Decoding Ganesha: it is difficult to reduce him to a signpost of a single idea

Published on 19th August, 2017, in The Hindu

Recently at a children’s literature conference, a parent recounted how her son recoiled at the story of Shiva beheading his own son that eventually led to the creation of the elephant-headed Ganesha. A few years ago, a puppeteer told me how she was prevented from narrating the same story at an international festival as the organisers felt the story was too violent and a bit lacking in morality.

In the first case, the problem was of assuming that mythological tales are synonymous with fairy tales (a contention of well-meaning but poorly informed rationalists). In the second case, the problem was of reading mythological tales literally: it can be equally awful to tell a girl child that god is male, and creates male prophets, in the bodies of virgin girls.

A mythological tale, replete with symbols, establishes a community’s understanding of the world. Ganesha may be a cute and cuddly icon for many of us in the 21st century, and an exotic object of ‘pagan’ worship in the eyes of monotheists and atheists, but the iconography evolved over centuries and, like a palimpsest, records myriad layers of collective wisdom.

It captures the timeless tension between nature (elephant) and culture (man), knowledge (elephant) and wealth (potbelly), predator (snake around stomach) and prey (rat at feet), asceticism (Shiva) and household (Shakti), between lust (elephant-husband) and restraint (doorkeeper-son), between soul (Shiva) and body (Shakti). The act of gazing upon it (darshan, in Sanskrit) is meant to expand our world view (also darshan, in Sanskrit).

Origin story

We would like to trace the origin of Ganesha to the elephant found on Harappan seals, or to words like Ganpati (lord of the group) in the Vedas, but there is no way to prove these references embody what Ganesha means to the Hindu today. Likewise, we can trace the origin of the prosperity-bestowing, elephant-headed Binayaka-ten and Kangi-ten found in contemporary Japanese Buddhist temples to the Tantrik Ganeshas of 8th century India, but they clearly embody a very different tributary of Oriental thought today. Of course, in times of religious chauvinism, we can see these as proof of Hinduism’s impact on history and geography, denied by Westernised scholarship.

The visual connection between Ganesha and the dwarf-like misshapen corpulent yakshas, keepers of treasures, also found in Buddhist and Jain lore is unmistakable. He appears as a distinct deity in the Gupta period, which witnessed the waning of the old Vedic (Nigama, or Shrauta) ways and the rise of the new Puranic (Agama, or Smarta) ways. We know that 1,200 years ago, Ganesha was a major deity with a sect of his own, known as the Ganapatyas. Around this time, a rock-cut shrine was built for him, in the era of the Pallava kings, in Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu. Here, he was more popularly known as Pillaiyar, which probably means ‘venerable young elephant’. About 500 years ago, the Ganapatya saint, Morya Gosavi, popularised the worship of Ganesha in Maharashtra, where Ganesha eventually became a patron deity of the Peshwas.

All of this needs to be considered when decoding Ganesha. It does not help that the stories in oral and textual traditions are not consistent: Ganesha is a bachelor in the South, but has two wives in the North. And what does one make of Vinayaki, the female form of Ganesha, who has no story at all?

We also need to remind ourselves that what Ganesha means to a tattoo artist, who sees Buddha iconography as a spa accessory, is very different from what he means to a child from a Mumbai slum for whom Ganesha’s arrival and departure in late monsoon is an excuse to dance wildly on the streets to the tune of bawdy Bollywood songs. And how does one explain his widespread popularity in the Parsi community of Mumbai?

Is he just a good luck charm, or a potent source of mystical power, or an idea embodied in a complex piece of visual art? Which meaning is valid? Who decides?

Outside the samsara

Like most Hindu gods, Ganesha today is simultaneously an independent, self-created (swayambhu) deity embodying infinity, and the son of Shakti born outside her womb (ayonija), whose form was completed by his father Shiva. This creation outside the womb makes him special; he is located outside the samsara, the cycle of rebirths. He is not conceived; he is created by his mother alone to serve as her doorkeeper and in turn serves as an obstacle to Shiva.

When Shiva beheads this doorkeeper, he is confronted with Shakti’s terrible wrath and grief and is forced to bring him back to life. Shiva, the ascetic, is thus forced to contend with human emotions, the suffering that Buddha sought to outgrow. In the complex symbolism, we see yet another attempt to reconcile India’s monastic traditions with the reality of the household.

For those seeking to reduce Ganesha to a signpost of a single idea, such complexity translates as mumbo jumbo. But his poly-truism reminds us of the queer nature of Hinduism: wisdom is located not here, not there, but somewhere in between, and beyond, maybe.