In the Hindu tradition, we have several deities; in the form of men, women, animals, birds, trees, rivers, mountains, and various aspects of nature. Of these numerous deities, some are more popular than others, like Ganesha.
What makes him so special? Why is he loved by one and all? What is his history? When all these questions arose in my mind, I thought I’d ask Ganesha. Well, not the Ganesha of course, but his namesake, the renowned polymath Shatavadhani Dr R Ganesh, arguably India’s finest Sanskrit scholar and poet. Here are extracts from my exciting conversation with him about Ganesha.
Hari: Whenever I come across Ganapati, I can’t but think of how the various deities in our tradition have changed over the years. In the time of the Vedas, Vinayaka was non-existent. Deities like Indra, Prajapati, Rudra, Aditi, Mitra, Varuna, Soma, and Brihaspati were the popular ones. Over the years, this has changed. It seems to me that the adherents of Sanatana Dharma are rather comfortable in discarding old gods and creating new ones. What do you think?
Ganesh: I don’t completely agree, and I’ll tell you why. The deities of the Vedas were not discarded but transformed. For instance, Prajapati of the Vedas became the four-faced Brahma of the Puranas. Indra, Parjanya, Mitra, Surya, and the 12 Adityas (manifestations of the sun deity) all merged into one deity - Vishnu. Similarly, Agni, Varuna, Soma, the 11 Rudras, and the 49 Maruts merged into Shiva. And even today we worship Saraswati, an important Vedic deity.
On the other hand, with every new deity created or encountered (in some village or tribe), they are connected back to an existing deity of Sanatana Dharma. Take the example of folk deities like Mariamma or Yallamma. They are seen as manifestations of Aditi, the Vedic mother goddess, who is the mother of the devas.
In sum, while the names and characteristics of deities change over time - and there is a lot of freedom to change - the spirit behind them remains the same. All deities and gods of all religions and faiths are products of human fear and desire, after all.
Hari: Yes, that’s true, but why is Ganesha loved by the old and young alike? Many other cultures have embraced Ganesha with gusto. In fact, many of my friends in the west have a small Ganapati in their homes.
Ganesh: Ganesha is such a flexible deity. He is so friendly and accessible. He promises to rid us of all our troubles. He is the first one we worship before we take up any activity. Every year, our artists and sculptors create newer types of Ganeshas. There is so much freedom for innovation - from Kargil Ganesha to Bollywood Ganesha even to Ganesha with six-pack abs, we have him in numerous forms. And it doesn’t seem out of place at all.
The Mudgala Purana lists 32 manifestations of Ganapati, like Maha Ganapati, Ucchista Ganapati, Bala Ganapati, Vira Ganapati and Shakti Ganapati but we can have him in innumerable forms.
If you think about it, Ganapati’s physical features are not particularly attractive. He is short and fat. Quite an awkward physique. Rather easy to tease. But in our tradition, beauty is the beauty of character and not solely bodily beauty.
Further, I’ve found that deities who have an interesting childhood - in the stories of the Itihasas and Puranas - tend to be more loved. For instance in Tamil, if you notice, we call Ganesha as Pillaiyaar, the noble child.
Hari: That is an astute observation! Krishna is so popular. The same is the case with Hanuman, Subrahmanya, Aiyappa. Through the stories, we see them growing up. A natural affection arises for them.
Ganesh: Another reason for Ganesha’s popularity - and flexibility - is the movement started in the later part of the 19th century by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who integrated the Ganeshotsava with the freedom movement. What he started off has snowballed into such a huge celebration today, not just in Maharashtra but all over India.
Hari: How old is Ganesha? Is he one among the Vedic deities?
Ganesh: In the Rig Veda Samhita, the oldest treatise in the world, we find the word "ganapati" in the famous mantra dedicated to Brahmanaspati, the deity of speech (also known as Vakpati) - gananam tva ganapatim havamahe… (RVS 2.23.1), but it is not a reference to Ganesha in the form we now know him.
It was perhaps during the time of the Puranas that Ganesha got the form and traits with which we identify him today - elephant face, son of Shiva and Parvati, having the rat as a vehicle, etc. There is also a connection between the Yakshas of the Vedas and Ganesha, especially when we look at their physical forms.
An interesting observation I’d like to make here is that Kalidasa (4th to 5th century CE) doesn’t mention Ganesha even once! It’s quite surprising that he doesn’t, especially having dedicated an epic poem describing the birth of Skanda (or Muruga), the son of Shiva and Parvati. However, we find a mention of Ganesha in the Gahasattasayi (Gatha-sapta-shati) of Hala Shatavahana (1st to 2nd century CE), who predated Kalidasa.
|Ganesha is a deity for all seasons.
The Amarakosha of Amarasimha (7th century CE) refers to Ganesha and gives eight synonyms for him: Vinayaka - terrifying leader (or anti-leader), Vighnaraja - conqueror of obstacles, Dvaimatura - having two mothers; Parvati (earth) and Ganga (water) are said to be his two mothers, Ganadhipa - leader of the people, Ekadanta - single-tusked, Heramba - haughty hero, Lambodara - one with a dangling belly, and Gajanana - elephant-faced. (AK 1.1.93-94)
Hari: When we think of Ganesha, we also think of Gauri. In the case of many other deities, the mother of the deity isn’t particularly important.
Ganesh: The Gauri-Ganesha festival is such a celebration of the mother-child relationship. I feel we should celebrate the Gauri festival as Mothers’ Day. Gauri is such a devoted mother to Ganesha! She is willing to fight with her husband Shiva, whom she had won after years of tapas. She goes to curse the moon when he makes fun of Ganesha. She cannot stand any kind of attack directed at her son. And as for Ganesha, he is willing to fight until his last breath to prevent a person from entering his mother’s abode.
Hari: Rama and Krishna were possibly historical characters who were later deified. What about Ganesha? From an anthropological standpoint, what is the origin of the Ganesha story?
Ganesh: Who is Ganesha? An elephant. From time immemorial, we Indians have loved elephants. It is a huge animal, yet a herbivore, so we feel we can befriend it. Also, unlike the African elephant, the Indian elephant is more amenable to domestication. It is said the African elephant’s value is when it is dead but the Indian elephant’s value is when it is alive. Naturally it became a totem for our early people.
The Ganesha story is deeply connected with the life of the agricultural people. The earth is seen as Parvati, the mother. The sky is seen as Shiva, the father. When there is rain, the earth becomes wet - thus the reference to Parvati having a bath. The crop then arises from the mud - hence the story of making Ganesha from the mud. Once the crop grows to its full height, it is chopped - hence the story of chopping Ganesha’s head off.
Then the crops are bundled together and tied, resembling the trunk of the elephant. The single tusk of Ganesha is a symbol for the plough. Ganesha’s large ears represent the shurpa (winnowing fans). The vehicle of Ganesha, the rat, is the animal that often runs around in fields. The elephant also has a wild side and helps ward off wild animals. This is probably the origin of Ganesha. But always remember: this is merely at the level of adhibhuta.
Hari: The orthodoxy seems to get offended by the adhibhuta level of meaning while the Leftists seem to be obsessed only with materialistic aspects.
Ganesh: Sanatana Dharma neither abhors nor exaggerates this materialistic aspect.
Hari: At the level of adhidaiva - the realm of beliefs - we have numerous stories about Ganesha from the Puranas and at the level of adhiyajna - the realm of ritual - we celebrate the Ganesha chaturthi. What is the significance at the level of adhyatma - the realm of the self?
Ganesh: When we celebrate Ganesha chaturthi, we make Ganesha from mud - for the past five years, as you know, friends in our group come together every year and have been making their own Ganeshas. This represents srishti (creation). We then worship the murti and this represents stithi (equilibrium). At the end of the festival, we perform the visarjana in a lake, representing laya (dissolution). This is just one of the many insights we get from Ganesha.
Ganapati is also said to preside over the muladhara (root) chakra, for instance. This is the seat in the physical body as well as the origin of sound, and therefore of speech and expression. This links back to the Brahmanaspati deity of the Vedas. Like this, there is so much of symbolism related to Ganapati - many scholarly works have been written about it.
Hari: What can we learn from Ganesha that’ll help us here and now?
Ganesh: We humans have our mouth above our hands. Ganesha - or the elephant - has his trunk above his mouth. In our case, talk seems to take precedence over action but in his case, action precedes talk. That is a great lesson for all of us from Gajanana - talk less, work more!