The next few days are festive in many Indian homes, towns and villages, marking a well celebrated Hindu festival in India: Ganesh Chaturthi, also known as Ganeshutsav in Western India. In cities like Mumbai, devotees throng to various suburban sites to catch a glimpse of diverse creative renderings of the Ganesha deity. At the end of the festival which can go up to 11 days, thousands of these idols are immersed into the waters of the ocean, lakes and ponds nearby.
While there are popular mythological stories for this celebration, I find Vedic scholar Sri Vivek Godbole's explanation to be spiritually grounded and realistic. Mr. Godbole frames Ganeshutsav as part of a series of seasonal festivals ('Maati che Tyauhaar' - Festivals of Earth) celebrating Mother Earth. These included other festivals like Bedur (honoring farm animals) and Naag Panchami (honoring the role of the snake in mantaining ecological balance) etc.
Ganesha's visual depiction symbolized an intelligent mind (hence an elephant head) that is capable of understanding things in detail (hence a mouse is often represented alongside the Ganesha idol to show that knowledge needs to be broken down for easier understanding, similar to how a mouse breaks food down to smaller particles). It also symbolizes humanity's connection and dependence on Earth's other living beings throughout their lives.
The making of the Ganesha idol got more creative in communities near rivers and water sources. Easy access to clay allowed for creativity to have a spiritual expression. Ganesha idols which used to be made of clay was later immersed in oceans, rivers or lakes to dissolve in water. This was perfectly in tune with nature due to biodegradability of clay.
At its core, spirituality in Hinduism involves honoring and appreciating the five elements (Space, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth) that form the basis for any matter in Nature. Similar to many purpose built Hindu Deities represented in idol form, Ganesha was meant to be a visually creative representation of our dependance on Water and Earth.
With the spread of commerce, popularity of Ganesha idols has now evolved to be based on the competitive size and splendor of the artifacts around them. Some large size Ganesha idols can go over 20 feet in height. Cost and durability also gained as 'value' criteria for buying and manufacturing decisions and Plaster of Paris became the material of choice rather than clay. Plaster of Paris is essentially gypsum plaster which is a fine, white powdered calcium sulfate hemihydrate and is a common industrial manufacturing by-product.
While environmental awareness is seeing a resurgence, Ganesha Idols made of Plaster of Paris continue to be in high demand. due to their lightweight and low purchase price in comparison to clay based models.
The significant downstream ecological cost burden that Plaster of Paris puts on the Earth and its living beings when these idols are immersed in the local waters is not factored in the overall cost of making the Ganesha deity and hence not reflected within the price that people pay for the idols.
This does raise some ensuing questions: How many devotees understand the underlying nature friendly spiritual value system that these festivals are based on? More importantly how often are these spiritual values put in practice in their decisions; and in policy decisions?