By Swami Harshananda
Gaṇapati literally means ‘lord of the groups of deities’.
The man has developed the concept of God and faith in him as a result of his experiences through the various vicissitudes of life which proves his helplessness. It is a saying that "Man proposes, God disposes". God is believed to be most powerful. If he is pleased, all the obstacles in our path will be removed. If displeased, He may thwart our efforts and make them infructuous. Hence the paramount need to appease Him and please Him.
Gaṇapati or Gaṇeśa is also widely known as Vināyaka. Perhaps, he is the most popular of the all the deities worshiped. No sacred or secular work can start without first honoring and worshiping him. This practice is justified, since he is said to be the lord of obstacles (Vighneśvara or Vighnarāja). On understanding the mysteries of Gaṇapati our repugnance will give rise to respect and respect will grow into reverence and worship.
Parables About Gaṇapati's Origin
Gaṇapati is referred to in the famous Ṛgvedic mantras as:
All unbiased scholars agree that the seeds of the Gaṇapati concept are already there in the Ṛgveda. In the subsequent centuries, this concept has passed through the mills of the epics and the purāṇas to produce the Gaṇapati as we know him today.
Characteristics of Brahmaṇaspati
The concept of God and the modes of his worship have evolved due to geographical, historical and cultural factors of mystic experience and spiritual realizations of the highly evolved persons. It can be deduced that the ‘Gaṇapati-Brahmaṇaspati’ of the Ṛgveda gradually got metamorphosed into the deity, ‘Gajavadana-Gaṇeśa-Vighneśvara.’
The Ṛgvedic deity ‘Gaṇapati-Brahmaṇaspati’, also called as Bṛhaspati and Vācaspati, manifests himself through a vast mass of light. He is golden-red in color. The battle axe is his important weapon. No religious rites can succeed without his grace. He is always in the company of a group (gaṇa = a group) of singers and dancers. He vanquishes the enemies of gods, protects the devoted votaries and shows them the right way of life.
Characteristics of Maruts
Another class of Ṛgvedic deities known as the Maruts or Marudgaṇa described as the children of Rudra also have similar characteristics. In addition, they can be malevolent towards those who antagonize them and can cause destruction like the wild elephants. They can put obstacles in the path of men if displeased and remove them when pleased. They are independent, not subject to any one’s sovereignty (Arājana = Vināyaka).
Gaṇapati, Metamorphosed Form
A perusal of these two descriptions will perforce lead us to the conclusion that Gaṇapati is the metamorphosed form of the Bṛhaspati and Marudgaṇa deities. Many Vedic deities were gradually absorbed among the gods of the later religious pantheon. Once even the powerful Indra was demoted to the rank of a minor deity ruling over one of the quarters. His lieutenant Viṣṇu was elevated to the central place in the Trinity. Rudra, the terrible, became Śiva the auspicious. Many other deities like Dyaus, Aryaman and Puṣan were quietly transfigured into oblivion!
Versions of Gaṇapati's Origin
Despite the fact that Gaṇapati is a highly venerated deity, his ‘head’ has often been a mystery for others. Our purāṇas have given their own explanations in regards to this which are not convincing. There are different tales of the origin of this deity. They are accounted below:
- At the request of the gods, who wanted a deity capable of removing all obstacles from their path of action and fulfillment, Śiva himself took birth from the womb of Pārvati as Gajānana.
- Once just for fun goddess Pārvati prepared an image of a child out of the unguents smeared over her body with an elephant’s head. Then she threw it into the river Gaṅgā. It came to life. Both Gaṅgā, the guardian deity of the river and Pārvatī addressed the boy as their child. Hence he is known as Dvaimātura, ‘one who has two mothers’.
- Pārvati prepared the image of a child out of the scurf from her body and endowed him with life. Then she ordered him to stand guard before her house. When Śiva wanted to enter the house he was rudely prevented by this new gatekeeper. Śiva became ‘Rudra’ and beheaded him. Seeing that Pārvatī became inconsolable due to this tragedy that befell her ‘son’. No one could find the head of the body anywhere as one of the goblins of Śiva had gour-mandized it! He got an elephant’s head, grafted it on to the body of the boy and gave him life. To make amends for his ‘mistake,’ Śiva appointed this new son as the head of all his retinues. Thence he became famous as ‘Gaṇapati’.
- Gaṇapati sprang from Śiva’s countenance which represents the principle of ether (ākāśatattva). His captivating splendor made Pārvatī react angrily and curse him, resulting in his uncouth form!
- Gaṇeśa was originally Kṛṣṇa in the human form. When Śani, the malevolent planet spirit, gazed at him his head got separated and flew to Goloka, the world of Krṣṇa. The head of an elephant was subsequently grafted on the body of the child.
Among the various myths that deal with Gaṇapati’s origin, the one that attributes it to the scurf or dirt taken out of her body by Pārvatī seems to be the most widely known. Since Gaṇapati’s consorts are Ṛddhi and Siddhi, he has been described as created out of Pārvatī’s bodily scurf. Again the word ‘mala’ does not have any odium about it. If Śiva represents Paramapuruṣa, the Supreme Person, Pārvatī stands for Paramā Prakṛti, Nature Supreme. Both are considered as Gaṇapati's power inseparable from him. In the language of philosophy, Pārvatī is considered as Māyāprakṛti comprising of three guṇas, sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is stated to be pure and, as compared to it, rajas and tamas are said to be ‘impure’. Since creation is impossible out of only pure sattva just like the pure gold does not lend itself to be shaped into ornaments unless mixed with baser metals. Sattva has to be mixed with rajas and tamas to model the creation. This seems to be the import of the story of the ‘impure’ substances being used by Mother Pārvatī to shape Gaṇapati.
Allegary About his Adventures
Gaṇapati's adventures are quite fascinating. Some of them are registered below:
- He lost one of his tusks in a fight with Paraśurāma, which he successfully used as a stylus to write the epic Mahābhārata dictated by the sage Vyāsa.
- He tactfully won the race against his brother Skanda by circum-ambulating his parents and declaring that it was equivalent to going round the worlds. He thus won the hands of two damsels Riddhi and Siddhi.
- He cursed the moon to wax and wane, since the latter derisively laughed at him when he was trying to refill his burst belly with the sweets that had spilled out.
- He vanquished the demon Vighnāsura and successfully brought him under his subjugation.
Concurrence of the Frame
For a simple aboriginal living in a group (= gana) near a forest or a mountain, the mighty elephant might have provided the clue. This might have led to the worship of an elephant-like God. He being the pati (= Lord) of the gaṇa (clan or group) might have obtained the name Gaṇapati. As the group became more refined and cultured, this Elephant God might have been transformed into the present form.
Some Western scholars and their Indian counterparts ‘discover’ a Draviḍian base for many interesting developments in our cultural and religious life and then ‘unearth’ the further fact of the white-skinned Aryan ‘conquerors’ graciously and condescendingly absorbing these, tactfully elevating the same to ‘higher’ levels all the while. This has naturally led to a vigorous reaction and these ‘reactionaries’ go the whole hog to ‘prove’ it the other way round! When our Gaṇapati is caught in the web of such controversies one may be driven to the ridiculous conclusion that he is not an Aryan deity at all, but, most probably, imported from Mongolia! It is therefore better to play safe, rescue our deity from embarrassing situations and get the best out of him for our spiritual life.
Since Gaṇapati had gained great recognition in the hearts of millions of votaries, over several centuries, the purāṇas rightly struggled to make it de jure! Nevertheless they have succeeded in giving the devotees a scriptural or authoritative base. There is certainly no contradiction or confusion in the accounts as far as the worship and its results are concerned.
- The most commonly accepted form of Gaṇapati depicts him as red in color and in a human body with an elephant’s head.
- Out of the two tusks, one is broken.
- He has four arms.
- Two of the arms hold the pāśa (noose) and aṅkuśa (goad). The other two are held in the abhaya and varada mudrās.
- The belly is of generous proportions and is decorated with a snake-belt.
- There is also a yajñopavīta (sacred brahminical thread), either of thread or of serpent.
- He may be seated in padmāsana (lotus-posture). When the belly does not permit this, the right leg may be shown bent and resting on the seat.
- Apart from beautiful robes and ornaments, he wears a lovely carved crown.
- The trunk may be turned to the left or to the right.
- He is normally seen helping himself to liberal quantities of modaka (a kind of sweet).
- A small mouse is seen near him nibbling at his share of the sweets.
- A third eye may sometimes be added on the forehead, in the center of the eyebrows.
- The number of heads may be raised to five.
- The arms may vary from two to ten.
- Lotus, pomegranate, water-vessel, battle-axe, lute, broken tusk, sugarcane, ears of paddy, bow and arrow, thunderbolt, rosary, book these are some of the other objects shown in the hands.
- His Śaktis are often shown with him as sitting on his lap.
- Sometimes two Śaktis, Rddhi and Siddhi, are also shown.
Purport of Symbols
Significance of Gaṇa
‘Gaṇa’ means category. Everything that we perceive through our senses or grasp through our mind can be expressed in terms of category. The principle from which all such categories have manifested themselves is Gaṇapati. Hence he is called as the Lord of categories. It symbolizes the origin of the whole creation, which denotes God himself.
Significance of Gaja
The Sanskrit word to denote an elephant is ‘Gaja’. Hence Gaṇapati is also named as Gajānana or Gajamukha (‘elephant-faced’). But the word ‘Gaja’ has a much deeper connotation. ‘Ga’ indicates ‘gati’ or the final goal towards which the entire creation is moving knowingly or unknowingly. ‘ja’ stands for ‘janma’, birth or origin. Hence ‘Gaja’ signifies God from whom all the worlds have originated and towards whom they are progressing to ultimately dissolve in him. The elephant head is thus purely symbolical and points to this truth.
Significance of Elephant Head
Another important factor of creation is its two-fold manifestation as follows:
- The microcosm - sukṣmāṇḍa
- Macrocosm - brahmāṇḍa
Each is a replica of the other. The elephant head stands for the macrocosm and the human body for the microcosm. The two form one unit. Since the macrocosm is the goal of the microcosm, the elephant part has been given greater prominence by making it the head.
Significance of Ears
Gaṇapati's ears are large enough to listen to the supplications of everyone. They are like the winnowing basket capable of sifting what is good for the supplicant from what is not.
Significance of Tusks
Out of the two tusks, the one that is whole stands for the ultimate Truth. The broken tusk, which is imperfect, stands for the manifest world which appears to be imperfect because of the inherent incongruities. However, the manifest universe and the un-manifest unity are both attributes of the same Absolute.
Significance of Trunk
Significance of Belly
Gaṇapati's large belly indicates that all the created worlds are contained in him.
Significance of Weapons
- The pāśa (noose) stands for rāga (attachment). Like the noose, attachment binds us.
- The aṅkuśa (goad) denotes krodha (anger). Anger hurts us like the goad.
If God is displeased with us, our attachments and anger will increase making us miserable. The only way of escaping from the tyranny of these is to take refuge in God. It is advisable to surrender our attachments and anger in god's hands. When they are in his hands, we are safe!
Significance of Mouse
The privilege of being the vehicle of Lord Gaṇapati has been conferred to a small mouse. The word muṣaka (= mouse) is derived from the root ‘mus’ which means ‘to steal’. A mouse stealthily enters into things and destroys them from within. Similarly egoism enters unnoticed into our minds and quietly destroys all our undertakings. If controlled by divine wisdom, it can harness to useful channels.
The mouse that steals, can represent love that steals the human hearts. Human love kept at the low level can create havoc. Once it is directed towards the Divine, it elevates us. The mouse stands for the incisive intellect. Since Gaṇapati is the lord of the intellect the vehicle chosen for him is apt.
Significance in Chāndogya Upaniṣad
‘tat-tvam- asi’, ‘That thou art’. It simply means: ‘You, the apparently limited individual, are, in essence, the Cosmic Truth, the Absolute.’
The elephant-human form of Gaṇapati is the iconographical representation of this great Vedāntic dictum. The elephant stands for the cosmic whereas the human stands for the individual. The single image reflects their identity.
Icons of Ganapati
Gaṇapati is worshiped in the various forms mentioned below:
Aspects of Gaṇapati
Numerous temples and shrines all over the country are dedicated to Gaṇapati. He is also present in the campus of temples of most other deities also. There are several varieties of Gaṇapati icons available in our temples and archaeological monuments. Whether the number is 71, 50, 31 or 21, it is certain that there are several aspects of this deity. Only a few of them can be dealt with here.
- ‘Bālagaṇapati’ image depict him as a child.
- ‘Taruṇagaṇapati’ image shows him as a young man.
- ‘Vināyaka’ is shown with four arms holding the broken tusk, goad, noose and rosary. He holds the sweet modaka in his trunk. He may be standing or seated.
- ‘Herambagaṇapati’ has five heads, ten hands, three eyes in each face and rides on a lion.
- ‘Vīravighneśa’ exhibits the martial spirit with several weapons held in his ten hands.
- ‘Śaktigaṇapati,’ is described in the tantras. He is shown with his Śakti called variously as Lakṣmī, Rddhi, Siddhi, Puṣti and so on. Worship of this aspect is said to confer special powers or grant the desired fruits quickly.
- One of the varieties of the ‘Śakti- gaṇapati’ is called ‘Ucchiṣṭagaṇapati,’ the Gaṇapati associated with unclean things whose worship belongs to Vāmācāra (‘the left-handed path,’ i.e., the heterodox and unclean path). It is also said to give quick results. Making Gaṇapati preside over it and handle dirt scientifically and religiously can be the concept behind this.
- ‘Nṛttagaṇapati’ is a beautiful image showing him as dancing. It seems once Brahmā met Gaṇapati and bowed down to him with great devotion and reverence. Being pleased with this, Gaṇapati started dancing gracefully. That is why Gaṇapati is declared to be the master of the arts of music and dancing.
- ‘Varasiddhi Vināyaka’ is the aspect worshiped during the famous Gaṇeśa Caturthi festival. He is said to be a celibate.
- Gaṇapati is sometimes depicted as a Śakti (female deity) under the names of Gaṇeśāni, Vināyakī, Surpakarṇi, Lamba- mekhalā and so on.
Title as Vighneśvara
One of the epithets by which Gaṇapati is well-known and worshiped is Vighneśvara’ or ‘Vighnarāja’ (‘the Lord of obstacles’). He is the lord of all that obstructs, restricts, hinders or prevents. He has the various grades of the powers of obstruction under his control. According to the mythological accounts, the very purpose of his creation was to obstruct the progress in the path of perfection.
If He is not appeased by proper worship and all undertakings, the devotee will face many obstacles. This is to show that nothing can succeed without his grace. If he is pleased by worship and service, he will tempt his votaries with success and prosperity (siddhi and ṛddhi) which can gradually lead them away from the spiritual path.
Gaṇapati tests his devotees before conferring them the boon. Being the master of all arts and sciences, and the repository of all knowledge, He can easily confer success or perfection to anyone. However, he does not give spiritual knowledge willingly unless the devotee is worth. Hence the test should be severe. The path of the good is fraught with innumerable obstacles, ‘śreyāmsi bahuvighnāni.’ Only the best, who can brave the roughest of the weathers, deserve to be blessed with it.
Human beings by nature are inclined towards the enjoyments of the flesh and intoxication of power and pelf. It is only one in a million that turns towards God. Among many such souls, very few survive the struggles and reach the goal. Compared to the highest spiritual wisdom which is the only worth striving for cause, even ṛddhi and siddhi (success and prosperity) are like impurities.
Gaṇapati or Gaṇeśa is an extremely popular deity. Three minor Upaniṣads deal with him, this being one of them. It belongs to the Atharvaveda. It comprises of 19 sections mostly in prose with verses in the śloka meter.
The first two verses identify Gaṇapati with Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Maheśvara who are responsible for creation, preservation and destruction of this world. He is also Brahman and Ātman. He is ṛta and satya, the cosmic order and truth.
The fourth section prays to him for protection of all things in all the directions. Then only we can live here safely and happily. The next verse identifies him with speech, consciousness and bliss. He is denoted as the Brahman, the one without a second. The sixth section describes him as responsible for creation, preservation and dissolution of the world. He is also identified with the five elements in the created world, like the earth and water. He is the four aspects of speech like parā and paśyanti. He is beyond the three well-known guṇas, the three bodies, and the three aspects of time. He is the deity presiding over the mulādhāra center. It is upon him that the yogis meditate.
The next three verses describe the Gaṇapati mantra. Gaṇaka is the sage who discovered the mantra. ‘Gain’ is the seed letter; and ‘gārn’ should be used for purposes of nyāsa (purificatory process for the limbs of the body). The letter ‘lain’ must be used in the pujā with five items. The mantra itself is
‘Oiñ gaṇapataye namah.’
The tenth verse contains the famous Gaṇeśa-gāyatri-mantra:
"ekadantāya vidmahe vakratundāya dhīmahi tanno dantih pracodayāt" ‘We know him who has only one tusk. We meditate upon him with a bent trunk. May he, the Lord with tusks (i.e., Gaṇapati), impel (us in the right direction, i.e., towards himself).’
The next four verses describe Gaṇapati’s form and attributes to facilitate meditation. He has one (unbroken) tusk and four hands, holding the noose and the goad in two, the other two exhibiting the poses of granting boons and protection. His complexion is all over red in color. He is wearing red dress and flowers. He is the origin of the universe. Yet, he is the all-merciful god, especially towards his votaries. One who meditates on him thus, is the best of yogis.
Section sixteen describes the effects and fruits of knowing and realizing this science related to Gaṇapati. Freedom from sins and attaining the four ends of life (puruṣārthas) are the most prominent among them. This spiritual wisdom must be taught only to a worthy disciple and never to others. The last section describes the various ritualistic processes meant to be adopted by those who have specific desires to be fulfilled. Some of the things mentioned are:
- Attaining oratory
- Freedom from fear
- Obtaining fame
- Destruction of obstacles
- Gaining the power of a mantra
The Upaniṣad concludes with the statement that one can know everything by knowing the knowledge of this science.
- Ṛgveda 2.23.1
- Ṛgveda 10.112.9
- Rddhi and Siddhi are the personifications of the powers of success and prosperity.
- Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.8.7
- Gaṇapati śālagrāmas are very rare.
- Yantras are the geometrical diagrams.
- Kalaśas are the pots of water.
- The Svastika is also accepted as a graphic symbol of Gaṇapati.
- Gītā 7.3
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore