It is customary to invoke the pot bellied, elephant
faced, Lord Ganesa, before making any beginning. The remover of
obstacles, the destroyer of sorrow, Ganesha represents a syncretism
of different traditions to form one composite deity. This series on
the Hindu pantheon begins with him.
If one were to go by
antiquity or in order of seniority in the Hindu pantheon, Lord
Ganesha would not qualify to be here, leading this series on Hindu
Gods. For historians feel it was only around the fourth century AD
that the concept of Ganesa came to stay preceded, as it were, by
instances of elephant worship. Yet not reader, familiar with the
Indian ethos, would be surprised for it is customary to pay obeisance
to him before the commencement of anything, even if it is the worship
of other deities. Why did he acquire this status and where does he
belong in the Hindu pantheon?
As I hail Ganesha
and set out to tell his story, I let the heart lead, for he is one
deity who is loved as much as he is revered. In his aspect as the
sacred elephant, his genesis seems to stretch far back into
antiquity. An approximate date that scholars bring to light is the
late Indus period, (2550-2050 BC) when the elephant motif was used on
coins. In the 3rd century BC, the famous Maurya king
Asoka used the elephant figure on many of his pillars. The Sarnath
pillar, from which the national emblem is derived, is one among them.
Indeed, the elephant is closely related to Buddhist mythology. Very
early in history, the symbol had been adopted by Buddhism and Jainism
to. The elephant is symbolic of Buddhas conception as well as
that of many Jain Tirthankaras. Of course, in Hindu mythology
elephants figure in many instances, beginning with Lord Indra, the
king of the heavens. His mount, Airavata, was a white elephant.
So there is a school of
thought which believes that Ganesa evolved from the Vedic fold. In
the Vedas, the oldest dating to 1500-1000 BC, he is synonymous with
some other Gods mentioned therein. But, equally, it is pointed out
that the name Ganesa or Ganapati or Vinayaka, as he is variously
called, does not figure in the Vedas. So the syncretic nature of
this deity, for he seems to have taken attributes from different
Hindu deities to emerge as one composite whole. So charming is
Ganesa that the argument that he was conceived by early man who was
overawed by the strength and power of the elephant seems a backward
moving derivation! In many African societies the elephant is a
common symbol as, in a desire to acquire the strength of the
elephant, its worship began and soon he assumed the role of a
folklore, Ganesa is believed to have acquired is pot belly which is
likened to a pitcher full of prosperity. It is believed
that he fulfills desires. Like Vishnu, the protector in the Hindu
pantheon, Ganesa came in many incarnations. In all the eight forms he
vanquished evil. In this respect he resembles the other animal
deity, Hanuman. Hanuman is a monkey deity who is revered by almost
every Hindu. Hanuman is one who is said to have conquered all the
senses. A syncretistic deity, Adianta Prabhu,
can be seen in a temple in Chennai in Tamil Nadu where the deity is
half Hanuman and half Ganesa. Similar instances are related with
respect to many other deities.
There are many
interesting myths, and most of them do not agree with each other, on
the story of how Ganesa came to be born.
According to one,
Parvati, the consort of Siva the destroyer in the Hindu
Trinity, was getting ready for her bath. She paused a moment. Yes,
she could be disturbed if somebody barged in, she thought. Taking
the sandalwood paste and sweat off her body she created a beautiful
little baby boy. Keep guard, she told him, and do
not let anyone enter. Ganesa stood his ground. So duty bound
was he that he e even refused entry to Lord Siva. The Lord tried
most means and finally in indignation even told him that he was the
husband. Ganesa would not relent. A war was waged between the young
boy and many attendants of Siva. Some gods too came running to help.
Finally Ganesas head was severed. Parvati, hearing all the
commotion, came running out and flew into a rage when she saw the
little boys head severed. Lord Vishnu, the protector, Siva and
many others of the pantheon did not know how to face the womans
rage. Instantly Siva sent emissaries to look for the first sleeping
figure with his head to the north. An elephant was found. Its head
was severed and attached to the little boy.
Another version says that
Lord Siva and Parvati were making love, when Lord Vishnu looked for
mischief. He pretended to be a thirsty old man and knocked at Sivas
door, asking for water. The couple rose in a hurry to fulfil the
request of the old man. After drinking the water, Vishnu assumed the
form of a little child and lay on their bed where he mingled with
Sivas seed. This child came to be called Ganesa.
According to one myth,
Siva and Parvati assumed the forms of elephants and wandered about
many forests, trumpeting with others who were elephants by birth.
Their names were Matanga and Matangi. Their child was Ganesa.
seemed to have definitely been detrimental to Ganesas look, if
we believe the following two stories. In one it is said that Parvati
showed off her son to Lord Saturn. Her pride caused the childs
head to fall out. It was Lord Vishnu who came to the rescue and
fixed an elephant head to bring the child back to life again.
Another version says Siva created Ganesa from Parvatis garment.
So beautiful was the creation that Parvati could not take her eyes
off him. Jealous Siva immediately changed the face into that of an
If his face and figure is
the fantasy of most Indian painters, sculptors and artists, his
vehicle has always been intriguing. Imagine this portly figure
riding on a mouse! But he does. Once again there are so many
conjectures as to why such a creature should be the Elephant Gods
mount. There is only one creature that can reach anywhere; it knows
no obstacles. It is the mouse. So rides the Lord who destroys
obstacles, on a mouse. There is no greater enemy to the farmer than
the field rat. Propitiate Lord Ganesa and he will take care of that
breed of animals. In another story many people came to Lord Siva and
Parvatis house to see their new child. Everybody gave some
gift or other. The earth gave a mouse as Ganapatis vehicle.
Ganapati is known for his
intellect and wisdom. When Siva and Parvati held a competition
between Ganapati and his younger brother, Karthikeya, Ganapati won by
intellect. The winner would be one who is fastest at circling the
world thrice. Karthikeya, went around the globe but Ganapati just
went around his parents who meant the world to him.
In some regions of India
Ganesa is considered to be a bachelor while in most he is believed to
have two wives, Siddhi and Buddhi. In western parts of India he is
revered as the deity of traders. In the south a variety of forms are
worshiped, as appropriate for each occasion. There is also a sect
known as the Ganapatyas who worship Ganapati or Ganesa as their
According to mythology,
Parvati is a symbol of the earth and so Ganesa too symbolizes the
earth and today environment is our greatest concern.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a
freedom fighter, revived the celebrations of the deitys
birthday in September-October and so his worship is once again on the
upswing. While that has really caught on, ideologists look at the
rise in the worship of Ganesa as symbolic of the growing importance
of commerce in todays world.