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Origins of Karma Yoga and Activism: Ganesh Chaturthi

Though Gauri and Shiva are popularly recognized as the parents of Ganesh, it was the freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, born Keshav Gangadhar Tilak, sometimes known as Lokmanya Tilak, who raised Ganesh - as a weapon against the colonialism of British India.

In response to the sedition of men like Tilak, the British had outlawed assemblies in an effort to curb and then reform British India's political and social organization.  No more than 20 people were permitted to gather.  When the Muslims threatened to transform their sedition into open rebellion, an exception was made for religious assembly so that the Muslims might gather at their mosques on Fridays and for daily prayers.

Of course, Hindu yogic practices did not mandate daily prayers, or prayers at all.  No weekly gatherings, or major festivals were observed.  The religious exceptions which permitted Muslim, Christian and Jewish prayers (and allowed the continuation of social and political organization required for the eventual freedom of British India) were no advantage to the Hindus.  This, in large part, was by the design of the British - who more greatly feared the sedition of the majority Hindu population.

Talik was a yogi who had carefully studied the Ramayana and Mahabharata, especially the Bhagavad Gita and, considering the situation, came to develop a new system of Yoga: Karma Yoga, a Yoga of Action, and from this developed techniques of Niyuddha Yoga (fighting Yoga) known now as political and social "activism."  Armed with activism, he found allies in Adi Shankara and Ramanuja after justifying his interpretation of a term used by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita through arguments developed previously by Jnanadeva.

As Karma Yoga was practiced, first by Talik, then by many more capable yogis, it was observed to be effective and proven.  And advanced.  From these proofs and advancements, new comprehension of Dharma, Karma, and Yoga were developed and Hinduism progressed: the teachings of Krishna, that rationality and logic were superior to faith, were finally widely understood: sacrifice was to be undertaken purely for God, and holding the sacrifice of sacrificing the object, even God could be given up: theism could be sacrificed for atheism, atheism for nontheism.  Castes were broken down, together with the other social and political engineering of the British.  In such a state of freedom, there was tantalizing glimpses of something even greater - but for the moment, the present progress was sufficient to organize the first Ganesh Chaturthi.

Talik postulated, "Why shouldn't we convert the large religious festivals into mass political rallies?" The extensive practice of numerous other devotions were inadequate to the present need, and so, exerting the new powers of atheism and non-theism, Ganesh was developed as an excuse for sedition, and ultimately rebellion.  Mythology and ritual were developed not only by Talik, but numerous more competent yogis: not only to the present need, but toward the accomplishment of Karma Yoga, guided by and toward yogic principles of rationality and logic.  It was an exquisite demonstration.

But the new atheism and non-theism of the Hindus, however, alienated their theist neighbors and friends, especially the Muslims, who all began to ally with the British - with whom at least they shared the philosophy of a deity.  Interreligious violence ensued, and the British under Lord Harris took the sides of the Muslims.  By 1893, Talik passionately committed himself to the "god" of his own making, preferring it to any god of the British.  The sedition had turned into open rebellion, and the rebellion into revolution: it became believed and known government, religion and society itself should serve the needs of the people, and not only should, but could be shaped to the needs of the people.

Some localities had practiced a minor processional in celebration of Ganesh as early as the 18th century, now Talik proclaimed these as a preferred ritual: Ganesh Chaturthi processionals became marches.  Some localities had practiced other minor celebrations of Ganesh: these were transformed into the means for political activism, intellectual exchange, cultural recitals and development, and folk events.  These efforts by Talik built on the previous efforts of others: during the Goal Inquisition when yogic rituals were banned and conversion was forced, the rituals of Ganesha were easily adapted to be practiced in secret.  When a devotee of Ganesh is able to merely use a small leaf, any picture on any paper, miniature tiny easily destroyed idols hidden away (not put on display), offered even a single grain of rice, etc., rebellion and disobedience becomes easily practiced, and habitual.  Law is given up (together with other false gods) for Liberty.

It should be said that Ganesh was not wholly borne of the 18th and 19th centuries, but this is when he was raised up.  His truest, oldest origin is in the Rigveda (2.23.1, and 10.112.9), but merely as an indirect reference: the guardian of the multitudes, a seer, abounding in food, presiding over the elders (as in many democratic governments there is a President of the Elders, or Senators), the master of invocation.  In fact, these were, until those recent days, sometimes understood to mean Indra.  It was only during the Muslim domination that Ganesh began to literally take the form we know today, as traders from across the world met and mingled through Dharmic Asia.  Taking this, and that, from here, and there, Ganesh was made to suit the needs of these multicultural Dharmic travellers.  This reflects how Gauri took mud from here and there.  The replacement of his head with Indra's (vahana - elephant head), the ultimate destruction of the material form of the idols of Ganesha so painstakingly made, the numerous other mythological and ritualistic traditions reflected the gradual quickening of Ganesha. But born hapless as he was, as all humans are, he was raised by humans into a most powerful expression of Yoga.  Born as one thing, he became another - as caste and other oppression is cast off by all people, sooner or later.

Today, consider your own power - not only over society and government, but over yourself.  It is not how you were born, but how you were raised up, how you yourself raise yourself up, that matters most.  Raise yourself up, and discover freedom in rationality and logic!  This is the truest spirit of activism.

Even a criminal may have their share of honor, if they are loyal and true.  For as often as a person must violate one or another principles they hold, so that they might adopt newer, better ones, so too must we all be willing to progress our laws and society - gradually shaping them toward the form of our good conscience, and heart, so that we never again be forced to break laws and principles.  Law and principles must not chafe our heart.  Indeed, law and principles are precious, and good, to the extent that they permit the freedom of love.