Ganesh – Studies of an Asian God

Ganesh – Studies of an Asian God

Item Code: IHL586
Author: Robert L. Brown
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Language: English
Edition: 1997
ISBN: 8170305489
Pages: 358 (51 B&W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8 inch X 5.8 inch
Weight 550 gm
From Back of the Book

This book displays state of the art scholarship on the mythology literature iconography and practice surrounding Ganesa. No single scholar could take on the range of traditions texts languages and practices that are represented here. It is a case of strength through diversities of scholarly in original sources.

Paub B. Court right Emory University

I liked the wide-range of information presented about Ganesa from a variety of Asian countries. The depth of detail it makes available the transitions of texts otherwise not available the data on actual rituals and the data it gives on Tantrism. The book will be useful to those who want to explore a single theme that has run through South Southeast and East Asia. It is especially significant for the insight it provides into Tantric practices in Tibet and Japan.

Dennis Hudson. Smith College

This book examines the complete Ganesh for the first time. Here is the God in his multiple forms from the different geographical areas in Asia. Particularly important are chapters that deal with his Buddhist and Tantric forms. The controversial question of his origins is also thoroughly discussed.

“It provides a great deal of original and unpublished material which will be of much interest to scholars in the field. It will be an indispensable reference work on the subject.”

Pratataditya Pal Senior Curator. Los Angeles Country Museum of Art Robert L. Brown is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of California. Los Angeles and Adjunct Curator of the Pacific Asia Museum.



It all started in 1953. A. D. H. Bivar, then at the Christ Church, Oxford, showed me a coin of Hermaeus when I was working on my dissertation on the Indo-Greeks at London. It was unusual. On the reverse of the coin the deity that should have been Zeus appeared to have an elephant’s face; the trunk was clear. Both of us became curious, and we checked various private and public collections for other specimens. We did not find any and accepted it as a unique piece. But we were reluctant to publish it then, t firstly because we wanted to wait for more specimens to be found, and secondly because we could not convince ourselves of reasons for Hermaeus to issue such a coin. The coin was acquired by the British Museum, and the matter rested there.

But I did not forget about it. When P Bernard sent me photographs _of some coins of Agathocles found in his excavations at Ai Khanum in Afghanistan bearing the queer depictions of two Indian deities, now identified as Vasudeva and Sankarsana, I remembered again the Hermaeus coin. I went through the relevant literature, and I thought of giving the coin’s image the benefit of the doubt. I thought if such an early king as Agathocles among the Greeks of Bactria and India could experiment with the depiction of Indian divinities, and Heliodorus, an emissary of Antialcidas of Taxila to Vidisa, was bold enough to declare himself a Bhagavat, why could not the last of the Indo-Greek kings, Hermaeus, think of paying respects to the local elephant-deity of the mountains nearby the city of Kapisa. But I was afraid to provoke Ganesa as well as his votaries and the scholarship on him. Nevertheless, since this unique coin of the British Museum was not known to many, I felt justified in bringing it to the notice of those who were not numismatists and who would not visit the British Museum collection of coins.

In 1973 I read a paper at the Paris conference of the International Congress of Orientalists that for the first time dealt with this coin publicly. To reduce the shock, I also discussed the coins of Agathocles showing Vasudeva and Sankarsana as identified and published independently by both Jean Filliozat and myself. The response was mixed as expected, and some Sanskritists plainly refused to accept the identification of the image as a therianthropomorphic figure with an elephant head. I published a brief note on the coin and continued discussing it in the States, finally organizing a panel at the Washington, D.C., session of the Association of Asian Studies in 1984 to deal with Ganesa afresh in the wider perspective of various academic disciplines and cultural areas. We decided later to publish the papers presented at the conference, supplementing the panel papers with additional articles. But all this could not have happened if Bob Brown had not taken upon himself the task of editing the manuscripts and seeing the book through the press. I also take this opportunity to thank the publishers for their patience and production. I only hope our Ganesa receives it kindly.


I. Various Ganesas

Ganesa is often said to be the most worshiped god in India.' As the lord of beginnings, he is worshiped by devotees of other Hindu dei- ties - of Siva, Visnu, the Goddess - either as the initiator of the path to these deities or as the direct road to mundane goals and success. He is also worshiped by some as the primary god (istadevata). His cult has its own texts, such as the Ganesa Purana and the sri Ganapati Atharvasirsa, where he is presented as the all-encompassing cosmic deity. Thus, he functions on multiple levels in the hierarchy of Indic gods, from the level of the sub- sidiary gods to that of the supreme deities, and his worship crosses bound- aries among the various sects.

His popularity in India, however, is more than a matter of the sheer number of worshipers in his role as initiator of activities. He is favored with a singular affection. Part of this popular appeal has to do with the way he looks. He has an elephant head and a human body. Usually his body is de- picted as short and squat with an enormous belly. Its girth suggests an el- ephant, but it also can be seen as the body of a chubby child. Ganesa is considered the child of Parvati, and usually also of Siva. When Ganesa is depicted as a child in texts and art, he is shown as participating in cozy domestic scenes with his parents and his brother Skanda. The Indian de- light in children and the importance given to the family, seen as well in the popular child manifestations of other Indic gods." afford an attraction to the baby Ganesa. The elephant head seems actually to add to the adorable- ness of the little Ganesa. From the earliest artistic depictions there has been a tendency to anthropomorphize the head by moving the eyes to the front and flattening the face while the eyes become human, sometimes complete with eyebrows. This allows for a direct human-to-human reac- tion, along with the accompanying emotions.

Thus, Ganesa's popularity is multifaceted and widespread. He func- tions in many contexts other than the three I have mentioned - that of lord of beginnings, cosmic deity, and child of Parvati and Siva. This book is about these multiple contexts, these various Ganesas, and the underlying reasons he could take the forms and perform the functions he did. Wendy O'Flaherty writes that

Ganesa has everything that is fascinating to anyone who is interested in re- ligion or India or both: charm, mystery, popularity, sexual problems, moral ambivalence, political importance, the works. One can start from Canesa and work from there if' an unbroken line to almost any aspect of Indian cul- ture.

Certainly this versatile god reflects in his many contexts a broad range of Indian cultural characteristics. While Ganesa's multiplicity is due to his taking separate and distinct roles, the essays in this book reveal themes that knit together disparate aspects of Ganesa's character.It is foolhardy to say that Ganesa is unique among Indic gods, but it emerges from these essays that Ganesa's popularity stems from hopes and desires he uniquely fulfills, from unique powers and premises attributed to him.

Most interestingly, Ganesa is not only an Indian god. He appears in China by the sixth century, and perhaps as early in Southeast Asia. By the seventh and eighth centuries, Indian texts dealing with Ganesa are being translated by Buddhist monks in China. Likewise, Indian Ganesa texts are translated into Tibetan and introduced into Tibet by monks in the tenth and eleventh centuries. While based on Indian texts and art, Ganesa de- velops unique forms outside of India., such as the dual Ganesa found in China and popular in Japan. The pan-Asian Ganesa has never been so thoroughly studied as in this book. As we shall see, it was Ganesa in his Tantric guise that became most influential outside of India. This side of Ga- nesa, little explored in India itself, becomes an important window on an obscure aspect of Indian culture.

II. Ganesa in Indian Myth

The mythic Ganesa's character and life are developed predominantly in the Puranas, a group of texts that date beginning from around A.D. 300 and in which, over the next one thousand years, modern theistic Hindu- ism took its form. In the Puranas, Ganesa is associated with Siva and his family: Siva's wife Parvati and his son Skanda. His origin within this fa- milial context is given great stress, particularly in an attempt to explain his having an elephant's head. These Puranic origin myths, supplemented by numerous others in regional texts and oral traditions, provide a wide va- riety of explanations for his form. Many of them have him violently losing his human head after birth, the elephant head being placed on his body as a substitute. In a number of the stories, it is Ganesa's own father, Siva, who cuts off his son's head. Siva in these cases usually does not recognize his son because Parvati has created him unilaterally" and Siva has never seen him before. Parvati's motivation for creating Ganesa without Siva's participation stems from her longing for a child and Siva's unwillingness, as an ascetic (who must retain his seed) and an eternally living god (who does not need the sraddha ceremonies upon death), to produce a son. She wants a child due to her loneliness and maternal yearnings, but she also, in these myths, creates Ganesa to guard the door to her inner chamber or bath. It is here, at the access to Parvati's sexuality, that Ganesa's attempt to keep Siva from entering results in the physical confrontation that leads to Ganesa's defeat and death by beheading.

The replacement of the head by that of an elephant takes a number of scenarios in the myths, but often involves Parvati's disconsolation and sometimes her threats, and Siva's consequent surprise at what he has done and his attempt at rectification. The search for a replacement head is some- thing of a scramble, due to the immediacy of the problem, with the head of the first creature that can be found, an elephant, being used. In a rec- onciliatory gesture, Siva makes the restored and now elephant-headed Ga- nesa part of his own family and entourage by appointing him as leader of his army of ganas. (Thus Ganesa is frequently called Ganapati, "leader of the ganas.")

Even this very abbreviated condensation of a small portion of the Ga- nesa origin myths shows how rich these stories are in characterizing the god. In the Indian context, Ganesa is the liminal god of transitions: he is placed at the doorway of temples to keep out the unworthy, in a position analogous to his role as Parvati's doorkeeper, and he can set up, as he did for his father, obstacles to the successful completion of goals. His parents' ambivalent relationship, founded on the opposing concerns of asceticism and sexuality, places Ganesa in between. He is created by Parvati as a re- sult of Siva's asceticism and refusal to have children, but is annihilated due to Siva's sexual interest in Parvati, only to be restored, transformed, as a bond between the two. He is here fulfilling his transitional role as a means to integrate opposing elements. The Oedipal themes of Ganesa's attrac- tion or attachment to his mother, his attempt to keep his father from access to his mother, and his confrontation with his father in which part of his body is cut off, invite psychoanalytical probings of psychosexual develop- ment.?

While the reason Ganesa needs a head is supplied in these myths, the question why it is an elephant's head is not answered. Why not another human head, or the head of an animal other than that of an elephant? The failure of the myths to explain the choice may be best explained in histori- cal terms: the form of Ganesa as an elephant-headed human existed prior to the development of these Puranic myths. They thus were dealing with an already existing but etiologically unexplained god. Certainly, Ganesa appears late in Indic literature (say, around the fifth century A.D.). He does not appear, for example, in either the Ramayana or the Mahabharata (ex- cept, for the latter, in a clearly late interpolation).

Much of Ganesa's character is regionally defined, most particularly in the popular mind. This is perhaps best brought out in Lawrence Coh- en's essay ("The Wives of Ganesa"), where Ganesa's bachelor and celibate nature (as brahmacarin)-the aspect that has been traditionally stressed in the scholarship-is shown to be predominantly a South Indian character- ization. It is true that Ganesa is not a womanizer as is his father, Siva, or as is Visnu in his avatara as Krsna, yet in other characterizations he is married and is even said to have children. With the possibility of such regional qualifications in mind, we can finish our composite sketch of Ganesa's mythic character.




  Foreword – A.K. Narain vii
  Acknowledgments ix
  Note On Transliteration xi
  Introduction – Robert L. Brown 1
1. Ganesa: A Protohistory of the Idea and the Icon – A.K. Narain 19
2. Ganesa: Myth and Reality – M.K. Dhavalikar 49
3. Ganesa’s Rise to Prominence in Sanskrit Literature – Ludo Rocher 69
4. Ganesa as Metaphor: The Mudgala Purana – Phyllis Granoff 85
5. Images of Ganesa in Jainism – Maruti Nandan Tiwari and Kamal Giri 101
6. The Wives of Ganesa – Lawrence Cohen 115
7. “Vatapi Ganapatim”: Sculptural, Poetic, and Musical Texts in a Hymn to Ganesa – Amy Catlin 141
8. Ganesa in Southeast Asian Art: Indian Connections and Indigenous Developments – Robert L. Brown 171
9. The Tantric Ganesa: Texts Preserved in the Tibetan Canon – Christopher Wilkinson 235
10. Ganesa in China: Methods of Transforming the Demonic – Lewis R. Lancaster 277 277
11. Literary Aspects of Japan’s Dual-Ganesa Cult – James H. Sanford 287
  List of Contributors 337
  Index 341

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