I worshipped an elephant today

My Ganesh shrine


This morning I performed my first Hindu prayer, or Puja, as part of Bhakti Yoga, or Path of Devotion. After I showered, I plopped down in front of my shrine (set up on a side table repurposed for this month), and began the simplified (and probably incorrect), prayer ritual.

First, I recited the following phrase, “So that the ceremonies we are about to undertake proceed to completion without any obstacles, we contemplate on Mahaganapti [Ganesh].”

I then proceeded to symbolically offer Ganesh a seat, wash his hands and feet, offered him water and clothing, offered perfumed incense, offered food (banana chips in this case) and offered “gold” (represented by a quarter).

The ritual has many formal steps, but the general idea is to replicate the process of welcoming a guest into your home. You would offer a guest a comfortable place to sit and rest, a place to shower, beverages, etc. The guest, in this case, is Ganesh.

I chose to worship Ganesh for a few reasons.

First, he is one of the most famous gods in Hinduism. I figured I would follow the wisdom of the crowds in this case.

Second, he is generally worshiped as both the remover of obstacles, and the lord of learning and letters. I could use a little help in ensuring I get the most out of my yoga practice this month. In addition, I also started studying for the GRE, so Ganesh’s learning powers could come in handy.

Third, there is a Hindu festival dedicated to celebrating Ganesh this month and I thought it would be cool if I had a “head start” in learning about him.

A few observations from my first Puja:

  1. It’s fun to worship a deity with a personality. Prayers during my other experiments were very solemn, contemplative affairs. Praying to Ganesh is much “easier” in a sense that he is easy to visualize, primarily because I have a small statue of him. He has an elephant head, a round belly, and is, apparently, fond of sweets.
  1. It’s nice to ask for stuff. Petitionary prayer is the type of prayer most of us are familiar with. We ask God to help us or someone we love in some way g. Dear God help me win the lottery. I’ve gotten away from that type of prayer during my experiments; I only prayed for help in cultivating virtuous qualities in myself. With Ganesh, I asked for help with GRE studying.
  1. The smell of incense is incredibly pleasant and calming. Odors were not a part of the prayers and spiritual exercises in my other months, but maybe they should have been. I think there is something particularly powerful about smells that can help you get in the “prayer zone.”

Now, I suspect many people would think it’s stupid to worship a figure of a pot-bellied god with an elephant head, but I found the ritual quite pleasant and enjoyable. I don’t “believe” that Ganesh exists, but the ritual alone was psychologically beneficial.

Now, let’s see if Ganesh will help me with my GRE math problems….

  • Arushi

    Hi Dale!
    I am currently staying in West India where Ganpati is celebrated the most. This is where Ganesh Puja is the most significant festival here. And it was my first time experiencing the festival, I was awed. I hope you enjoy it too.
    Are you following up on stories as to why Ganpati ended up having an elephant face?

    Goodluck for preparing for GRE. I am gonna start with mine soon 🙂

    Also, if you have time, you might want to pick up the contemporary Hindu Mythology based books called The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi. It is a great read.
    And another one on the same lines inspired by Mahabharat called Palace of Illusions (I don’t remember the author).

    • Hey Arushi,

      Good to hear from you again. Unfortunately I missed the festival (I started Hinduism month back in August).

      I did read a few stories on how Ganesh lost his head; I’m glad my family doesn’t have that much drama ;).

      Thanks for the book recommendations. I put them on my list.


  • Sathyanand S

    Hi Dale,

    After introduction by Cal Newport and my own search to make sense of this world and life, I started exploring your blog.
    After reading through few of the Stoic blogs (after my initial inspiration from Ryan Holiday), I ran through you experiment with Hinduism (mostly as I am from India).
    I am no guru, but I came to understand the idol worship in India is mostly symbolism and metaphors to greater truth. Most Indians themselves given their narrow perception fail to understand it (including me).
    I preferred one better explanation on idol worship as – as you stated ‘an easier way to visualise’ and ‘relate’.
    Second the idea of Ganesh represents the 5 matters of state. Currently ‘Science’ talks about 3 matters of state and is on the verge of concluding ‘plasma’ the stuff sun is made of as the fourth matter of state. Called panchabootha in India or 5 elements, I learnt from one such explanation that Ganesh represents that. While wanting to signify the entire universe is made of the 5 matters of state, the explanation goes that ancient people must have selected elephant to represent 5 elements as it has 5 hands (including its trunk) and given his huge size.
    I sort of bought into this argument.
    It would be great if you could give us more such insight.