Thursday, September 01, 2011

Ode to a Keystone God

Today is Ganesha Chaturthi. In modern day terms, you could say, the birthday of one of the most beloved and well-known deities of the Hindu pantheon of Gods, without whose invocation and blessing no important work is ever begun, so much so that the Hindi idiom for inaugurating anything is “sriGanesha karna”!

We call him by many names, this Lord of All (Vinayaka), each one both a

paen and a prayer. Lambhodara or he of a belly large enough to accommodate the entire universe, the Giver of Boons (Varadavinayaka) and Knowledge (Vidyavaridhi), the Destroyer of Obstacles (Vighnavinashanaya, Vigneshwara). We have grown up listening to and reading the wonderful stories about him. The devoted son (Eshanputra, Rudrapriya Shambhavi, Gaurisuta), who not just lost a tusk defending his father from the wrath of the mighty Parasurama and thus became known as Ekdanta, but who also defined the meaning of filial love for all time to come by circling his parents when asked by them to circle the universe. The divine chronicler who, not happy to just be Vyasa’s stenographer, stipulated that he would do the job only if the sage recited the Mahabharata in one uninterrupted stretch and who in turn fulfilled Vyasa’s counter condition that in that uninterrupted flow, he would not write down anything that he did not understand. (It was in these conditions that the Mahabharata was completed in 3 years!)

And so naturally, this infinte repository of wisdom (Buddhinath, Buddhipriya, Buddhividhata) became the consort of not just Buddhi but also Siddhi, worshipped ever since as not just Vinayaka but Siddhivinayaka. But perhaps the most popular story is the one of how our Lord Ganesha got his elephant head (Gajanana, Gajakarna, Gajananeti). There are many versions and I must confess that my own favourite is the one about him standing guard for his mother Parvati. But as I searched for and read all the versions, I couldn’t help wondering. Why an elephant head and why not that of some other animal?

I know that there will be many answers to this, most of them from religious scholars steeped in erudition and learning. But, I’d like to think of a slightly different – to many, even sacrilegious perhaps – answer and it has to do with the magnificence and wonder of the elephant as an animal and its unique place and importance on our planet.

Just by virtue of its size, the elephant is an awe-inspiring creature; jungle celebrity, a must have for any self-respecting zoo or maharajah’s stable. (In Mysore, the famed Dussera exhibition is unthinkable without the elephants and the mighty Balarama to carry the Goddess Chamundeshwari in the golden howdah!) Naturally, since it is the largest living land animal, weighing anything from 2300 kgs (Asian elephant) to a mind-boggling 6300 to 7300 kg (African elephant) and growing up to 13 feet tall. To keep such a body fit and in shape, it spends 75% of its day eating; chewing all 400 kgs of that food with just 4 teeth!

But the elephant’s size, you could say, is the least spectacular part of this fabulous creature. Look at the trunk – with over 40,000 muscles it’s an astonishingly sensitive and sophisticated multi-tasking organ. It can smell a human at more than 1.5 kilometers, figure out if a thing is rough or smooth, hot or cold, work as a snorkel, allowing the elephant to easily swim underwater, even caress and fondle and ….hold your breath, people - pick up a feather or a pin with the greatest of ease!

All of us walking around with cellphones and marveling at how clever we humans have got, consider this. Elephants communicate via low-frequency "infrasound," below the range of human hearing. In the right weather conditions, these sounds may carry for over a 100 square miles! Till scientists discovered this, they could never figure out how suddenly elephants would congregate around a dead or a wounded member of the clan.

But it’s the non-physical aspect of the elephant that makes it a truly amazing animal.

Remember the old saying that “elephants never forget”? Well, it’s true and the elephant stores inside its head an astounding amount of information on which hinges the survival of not just the elephant but also of the entire ecosystem in which it lives - a constantly updated encyclopedia of migration routes, food sites, emergency water sources in case of drought etc. This incredible memory bank combined with extraordinary intelligence makes the elephant what is known as a “keystone” species. The keystone is the middle stone at the top of a stone arch, holding the other stones in place. Pull out the keystone and the arch will collapse, which is pretty much what happens to an ecosystem if its keynote species dies.

Let’s see how this is in the case of the elephant.

The African elephant lives on the beautiful, rolling grasslands (savannahs) of Africa. But without the elephant that keeps the other vegetation in check by feeding on them, the grass would disappear, replaced by forest. And with no grass to feed on, the antelopes would vanish. And with them would disappear Africa’s pride – the great carnivores like the lion, the leopard and the cheetah. And that’s not the only reason why the elephant is called a keystone species. Both the African or Asian elephants (the only 2 surviving species) find and dig waterholes and forge trails, which virtually all other animals in the region - including humans, like the pygmies of Congo - depend on, especially during periods of drought. Many species of forest trees depend on the elephant for seed dispersal because only it can crack open the hard thick shells which are sometimes ¼ inch thick. Without the elephant, as much as 40% of trees species in some African forests would vanish.

So take away the elephant and entire ecosystems – grasslands and forests in Asia and Africa teeming with the most fabulous array of animal and plant wildlife – will disappear. It’s already happening. In 1930, there were between 5 and 10 million African elephants. Today, there are less than 600,000. At the turn of the 20th century, there were an estimated 200,000 Asian elephants. Today there are probably no more than 35,000 to 40,000 left and the elephant has been declared an endangeredspecies

But however small and dwindling their number, while they still roam our planet, it thrives. So, no wonder then that it was the elephant’s head that became the head of our Lord Ganesha. So this Ganesha Chaturthi, let us ask this Divine Granter of Boons to give us the ability to live with intelligence and humility and grace, the wisdom to understand what is of true and lasting value, the desire to put back into the Divine kitty at least a small fraction of what we take. Let us ask this Vignavinashaka to destroy the obstacles of greed and smallness of vision so that when we look around, we see the infinite expanse of Nature in which there is room for everyone and enough to go around eternally, with some left over.

Happy Ganesha Chaturthi!