When you were a small child your parents may have pointed out the full moon in the sky to you and called it affectionate names like Chandamama or the equivalent it has in almost every Indian language. As you grew older you learnt that the moon’s light is not its own but a reflection of the sun, and that the moon waxes and wanes because of this. But mythology, as we’ve seen, has its own explanations for natural phenomena that we now understand better because of scientific progress. Here is one such story about the moon’s different phases.
Ganesha is usually depicted as a jolly god. His fondness for food, his willingness to bend the rules, and his incongruous appearance endear him to us. However, just as a usually calm elephant breaks out in rage once in a while, this elephant-headed god too is capable of anger! Once Ganesha was returning to his abode from a feast. He’d eaten a large meal and was feeling happy and peaceful. His vehicle, the mouse, smiled as Ganesha hummed to himself in contentment. But suddenly they heard a loud, derisive laugh. Ganesha looked around in confusion. There was nobody. And then he looked up. It was Chandra, the Moon God!
“What is so funny, Chandra?” asked Ganesha, frowning. Chandra was laughing so hard he was unable to speak. Ganesha waited for him to finish and asked again, “It appears that you are laughing at me. Why don’t you share the joke?” At this Chandra controlled his laughter and said, “Oh it’s just too hilarious to see such a huge elephant sitting on a tiny mouse! I imagined how funny it would be if you fell off your ride and rolled down the skies!” Chandra was behaving exactly like the school bully who picks on kids who look a little different.
Ganesha was furious when he heard Chandra’s words. Ganesha was the Lord of Perfection – his broken tusk, his elephant head, his unlikely vehicle... all of these were meant to make humans understand that they could never comprehend god’s idea of perfection... that all that they believed to be perfect and imperfect in the world were only illusions. Surely, Chandra should know that? But Ganesha could see that Chandra was so drunk with his own beauty that he’d forgotten such concepts. He was marvelling at his own luminescence, the perfection of his form and ridiculing others because they were not as beautiful. Ganesha decided that Chandra’s pride must be brought to fall. He said, “Chandra, you laugh foolishly, believing your beauty to be your own. Don’t you know that the light that fills you comes from the sun? Ignorant beings like you deserve no light! You ought to remain in darkness forever!”
As soon as Ganesha uttered this curse, the light from Chandra disappeared and he could no longer be seen! Chandra was terrified! Struck with remorse, he pleaded with Ganesha to forgive him. Ganesha’s heart, like his stomach, was massive. When he saw that Chandra was truly sorry about what had happened, Ganesha relented. He said, “I cannot take back the curse. But I can modify it. From now on, your light will come and go with the passing days. Your form will grow and diminish. This will teach you to remain humble always.” Chandra bowed to Ganesha and promised him that never again would he behave so badly or forget his place.
And this is why the moon in the sky waxes and wanes!