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Lord Ganesha – Remover of Obstacles

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 Buddha’s 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 guardian deity.

According to 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 Ganesa’s head was severed. Parvati, hearing all the commotion, came running out and flew into a rage when she saw the little boy’s head severed. Lord Vishnu, the protector, Siva and many others of the pantheon did not know how to face the woman’s 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 Siva’s 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 Siva’s 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.

Mother’s pride seemed to have definitely been detrimental to Ganesa’s 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 child’s 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 Parvati’s 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 elephant.

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 God’s 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 Parvati’s house to see their new child. Everybody gave some gift or other. The earth gave a mouse as Ganapati’s 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 special deity.

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 deity’s 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 today’s world.