Well, the answer to this depends on who you are and how you interpret history.
On the way to our personal immersion this year, our friend, who grew up in Mumbai, told us some interesting stories about the festival.
We know this festival to be celebrated by one and all. Now a days, even Bollywood stars of all denominations are celebrating along with Hindus. This all happened because of one Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a freedom fighter in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the Indian state of Maharashtra.
Tilak wanted to bring all people together as people appeared divided. Bringing them together for purpose of a religious festival may also bring unity to help uprise against the British, he may have though. So, he compelled all castes and creeds to celebrate this festival publicly in a grand way. I wonder what opposition people had to this- both Brahmins and non-Brahmins- as the festival was previously celebrated privately in individual Brahmin households. Now a days, you would not know about this, as the festival brings all together, and for 11 days.
Ganesh festival used to be a day and a half affair. It is said that Ganesh murthi (idol) once made and puja is preformed, consecrating the idol with the ‘soul’ of Ganesh (I believe this is called Kumbabishekham, but maybe I stand corrected!), Ganesh visits that murthi for only 1 ½ days. It is when He leaves the murthi that it should be immersed. However, to continue festivities for up to 11 days, this belief is not widely practiced as waiting until the 11th day and having a grand procession to the sea.
My friend also told us that for Ganesh puja, they also used to collect three stones representing the goddess Parvathi (Ganesha’s mom) in three forms. Again, after kumbabishekham of these stones, they would be immersed into a water body. I find this interesting that this ‘puja’ falls simultaneously with Ganesh Chathurthi and Varalakshmi Vratham, a south Indian puja honoring the 8 forms of Lakshmi is done just before Ganesh Chathurthi.
It is also noted that I read on other sites that Mr. Tilak also ‘created unity and a grand festival atmosphere’ for the Shivji Festival. I am not sure if this relates to the famous historical figure, Shivaji, the ruler of the Maratha Kingdom (1627-1690) or the yearly Shiva Puja, also known to me as Maha Sivarathri. This is also an important festival honoring Ganesha’s dad, Lord Shiva that usually falls in February/March.
I found this story to be very interesting, as even my husband who grew up in India, did not know about this history. I find it fascinating personally as it is an idea that changed a nation. Of course as more people involve themselves in such things, other challenges arise, it commercializes and looses some meaning. But, all in all, I agree that Mr. Tilak’s creative strategy has worked well and continues to work to bring people together even today.
Description of Kumbabishekham within.
History and Present day Ganesh Celebrations.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak from Wikipedia.
Fatwa against Salman for Attending Puja (VIDEO)