April 6, 2014

Elephant Wisdom: How Ganesh Took Me Away. ~ Autumn Sartain


What happens to our joy and devotion when that obstacle is our own perception?

It was winter, technically, but the heat from the sun suggested otherwise. I wandered in a slow, lazy cadence toward a temple in Hampi, India made of stone the same beige color as the dusty walkways and roads. School girls in bright red, yellow, orange, blue or pink shirts and skirts ran excitedly through pillars elaborately carved with images of various deities.

Five pillars deep and five wide held up a stone roof above a large shaded porch, which was regularly swept.

Shoes weren’t allowed in the enclosed part of the temple. Cool air was trapped inside and the stone floor felt refreshing on my hot soles. Inside, there was a small area to admire the 15-foot grey statue of Ganesh, also carved from stone.

ganeshI felt drawn to Ganesh, perhaps like many travelers before me. I walked to the statue and reached up to touch the stone belly.

I made a wish.

At that point, I don’t think I fully realized something was missing, and I definitely didn’t understand Ganesh or his role in it. I had been traveling in Asia for a few months—the most recent months in India. Somewhere along the way, I had lost myself; like a small bag left carelessly behind at the airport.

I felt doubt over the direction of my career. Even more, so far from home and without the definitions my friends and family had of me, my mind whirled with too much uncertainty.

Wasn’t I more fun before? Maybe more impatient too?

I felt like one of those thermometers people use for raising money, except I was getting emptied out slowly and steadily, pieces of me spilling away—or at least the idea of me.

Without the classifications I once had for myself, I felt stripped down.

“I” was just shadows of people that didn’t exist anymore. I watched my memories because they connected me back to one of those people—back when it was simpler, when things were clear. Back to a time when I knew everything, perhaps because I didn’t know anything.

It wasn’t until later that I would understand more about Ganesh, the remover of obstacles. He is the deva of intellect and wisdom. The Lord of Beginnings.

Ganesh removes doubt and points to the spiritual side of everything.

In all my confusion, was it Ganesh that was ripping my categories and names away from me?

When I touched his stony belly, what obstacle did I really need removed? Perhaps Ganesh was there all along, wrapping me in his warm trunk, reassuring me that all I had lost was simply myself—that now I’d see a glimmer of the truth.

The devotion to Ganesh extends across many religions: Hindu, Jains and Buddhist—it extends beyond India.

People are drawn to the idea of a gentle and wise remover of obstacles; we accept the price for new beginnings, joyously welcoming the removal of some obstacle.

What happens to our joy and devotion though, when that obstacle is our own perception?

In another temple, on another day, a man had an elephant—this time made of flesh instead of stone. He said the elephant would bless us in exchange for rupees. I fiddled with my money and started to hand over one rupee. “She only takes five rupees,” the man said hastily. I held out my hand anyway.

The elephant reached her long trunk over and took the rupee, using the end of her surprisingly agile and soft trunk to gently wrap around the coin. After taking it, she promptly gave me a not-so-gentle tap on top of my head.

Wake up.

When I returned home, I was surprised by the expectations my family had of my behavior. No, I wouldn’t mind. Yes, it was OK to wait. New interests started flooding into my life. Yoga. Writing.

Somehow, and at some point, I had changed.

It was gradual and I didn’t notice it until after returning home. I had been emptied out and I had felt so empty. Yet, I was filling back up again—this time with more patience, more understanding and countless other subtle differences.

Yet, sometimes back home in California, I still feel that soft trunk in my hand and I know Ganesh is not finished with me.

After all, I am a stubborn obstacle.

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Apprentice Editor: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: author provided

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Autumn Sartain