Reading Ganesha

(From the book ’99 Thoughts on Ganesha’ – Jaico Publications – by Devdutt Pattanaik)

Published on 24th August, 2014, in The Speaking Tree

The image of Ganesha, his rituals and his stories, are a kind of mythological puzzle created by our ancestors. Through him, they are trying to communicate a profound truth that changed their understanding of the world, and enabled them to live a richer fuller life. One can argue, why not simply give the solution; why go through the trouble of creating a puzzle? Ancient Hindus believed, wisdom must never be given. It has to be taken. And so, the answers are right there in front of us, in the form of Ganesha, if we are willing to decode it. If we do not want to do decode it, its perfectly alright. The image of Ganesha will continue to enrich us, even without being intellectually analyzed. For the intellectuals, however, there are the scriptures, the various works dedicated specifically to Ganesha, including a Purana, a Gita and an Upanishad.

Puranas are texts that chronicle the tales and the methods of worship of deities enshrined in temples. These are later Hindu texts, very different in character from early Hindu texts, the Vedas, where the cornerstone of attention was not a deity but a ritual called the yagna.

Ganesha Purana is a later Purana and identifies itself as an Upa-Purana or a later Purana. It is one of the two Puranas that is specific to Ganesha and therefore highly referred by Ganapatyas, the worshippers of Ganesha. It is dated between 10th and 15th century AD. It has two portions. The first portion is the Upansana-khanda, that contains details on how to express devotion towards Ganesha. This portion contains the Ganesha Sahastranama that contains the 1000 names of Ganesha, often chanted in Ganesha temples. The second part of the Ganesha Purana is the Krida-khanda that narrates the tales of Ganesha. This portion describes his four avatars in each of the four yugas. It also contains the Ganesha Gita.

Like the Ganesha Purana, the Mugdala Purana is a Purana devoted to Ganesha. It is also dated between 10th and 15th century AD and scholars are divided as to which of the two is older. It is also an Upa-Purana, or minor Purana, that seeks to establish Ganesha as the supreme deity. The fundamental difference between Ganesha Purana and Mugdala Purana is that Mugdala Purana describes eight incarnations of Ganesha as opposed to four, and these are rather different in form and content.

Ganesha Gita is part of the Ganesha Purana. It is a discourse given by Gajanan, an avatar of Ganesha, to a king called Varenya. Most of the verses from Ganesha Gita are taken from the more popular Bhagavad Gita, the difference being here Ganesha, instead of Krishna, takes the form of the Supreme Being. Ganesha identifies himself as the creator, the sustainer and the destroyer of the universe. He is Svayambhu or self-created, hence God. He also declares that whenever social order (dharma) is threatened, he descends to set things right. He offers three paths to reach him: the path of intellectual introspection (gyan yoga), the path of passionate devotion (bhakti yoga), and the path of detached action (karma yoga).

In the early part of the 18th century emerged an Upanishad that identifies Ganesha as the supreme being. This is known as the Ganesha Atharvasirsha Upanishad. Its origin is traced to the Atharva Veda. Upanishads are philosophical speculations, the earliest of which were composed 800 B.C.E. Since then from time to time, they have been rewritten over the centuries by various authors. In a text written in 1751 identifies 108 Upanishads, which includes the Ganesha Upanishad. Upanishad identifies the supreme divine principle that animates all things and give intelligence to the world as Brahman. In the Ganesha Upanishad, this formless divine entity is given a form, that of Ganesha. He is said to be the supreme divine principle containing all the gods. He is identified with Brahma and Vishnu and Shiva and with other Devas such as the sun and the moon and the wind and the fire and the rain. It also associates Ganesha with the Muladhar Chakra or the lowermost chakra of Tantrik physiology located at the base of the spine. He is even identified with the supreme mantra, Om.

This Upanishad was a product of, and popular, in the 17th and 18th century, amongst the followers of the Ganapatya cult in Maharashtra, probably Chitpavan Brahmins of Pune. Other Ganesha Upanishads written around similar time with similar themes are Ganeshapurvatapini Upanishad and Ganeshottaratapini Upanishad.