions of the story, but children may be familiar with different versions. If there are Hindu children in the school you could invite them or one of their family to speak about the festival, or to lend you any images or pictures they have of Ganesh.
- The festival lasts for about 7-10 days.
- Materials: a picture of an elephant, a picture of Ganesh.
(Useful resources: D. Chatterjee, The Elephant-Headed God, Lutterworth Press, 1989; R. Jackson and E. Nesbitt, Hindu Children in Britain, Trentham, 1993; SHAP Working Party, Festivals in World Religions, RMEP, 1998; www.hindunet.org
- Ask the children if they have ever seen an elephant. What was their reaction? What do people say about elephants? e.g. they are wise, they are strong, they are gentle, they are good at helping humans, and moving things, they have good memories. Think of other elephants in storybooks, such as Babar or Elmer the Patchwork Elephant.
- Point out that for many millions of Hindus who live in India and around the world, the elephant is one of the most special creatures. This is because one of the most popular Hindu gods is depicted as having the head of an elephant and the body of a man. His name is Ganesh and his birth is celebrated at this time of the year.
Go on to say that Hindus worship many gods and goddesses, but they believe that they are all aspects of one god: just like you're one person, but you have many different characteristics (perhaps you're kind, make people laugh and you're brave). Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, has all those aspects that we mentioned to do with elephants at the beginning: he is wise, he is strong, he is gentle, he is kind, he can help with difficult problems.
- The Story of Ganesh.
Tell the following story, using the form below or in your own words.
How did Ganesh get his elephant head? He didn't always have it. The story goes rather like this.
Ganesh's mother was the goddess Parvati and his father was the god Shiva. One day, not long before Ganesh was born, his father Shiva went on a journey, leaving Parvati at home. Shiva was away for many years, and during that time Ganesh grew from a baby to a young man.
One spring morning Ganesh was outside when he saw a stranger with long, matted hair, wearing animal skin and with snakes wriggling about him. The stranger wanted to come into the house! He looked frightening and dangerous. Ganesh stood in front of him and tried to stop him because he wanted to protect his mother. What Ganesh didn't know was that this stranger was his father Shiva, and Shiva didn't know that the boy was his son Ganesh. Shiva is known as a quick-tempered god, and he didn't like anyone standing in his way. So he took his sword and cut off the head of Ganesh!
At that moment Parvati came out, to see her husband with his sword in his hand and her son lying on the ground. ‘What have you done, what have you done?’ she cried. ‘You have killed our son.’ Shiva was truly sorry and promised to make things right again, by replacing Ganesh's head with the head of the first living creature he saw.
He searched for many miles. What animal do you think he saw? The first creature he saw was a baby elephant. And that's why Ganesh has the head of an elephant and the body of a man. He has a rather chubby body too, because he is said to like eating sweet things.
- Explain that at this time of year Hindus celebrate the birth of Ganesh. In many places they make special images of Ganesh and pray to them. They offer him sweet puddings because they know he likes sweet things. They let off fireworks. They make huge images of him and take them on processions.
- Another thing Ganesh is known for is his beautiful handwriting and good spelling. If you see a picture of him, you will see that he is holding one of his own tusks, dipped in ink, in one hand and a scroll of paper in the other. It is said that one of the longest poems in the world, telling one of the most important stories for Hindus (the Mahabharata), was dictated to Ganesh, and that he used the pointed end of his tusk dipped in ink to write down the words.
- Most importantly, Hindus pray to Ganesh before they start anything new, like getting married, moving house, starting a journey, or taking an exam. His image is sometimes placed where new houses are to be built. Hindus believe Ganesh is 'the remover of obstacles': he helps with problems or difficulties that get in the way.
- Focus on the themes. Hindus pray to Ganesh because they believe he is wise and he helps at the beginning of new projects or when they start new things.
Talk about the new things that might be happening in the lives of the children or the school.
What words could you use to describe what it feels like to start something new?
e.g. scared, excited, not sure what will happen.
What helps you when you have to do something new? e.g. talking to a friend or someone in your family, thinking carefully about what you will do, asking for God to help.
Time for reflection
Sometimes starting something new feels frightening.
Sometimes starting something new feels exciting.
Sometimes it's difficult to start something new
because there are so many things in the way:
reasons why we shouldn't start, people who try to stop us, things we'd rather do.
God of new beginnings, please help us with the new things we do today.