Endowed with child-like innocence, mischief in eyes and carefree disposition the cool, soft and benign elephant-headed Ganesa is invoked primarily for removing obstacles and assuring detriment-free beginning. ‘Vakratunda mahakay surya koti sama prabha, Nirvighnam kuru mey deva sarva karyeshu sarvatha’ – O ye, who possesseth curved trunk, huge body and brilliance of ten million suns, accomplish, and accomplish always, all my errands detriment-free, is one of the most popular hymns which besides describing his broad physiognomy and spiritual aura invokes him for accomplishing his devotee’s ‘sarva-karya’, all tasks he undertakes.
In Indian perception ‘karya’ denotes ‘mangala-karya’ – auspicious work, which a fair mind undertakes. When invoked before a ‘karya’ is begun, Lord Ganesa assures its detriment-free accomplishment. The protector and promoter of auspicious aspect of the ‘karya’ Ganesa is thus also the god of auspiciousness.
GANESA IN EARLY TEXTS
In initial textual allusions Lord Ganesa is perceived as the god who subdued detrimental forces variedly named ‘ganas’ or ‘vighnas’. In one of the hymns (23/19) the Yajurveda lauds him as ‘Gananama twa Ganapati’ – lord of ‘ganas’ is Ganapati. In other early texts he is lauded as Vinayaka and Vighnesha – commander or lord of ‘vighnas’.
The Brahma Vaivarta Purana delineates him as ‘Parmeeswara’ – the ultimate god, but this ‘Parmeeswara’ is primarily the ‘vighna nighna karam’, that is, one who eliminates obstacles. The Brahma Vaivarta Purana hence commands that Ganesa be invoked before any other god, which would assure a smooth beginning and unimpeded accomplishment of an act. It quotes Lord Vishnu as declaring: ‘Sarvagre tawa puja … sarva pujyashcha yogindra bhava’ – you are the first I have worshipped, O conqueror of passions, you would hence be worshipped by all (13/2). Not Lord Vishnu alone, ‘Ado pujya Vinayaka’ – worship Vinayaka first, is what Vedas, Shrutis, Smritis, Upanishadas, Puranas and other texts have prescribed, for nothing succeeds if the forces that impede it are not contained, something that Lord Ganesa alone is capable of doing. Commemoration of Lord Ganesa alone: ‘Yasya smaran matren sarvavighno vinasyati’, annihilates all impediments and success is assured for, as acclaim Indian metaphysics as well as modern science, unless impeded all things keep going.
Before he began Creation Brahma, unable to command unruly ‘ganas’ – cosmic elements, ‘pramatha’ – the innumerable, ‘bhuta – the unfathomable, ‘yaksha’ – the unending, and ‘rakshasa’ – the imperishable, invoked Ganesa for containing them, and benevolent Ganesa did it. He helped Brahma to create out of innumerable, unfathomable, unending, and imperishable a world that was numbered, spanned, born to die, and decayed. Vishnu is said to have invoked Lord Ganesa before he vanquished Bali, Shiva, before he destroyed Tripura, the three cities of demons, Durga, before she killed Mahishasura, the great serpent Shesh, before he lifted the earth on his head, and the love god Kamadeva, before he conquered the universe with his arrows of passions. He was invoked by the great sage Vyas before he began composing his great epic the Mahabharata. Brahaspati, the teacher of gods in said to have invoked Lord Ganesa before he delivered his ever first lesson to gods.
Lord Ganesa is invoked for enshrining a child’s slate before he draws on it his ever first alphabet. The patron of letters he is worshipped even before Saraswati, the goddess of learning. A new account-book would commence only after the Ganesa-mantra, ‘Shri Ganeshay namah’ – salutations to Thee O Lord Ganesa, or at least his emblem ‘Swastika’, has been inscribed on its opening page. A marriage card or an invitation for any other auspicious occasion would essentially incorporate on its top a form of Ganesa, visual or linguistic. Invocation to Lord Ganesa would precede rites relating to birth, ‘yajnopavit’, ‘graha-pravesh’ – entering a new house, commencement of a new business, or a public feat – a tournament or whatever, or even installation of a deity. So deep rooted is and has been the belief that even many of the Persian scribes/writers during medieval days preferred invoking Lord Ganesa before they began writing their texts. Essentially the god of beginning, Lord Ganesa does not sanctify ends, except when an end precedes a beginning. Death-related rites are not begun by invoking Lord Ganesa. He is not invoked, or his name inscribed on papers or documents that seek dissolution of a marriage, partnership or firm, or declare bankruptcy, lunacy or disentitlement.
Lord Ganesa is a divinity in the Shaivite line. In Hindu pantheon he enjoys the same status as the great Trinity. Texts laud Lord Ganesa as ‘Uma sutam’ – son of Uma or Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort, not born of her but her creation.
Some variations apart, unanimity largely prevails in regard to the circumstances of his origin. The Matsya Purana is more elaborate in its details of the event. For meditation or otherwise, Lord Shiva was usually away for long durations. During the period of his sojourn Parvati felt very lonely. She often wished she had someone of her own to share her loneliness. So occupied, one day while cleansing her body with herbal paste, she moulded the thickened paste-waste rubbed out from her body into the idol of a child. She wished the child’s idol had life, and the other moment it transformed into a living child. Amazed and thrilled Parvati adopted him as her son.
Accounts as to how the child’s image imbibed with life vary in other texts. As is another version, one day Parvati had gone to the river Ganga to take bath. In the course of bathing she created a child’s image out of the paste-waste she used for cleansing her body. Unmindful as she was, she threw it into the river. And, what a miracle, the river returned the image transformed into a huge living human form – a child of most unusual size. Parvati and Ganga, the old rivals, laid their claims and counter-claims over the child. Finally, the child himself sorted out the issue. Reducing himself to a child’s normal size he walked to Parvati acknowledging her as his mother. Another myth accounts it with a little variation. The child’s image was transformed into a real child after Parvati sprinkled Ganga’s water on it. Of the other two prevalent myths one asserts Brahma’s supremacy as the Creator, while the other, Vishnu’s. After the image was created Parvati entreated Brahma to endow it with life, which Brahma did, and it turned into a living child. The Vaishnava version does not support the image-theory. According to it, on her prayer Parvati was granted the child by Vishnu for sharing her loneliness.
ELEPHANT HEAD AND NAME
A subsequent event gave the child his elephant trunk, Ganesa as his name, and Shiva as his father. After his emergence the child was with Parvati like her shadow. Shiva, yet away, did not know the child. One day when resting in Parvati instructed him to keep the door not allowing anyone to enter. It so chanced that the same day Shiva returned from Kailash. Parvati’s son did not know Shiva. Hence, as instructed, he stopped him from entering his mother’s chamber. Exchange of words proved futile. They finally resorted to arms and a fierce battle ensued. In the beginning Shiva thought that frightening alone would do but his impression was wrong. Resistance from the child’s side was stronger than he expected. The annoyed Shiva could not enter the chamber before he beheaded the child. Hearing the clamour of arms Parvati came out and was stunned to see her child’s blood-smeared body lying on the ground. More shocking was that he was beheaded by none else but her own husband. The grieving mother threatened that she would destroy the universe if her son was not brought back to life. Frightened by Parvati’s wrath Shiva sent his messengers to north, to bring the head of any newborn they encountered first. They came back with an elephant head. With no other option, Shiva fixed it on the child’s torso and resurrected him. Admiring his valour and devotion Shiva put his ‘ganas’ under his charge and named him Ganesa. He proclaimed that thenceforth Ganesa would command not all ‘vighnas’ alone but also all elements that formed cosmos.
Circumstances of his birth and incidence of getting an elephant head are differently stated in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana. Once Parvati was undergoing great austerities including holy fast for a son. One night she suddenly got up from her sleep to find beside her, as if in dream, a beautiful child crying for milk. Overwhelmed Parvati, instead of feeding the child or taking his care, rushed to Shiva for giving him the new. Alike enrapt Shiva assured Parvati that the child was the result of her austerities and was none else but Krishna himself. His birth was celebrated as a festival attended by Vishnu, Brahma, Indra, Surya, Agni, Vayu, other gods, Brahmins, ‘gandharvas’ and other celestial beings. All admired the child’s appearance and attributes. He was blessed with long life, immense power, valour, strength, and unfathomable wisdom. All proclaimed that he would conquer all passions, weaknesses, desires, ambitions and greed. Lord Vishnu worshipped him and prescribed his ‘agra-puja’ – first worship.
In the midst of the ceremony Shani, the ominous and notorious planet, entered the function-venue. He had his eyes closed. Cursed by his wife he burnt whatever, a thing or being, his glance fell on. Hence, he had his eyes closed lest the newborn was harmed. Thinking that Shani was neglecting her child or was envious of him Parvati expressed her displeasure. Shani explained everything but proud of her exceptional son and her husband’s exceptional power Parvati laughed and challenged him to open his eyes. To evade mother Parvati’s displeasure Shani opened his eyes. He looked at the child’s face and to everybody’s dismay the child was rendered headless. Unable to bear the shock Parvati fainted. Seeing her condition Lord Vishnu, with something in mind, rushed northwards riding Garuda, his vehicle. On the bank of river Pushpa Bhadra he found a female elephant bearing a child. Lord Vishnu removed the newborn’s head with his disc and brought it with him. He planted it on the torso of Parvati’s son and breathed life into him.
In most manifestations Ganesa looks plumpish and quaint but utterly lovable.
An essentially cool, soft, calm, simple and benevolent being, he neither strikes awe nor inflicts pain, harm or punishment. A mild smile, mischievously blinking eyes greedily looking at ‘laddus’ – sugar-balls, and a carefree relaxed mood, and an as mischievous mouse with a flag-like raised tail attending on, define people’s image of Ganesa. Whatever his form, he is essentially and fundamentally the god of good, ephemeral or transcendental. Except in Sri Lanka Ganesa is universally acknowledged as the harmless little god of good and auspices. Sri Lankans alone perceive him as a fierce personality inflicting severe punishment on those who dare ignore him, as also, as the fierce captain of wild elephants. Japan’s Kengiten or Sho-ten, a god exactly identical to Ganesa or just his yet another form, is venerated as the god of good fortune and the harbinger of happiness, prosperity and good. Japan has Kengiten’s 243 temples. The Ganesa-like elephant faced Orenus, a Greek god, and Chinese Kuan-chi-Tien, are alike the gods of good fortune, riches and prosperity. Exactly, as is Ganesa in India, Romans’ elephant-headed god is invoked before a work is begun for its auspicious and trouble-free beginning and completion.
Ganesa is the son of illustrious parents Shiva and Parvati but neither his personality is overshadowed by theirs nor his individual identity diminished. He has instead a status on par with any other god of the pantheon, even Shiva. He won veneration even from the Vedas. The Mahabharata has admired his appearance and the Upanishads, his immense power. Formulating his rituals and prescribing his ‘agra-puja’ apart, many of the Puranas place him above ‘Trimurti’ – the great Trinity. The Ganapatya sect venerates him as the supreme divinity, and in many ‘tantrika’ practices he is the presiding deity. The Yajnavalkya Smriti is perhaps the only exception where he has been attributed a somewhat negative appearance.
In all other texts, written or recollected, he has been visualised as a god of charming appearance and benign character. Broadly, he is more humane governed by human psychology than any other Indian god.
He is envious, mischievous and at times even obstinate. He does what his parents do or prize most, even taking away his father’s Nandi, snakes or wearing his ‘mundamala’ – skull-garland, or doing things like grinding ‘bhang’ – herbal intoxicant, for his father. A curious person, Ganesa is the bulkiest but rides a mouse, wisest but behaves like a simpleton, conqueror of passions but greedy of ‘laddus’, and an odd combination of man and elephant but exceptionally fascinating and charming. It is when he is with them that Shiva and Parvati attain the status of holy family.
Unanimity prevails in regard to broad appearance of Lord Ganesa. He has an elephant head with a single tusk and twisted trunk, usually turned to left but sometimes to right, planted over a human torso. His head is often conceived with winnowing basket-like large ears and small drowsing eyes. His belly is protruding like a pot and whole figure has a plumpish look. Though endowed with a huge body – ‘mahakaya’, great magnificence and brilliance of millions of suns, he has a figure with moderate height, not claiming any kind of robustness. On the contrary, however huge his figure, he reveals a child-like tenderness. Laudation apart, texts have only casually given details of his appearance. As for his body complexion the statement of Ganapatyopanishada is widely accepted. He is said to have ‘Rakta varanam, rakta malyambaram, rakta gandhanuliptangam, rakta pushpapessupunitam, sindur vadanam’ – red is his complexion, so the flowers in his garland, smeared with sweet fragrant red paste is his body, adorned is his figure with red flowers, and his entire figure is vermillion-coated. Yellow is another colour alluded to as his complexion.
Strangely, Lord Ganesa has elephant head but just one tusk, not the usual two, and he is lauded for it as Ekadanta. Puranas have many myths about his broken tusk. As is one version, Lord Ganesa was Brahma’s scribe. One day when with Brahma, he was asked by him to note down his dictation. Ganesa had no pen. He instantly removed one of his tusks and using it as pen wrote down what Brahma spoke. It is widely claimed that it was the first instance of an ivory pen. The loss of his one tusk is sometimes attributed to his combat with sage Parasurama, Vishnu’s sixth incarnation. One day Shiva and Parvati went in to rest instructing Ganesa to keep the door and see that they were not disturbed. At the same time Parasurama happened to come and insisted to meet Shiva and Parvati. Ganesa disallowed him entering into his parents’ chamber. This infuriated the sage and he decided to punish Ganesa. He raised arms against him and a fierce battle was the result. Resistance from the side of Ganesa was, however, stronger than Parasurama had anticipated. He finally charged at him his ‘brahmashtra’, the ‘parshu’ – battle-axe, which Lord Shiva had given him. Ganesa immediately recognised his father’s weapon, and in reverence to it gave up his resistance. He bore the blow on his tusk and thus it broke.
A more popular and interesting myth attributes the loss of the tusk to the moon. Once on his birthday Ganesa, out of his weakness for them, consumed more ‘laddus’ – sugar-balls, than his stomach had room for. To release the pressure which the over eating created he decided to take a short walk. Hence, riding his mount mouse he proceeded towards the forest. When in deep forest, serpent Vasuki happened to pass across. Frightened by the sight of the great serpent Ganesh’s mouse, serpent’s most loved food, jumped back flinging its master off. Consequently his belly burst and the ‘laddus’ that it contained rolled in all directions. The frantic Ganesa ran after each ‘laddu’, supporting his burst belly with one hand, and collecting and putting them back with the other. Lest the incidence re-occurred he caught the serpent Vasuki and tied it around his belly. A sheer chance, moon and its consorts saw from the sky it all happen and could not help laughing, though not out of any disrespect to him.
Deeply hurt the infuriated Ganesa not only cursed moon to become ugly and detestable for rendering lame whoever looked at it but also broke one of his tusks, the first object his hand reached, and hurled it at moon hitting it upon the face. As various texts have it, the tusk assumed sky-large size which engulfed under total darkness moon, sky and entire earth. Moon realised its error and remorseful and apologetic as it was, it appeared with folded hands before Lord Ganesa. The darkness that enshrouded the universe horrified gods. They also entreated Lord Ganesa to forgive moon and release the universe from the clutches of darkness. Lord Ganesa forgave moon but only partially. The wound was heeled but a scar to remind it of its misdeed was left. It also tarnished the beauty of which moon was so proud. The cover of darkness was taken off but moon was required to toil all twenty-nine days of each month before on the thirtieth day it had a darkness-free day of full glow. Not always, moon was detested now only on Ganesa-chaturthi – the day of the birth of Ganesa, when it rendered lame whoever looked at it. Still, in many parts of the country, people evade looking at moon on the Ganesa-chaturthi and pelt stones at it to hit its inherent ego.
Devotees of Ganesa laud and commemorate him by scores of names, each representing one of his attributes, aspects or forms. The term ‘sahastra-nama-japa’ suggests that the number of the names he is commemorated with is one thousand. Ganesa and Ganapati apart, some of his other popular names are Gajanana and Gajamukha – the elephant faced; Vinayaka, Vighnesha, Vighnaraja and Vighneshwara – the destroyer of obstacles; Ekdanta – single tusked; Vakratunda – who has twisted trunk; Lambodara – pot-bellied; Guhagraja – born after Guha, another name of Karttikeya, elder brother of Ganesa; Dvidehaka – composed of two bodies, that is, of man and elephant; Musakavahana – mouse-riding; Laddukapriya – lover of sweets; Haramba, Siddhidata, Dhundhi, Dhaneshwara, Yogendra, Parmeeswara…. In south he is known as Pillaiyar, the young son of man and elephant.
Far more innumerable are the forms of Ganesa – a thousand or more. Texts have delineated some of his forms but they side by side express their inability to numerate them all, and they suggest its reason. Like his father Shiva, as also like Brahma and Vishnu, he exists beyond time revealing his numerous forms in each age, not known to the other. It is sometimes claimed that these are such forgotten forms that transpire in creative minds and it is out of them that Lord Ganesa chooses one form or the other to reveal himself. It is contended that the patron of letters, lines and forms Ganesa would not be contained in a form unless he himself desires to so manifest.
In classical tradition, Kriyakramodhyoti and Mudgala Purana, are the two most quoted texts giving forms of Ganesa. Kriyakramodhyoti talks of his eleven forms, and Mudgala Purana, of eight. Some minor texts Silparatna and others allude to some of his other forms. In addition to his images, in Tantrika practices and rituals of Ganapatya sect he is also realised through triangles and circles. Kriyakramodhyoti’s eleven forms are Bhakti Ganapati, Bhuvanesha Ganapati, Dvaja Ganapati, Lakshmi Ganapati, Nritta Ganapati, Maha Ganesa, Pingala Ganapati, Uchchhishta Ganapati, Urdhva Ganapati, Vighnaraja Ganapati, and Viravighnesha. The text also gives details of each form, number of hands, attributes carried in them, body colour, sometimes the style of body-parts, subordinate figures in attendance…Mudgala Purana identifies man’s eight evil natures – the demons as it calls them, which Lord Ganesa by his eight manifestations dispels. As Ekadanta he dispels ‘moda’ – arrogance; as Vakratunda, ‘matsara’ – jealousy; as Mahodara, ‘moha’ – infatuation; as Gajanana, ‘lobha’ – greed; as Lambodara, ‘krodha’ – anger; as Vikata, ‘kama’ – sexual desire; as Vighnaraja, ‘mamata’ – attachment; and as Dhumravarana, ‘abhimana’ – ego. Shilparatna talks of his Bija Ganapati form. Mantraratnakara refers to his two other forms, Haridra Ganapati and Prasanna Ganapati. Mantramahodadhi speaks of Unmatta Vinayaka, and Anshabhedagam, of Vinayaka. Vighneshwara Pratishtha Vidhi alludes to a form in which he has in attendance a green complexioned Shakti. This form hence has been identified as Shakti Ganapati. Simha Ganapati, Svayambhu-murti, Vallabha Ganapati … are some of his other popular forms.
Sixteen Armed Vira-Ganesha
A few Ganesa-like terracotta images recovered in excavations from different Harappan sites apart, his earliest images belong to early centuries of the Christian era. By the Gupta period his images, both of aesthetic interest as well as votive, had well set. In initial sculptures he had normal two hands and two eyes which continued also during Gupta period, that is, from fourth to seventh century, but now they also began having a third eye and more than two hands, four, six, eight, ten and even sixteen.
Now the single headed Ganesa emerged also with three and five heads.
Though the images of the period revealed unique plasticity and great elegance and were rare in aesthetic modeling, they were quite simple. In post-Gupta period they began assuming highly decorative character and diversified forms. Early images or those from early Gupta period were usually seated, ‘padmasana’ – lotus-seated, or otherwise, and invariably in thoughtful quietude. However, the sculptors of the subsequent period preferred his standing images, often in a posture of dance,
or at least bending right or left, sometimes in ‘tribhanga’ – three-curved posture, in some innovations even reclining with his head supported on his right hand or on a huge bolster, identical to the Buddha’s ‘Parinirvana’ – final extinction images, and sometimes playing on musical instruments, drum in particular.
Not so much the early, his subsequent images were well bejeweled. Two snakes, one serving as a belt around his belly, and the other, as ‘yajnopavit, were almost essential features of his adornment. Countering this essentially Shaivite attribute he was adorned with a crown that revealed Vaishnava character. In some others forms he was portrayed with Saraswati and Lakshmi on equal footings.
After the devotional cult emerged as the essence of Vaishnavism his images were conceived dancing in full ecstasy.
As suggest Harappan Ganesa-like terracotta images, the cult of Ganesa is pre-Vedic. It is significant that while Vedas merely laud or just invoke other gods the Yajurveda in ‘Namo Ganebhya Ganapati’ – salutations to Ganapati, the Lord of obstacles (16/25) pays deity-like homage to Ganesa, that is, while other Vedic gods were yet in the process of attaining deity-hood Ganesa already enjoyed the status. Researches have revealed that Ganesa or a god exactly identical was worshipped in early days in Central Asia and other parts of the globe. His images and temple-ruins discovered from China, Chinese Turkistan, Nepal, Tibet, Java, Burma, Indo-China, Cambodia, Borneo… indicate that Ganesa comprised the part of their pantheons. In Japan, Greece, China, Rome, Nepal, Sri Lanka and some other countries Ganesa is still in worship or enjoys at least the deity-like status. Though invoked by different names, Ganesa is one of the most venerated, as well as early, deities in Buddhist and Jain pantheons.
A classical god, Ganesa is far more popular amongst tribes, folks and common masses. His figures, or graphic symbol ‘swastika’, might be seen drawn anywhere from a meat-shop to a road-roller or locomotive engine. He is thus more characteristically a ‘loka-devata’ – the god of masses, beyond all barriers of caste, creed or sect. Largely a secular divinity Ganesa has no stifling rituals, sectarian rigidities, fastidiousness or taboos associated with him. He is alike loved and worshipped by all, whatever their social status or religious identity, and both, a hut and a palace, get from him equal protection and benefaction. His multifarious personality suits and enshrines both, a huge monumental temple as well as a child’s toy-chamber, domestic shrine and road-side podium. In recent days during India’s freedom movement Ganesa was the subtlest instrument of social reform and political awakening. A seven or eleven days’ long annual celebration is held through out the country to invite him to come and bestow his blessings on all and to:
‘Let love prevail,
Let prevail good and right wisdom, good sense and mutual trust, prosperity and weal,
Make us liberal, considerate and responsible to all,
Whatever thy name, form, or origin,
We love thee as thy name hath associated with it
Only the good and the right-doing.’
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