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  • Karl Thunemann

How I Met Ganesha

As it happens, God decided to enter through the back door.  This happened in 2004, amid my whimsical effort to address an emotional crisis by creating a one-man show called 8 Steps for the Unorthodox: How to Create Your Own Recovery Program.

I had spent a couple of years in an actual 12-step program (before my crisis) and left feeling frustrated and dissatisfied. Yet the idea of steps gripped me, so I decided to write my own recovery program. Some of my steps were radically different. Take this one-word step: uninstall. I had been addicted to playing computer games, and uninstall really worked. If the games weren’t there, I couldn’t play them. But it didn’t work so well with emotional problems. If I defined one and clicked on my internal uninstall, the problem was likely to multiply.

I did believe in these steps I had created, so I challenged myself to try living by them.

This was the step I found most riveting: Find something to believe in. I borrowed it from the 12-step group, even though my time there had not unveiled my higher power. Still, having set this goal, I could think of nothing. Then I was surprised to realize that I had been surrounded by representations of Ganesha, the little god with an elephant’s head and the body of a pudgy boy. Ganesha, the Lord of Obstacles. So wise, so loving … so amusing. He’s the most-loved god in Hinduism. At first, I didn’t understand why I had amassed these statues. I bought a couple out of whimsy, and then people started giving them to me. And now here I was, suddenly thinking, this god is for me.

Ganesha first appeared when I was focused on my relationship with my mother. Soon after I began chanting to Ganesha I pictured him taking me on astral visits to the house where I was born.

Think about it.  Here’s a god who is patently imperfect … fixated on his mother … wounded by his father … it was his father who cut off his head, and only at his mother’s insistence did he get a replacement. Imperfect and wounded … a god I could relate to. Not only that, but I was beset by obstacles, every way I turned.

I had no idea how to perform devotions to Ganesha, so I looked around and learned that he was partial to the simplest mantra. So I started chanting to Ganesha. It was simple.

A long and rolling oooooooooooommmmmm.

Both my wife and my brother, who sometimes stayed with us, said they had no objection to my chanting at 4 in the morning.  Maybe they thought it would save me from going crazy. My wife spoke warmly of the overtones she said my chanting produced.

Ganesha’s biography is very intriguing, and his icon is replete with traditional objects, each with its own rich lore. The most curious of these is the mouse or rat resting at his feet. This is his vehicle, but authorities differ on this point. Some say the mouse reflects Ganesha’s affection for the humble. But others say the rat symbolizes Ganesha’s ability to penetrate the most secret places. I want to have it both ways.

As I tell you about this experience with Ganesha, please remember that it probably occurred in a meditative or trance state. But it always seemed real to me, so that’s how I report it.

Ganesha first appeared when I was focused on my relationship with my mother. Soon after I began chanting to Ganesha I pictured him taking me on astral visits to the house where I was born. Geographically, it was not far from where I lived, and I would picture us flying together over the countryside until we reached that small four-room house. Sometimes we would sit on the rooftop, chanting om, hoping to benefit my depressed mother and her two small children.  Could my mother benefit from this retroactive prayer that she be delivered from obstacles to peace? She never got back to me on that, but over time these repeated pilgrimages eased my anxiety. Sometimes we would go inside and sit vigil. Once, as we were leaving, I thought I saw Jesus just arriving. He looked careworn. He and Ganesha merely nodded to each other, but I saw this as a gesture of profound respect. They were working the same ground, with no sense of territorial competition.

Already, I loved Ganesha, but I was worried about introducing him into my belief system, which was essentially Taoist. One day as I was chanting, I perceived that I had been placed in an alcove far above the floor of a high-ceilinged room. I noticed a large cupboard to my right, with an opening large enough for me to pass through. Ganesha inclined his head, suggesting that I open the door. I resisted the invitation for two or three days. But then, during a meditation, I pulled the door open. A cool, unbounded space appeared on the other side, filled with a soft, swirling mist. As the mist parted, Ganesha appeared, drifting aloft without effort, beckoning me to join him. He took my hand as I stepped across, and together we were suspended above a small lake. Ganesha appeared to be chuckling as we descended, perhaps at the obvious symbolism.  Mist is often summoned as a metaphor for the Tao, and Ganesha was letting me know that he could move in a Taoist environment like a native son.

On the shore of the lake, we found a small rowboat. Clearly, we were expected to board it. Wouldn’t Ganesha row? After all, he is a god, and I have cerebral palsy. But Ganesha clambered into the boat and sat expectantly in the stern. He inclined his head toward the oars, and I realized that gods don’t row. They sit in the stern and offer direction. Much to my surprise, I rowed as if I was born to it. I would spend hundreds of hours rowing with Ganesha – exploring the lake, following its tiny outlet, poking around together in my favorite marsh. Sometimes, just dreaming and drifting. We even entered my body aboard the boat, as if filming a remake of The Incredible Journey. We cleared away obstacles and soothed inflammation. We installed a tiny icon of Ganesha in my heart, just to keep watch.

Ganesha became a fixture in my life, graciously making room for other higher powers—however improbable they seemed—as they came along. I made fewer conscious devotions to G, just expecting him to be there. And sometimes, when I wasn’t thinking of Ganesha at all, I drew up short upon seeing that one of my little life strategies was not unfolding at all in the way that I had hoped. This drove me back to Ganesha 101. Ganesha is the Lord—not merely the Remover—of   Obstacles. This includes throwing obstacles along a devotee’s path if he or she has chosen poorly. But this God never lectures; he is not stern.  Here I am just about to say he never imposes consequences, but how could I ever think that? When I persist in the face of obstacles, he is apt to strew my way with even more—stepping further into the outlandish with each one. And this reminds me: From day to day, may I be more mindful of Ganesha.


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