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Vineet Chander

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Running Away From Ganesh

Posted: 09/01/11 12:13 PM ET

Sri Ganesh (also spelled Ganesa) is considered the lord of new beginnings. From the homemaker beginning her day, to the business owner commencing his account ledger, to the Bollywood director beginning the first scene of a movie shoot -- they all turn to Ganesh. Hindus of all denominations and lineages invoke his name, and his status as the guardian of the threshold of a new opportunity seems to be almost universally accepted in the Hindu world. It is rare to find anyone who worships Ganesh as Supreme -- most Hindus relegate him to the role of a devata (demigod), a divinely empowered being not unlike an archangel -- but it is equally rare to find a Hindu who will neglect to first offer him due respects.

For me, born and raised in New York City in the early 1980s, Ganeshji always posed a problem.

Depicted frequently in garish Hindu calendar art and colorful murtis (sacred sculptures), Ganesh was such a graphic reminder of how different my religion seemed to be from the faiths of my "American" friends and classmates. I remember dinner at my best friend Peter's house; we'd sit at a formal dining table, cloth napkins folded in our laps and bland food on our plates, while a formal picture of Jesus-with-outstretched-arms smiled down at us benignly. The painting's somber colors and realistic brush strokes made it look like Jesus himself must have sat for the portrait; in comparison, the bright posters showing off Lord Ganesh's elephant head and round belly seemed almost scandalous.

The more I tried to avoid Ganeshji, the more he kept popping up. Of course, he was there in our home's foyer as, in accordance with Hindu tradition, my family had a picture of Ganesh displayed prominently at the entrance. He was also there, as a small plastic murti, on the dashboard of our Camry as, in accordance with unofficial Hindu tradition, our family car was a Toyota Camry. But it didn't end there. He also showed up in the pages of my World History textbook. He landed up as a bronze sculpture on the desk of my eccentric elementary school principal (years later I learned the technical term for what he was: Indophile). And once The Simpsons hit the airwaves, Ganeshji was even there at Apu's Kwik-e-Mart, unapologetically front and center.

I ran from him. I questioned my Hindu faith to no end, a rebellious teenager proud of my newfound agnosticism. When the agnosticism gave way to a deeper spiritual hunger that still persisted, I branded myself a seeker, comforting myself that at least I was after something deeper than the ritualism of my superstitious parents and their brightly colored Ganesh statue. And when I realized that my own quest led me back to a devotional path within Hinduism, Ganeshji was there -- patiently awaiting my return, welcoming me back with a knowing smile.

Still, even within my practice of Hinduism, I continued to run. I immersed myself in rigorous study and tried to intellectualize him away, relegating him to the sphere of abstract symbolism and obscure mythology. I turned my discomfort and embarrassment outward, developing a deep defensiveness and mistrust of others and their perceptions of my faith. Worse of all, I simply chose to re-define Hinduism so that it just didn't include him -- or the other aspects of my faith that I couldn't quite figure out -- anymore.

And then one day, when I was in my late twenties, I found myself faced with a decision that had the potential to change my life forever. I was a practicing lawyer with my "dream job", a prosecutor at one of the most esteemed District Attorney's Offices in the country, and I had just gotten a promotion. But the external success belied a growing inner emptiness and lack of purpose. As meaningful as my work was, I began to experience the terrifying realization that it was not my calling. The disconnect grew louder and more vivid, demanding my attention until I couldn't ignore it anymore. And as I stood at the metaphoric edge of the cliff and contemplated taking a leap of faith, I found myself offering a small, faltering prayer to the lord of new beginnings. In that humbling and awesome moment, I realized that I didn't need to figure it all out; I just needed to muster up the courage to stop running away.

Ganeshji, it seemed, would not let me get away from him. In a way that I understand now but couldn't quite see back then, he would not let me get away from myself either. After all, my problem was never really with him to begin with.

The story of my faith is the story of how I traveled from, with, and perhaps to Lord Ganesh. I realize that it is not the Hindu-American story, but it is a Hindu-American story. It is the story of my own ongoing journey home.

I think it is fitting that now, as a university Hindu chaplain, I have the honor of helping to host a yearly event to honor and celebrate Lord Ganesh. In fact, Ganesh Puja is the first Hindu service hosted on campus. Each Fall, I watch as the room fills with nearly a hundred students. Some are seasoned veterans of this ritual; others are bright-eyed freshmen, nervous and slightly unsure of what they are doing there. I can sympathize. I sit beside them, knowing that Ganeshji is not done with me yet. My job may sometimes call me to teach, but my purpose is to keep learning.