HINDU OEDIPUS: The Myth of Gaṇeśa’s Birth Interpreted through Freudian Perspective

Research paper for course THEORIES OF MYTH at UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA Term 1, 2011/2012

Anja Pogacnik

Table of Contents
Hindu Oedipus: Introduction ................................................................................................................................ 4 The Myth of Gaṇeśa’s Birth .................................................................................................................................. 5 A Quick Review of the Oedipus Complex ............................................................................................................ 6 Gaṇeśa’s Creation ................................................................................................................................................... 7 The Mother-Son Relationship between Pārvatī and Gaṇeśa .............................................................................. 8 The Conflict between Śiva and Gaṇeśa ................................................................................................................ 9 Castration .............................................................................................................................................................. 10 Gaṇeśa’s Latency Period ...................................................................................................................................... 12 Symbolism ............................................................................................................................................................. 13 Conclusion ............................................................................................................................................................. 14 Bibliography .......................................................................................................................................................... 16


Hindu Oedipus: Introduction
“There is no single ‘true’ meaning of the myths. Instead there are various readings to which we might subject the myths.” (Courtright 1985, 91) Gaṇeśa, a comic figure with an elephant head and a potbelly, is one of the most popular gods in Hinduism and his popularity may be paralleled with the popularity and resonance of Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, which served as the foundation of Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex. The psychoanalytic aspect of the myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth has been noted by a number of scholars (more in 1985, 115-6), and Robert Goldman (ibid., 116) even suggested that Gaṇeśa is actually a clearer example of the Oedipus complex than the Oedipus himself. Freud argues (in Segal 2004, 92) that like in dreams, in every myth there is a manifest and a latent level. The manifest level of a myth is its story in all its incoherence, absurdity and irrationality, while its true meaning lies in its latent level. The latent level of a myth (as well as a dream) is understood only by our unconsciousness and therefore cannot be detected by our consciousness, but it still conveys a powerful meaning. Through the story of a myth and identification with its main character we fulfill our unconscious desires and in the case of the myth of Oedipus as well as the myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth, we fulfill our own Oedipus complex. Although the latent meaning of the myth is not bluntly revealed, “the level above /…/ partly reveals, even as it partly hides, the meaning below. The true meaning always lies at the level below but is always conveyed by the level above.” (ibid., 93) Myths therefore often characterize truths that are not comfortably admitted at the conscious levels of individuals, families and societies, but are projected onto the gods (Courtright 1985, 104). With such myths repressed desires are fulfilled, even if unconsciously, which enables societies to function and individuals to divert otherwise unacceptable desires. On the following pages I will focus on Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex as defined for boys and its application to the myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth in search of making sense of its latent side. Although there are also other aspects of the myth that might deserve interpretation from a psychoanalytical perspective, I will reference them only briefly and only when connected to the Oedipus complex, as my main goal is to establish a connection between the myth and the theory of the Oedipus complex. I will also leave aside the evidence supporting Freud’s concept and many controversies surrounding the theory of Oedipus complex, as they deserve special attention, which is beyond the scope of this paper.


The Myth of Gaṇeśa’s Birth
Gaṇeśa’s historical origins are unknown and he enters the mythology and iconography of Hinduism with an abrupt and dramatic appearance in the post-Epic or early Puranic period, which is around the fifth century C.E. (Courtright 1985, 8) The mythology surrounding Gaṇeśa and his life is developed predominantly in the Puranas, “a group of texts that date beginning from around 300 A.D. and in which, over the next one thousand years, modern theistic Hinduism took its form.” (Brown 1991, 2) There are many regional and other variations of the myth of the birth of Gaṇeśa, which include certain common elements (e.g., the elephant head, his parents never engaging in sexual intercourse in their original forms as gods etc.), but vary greatly in detail (e.g., being born with an elephant head or obtaining it later, creation by his mother or by his father etc.). In this paper I will focus on a predominant form of the myth as summarized in Courtright’s (1985, 5) book Gaṇeśa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. “Once when Śiva has left his wife Pārvatī for a long time in order to meditate on Mt. Kailāsa, she became lonely and longed to have a son who would give her love and protection. She rubbed the unguents on the surface of her limbs and out of this material she rubbed forth a being in the shape of a young man. She breathed him to life and placed him at the doorway of her bath, instructing him to admit no one. Meanwhile, Śiva returned from his long meditations and arrived at Pārvatī’s private chamber, but the young man blocked the way and refused to let him in. Not knowing that this guard was Pārvatī’s creation, Śiva became angry and, after a battle, cut off the guard’s head. Overhearing the commotion outside, Pārvatī came out. When she saw what had happened, she was overcome with grief and anger at what Śiva had done. She told him that unless he restores his son with a new head she would bring the universe to destruction. So Śiva sent his servants in search of a new head. As they traveled north, the auspicious direction, they found an elephant and cut off its head and returned to place it on the vacant shoulders of Pārvatī’s guardian son. As the son revived, Śiva praised him and gave him the name of Gaṇeśa, made him lord of his (Śiva’s) own group of devotees (gaṇas), and adopted him as his own son.” Let us now turn to the psychoanalytical aspect of the myth and search for the elements that connect the myth with the Oedipus complex. 4

A Quick Review of the Oedipus Complex
The Oedipus complex can be quickly summarized as “the childhood phase during which the child wants the exclusive attention and affection of the parent of the opposite sex, and views the parent of the same sex as a rival or enemy to be replaced.” (Caldewell 1989, 33) In the case of young boys, they feel immense love for their mothers, but their love is not only filial, but also sexual. Sexual in Freudian psychoanalysis refers to “all activities, wishes, and fantasies that aim at producing a specific organic pleasure and that cannot be adequately explained in terms of a basic physiological need” (ibid., 21), which also includes other things besides coitus. A young boy wishes to possess his mother and to have exclusive access to her sexuality, but he is confronted with the powerful father, who also demands exclusive access to the mother’s sexuality. With the realization that girls do not have penises, the boy fears that his powerful father will castrate him if he does not comply with his demands, and therefore withdraws his demands for his mother. The result of the withdrawal is intensified identification with the authoritative and powerful father and consequently formation of the boy’s superego. The superego is the internalization of norms and prohibitions, a “repository of ethical ideals,” (Csapo 2005, 92). The superego originates from one’s “identification with the father in his own personal prehistory” (Freud 1986, 455), where identification is perceived as assimilation of one ego to another one, which results in the first ego behaving like the second one, imitating it in certain respects and in a sense taking it up into itself (ibid., 489). The superego that forms in identification with the unattackable authority (Wollheim 1974, 387) forms into a set of prohibitions, that in the first place prohibit the so-desired incest with one’s mother, but also establish the norms necessary for the individual’s later life in society. The superego is partially conscious and we know it as what our conscious permits and forbids, but a large part of the superego is unconscious, punishing us with unconscious guilt. (Kahn 2002, 27) Anthropologist Allen W. Johnson and psychiatrist Douglass Price-Williams (in Kahn 2002, 59-60) found that the Oedipus complex (at least as it is conceptualized for boys) is a cultural universal and is found in folktales of every culture. But they found one important difference between folktales in different societies: in the non-stratified societies the sexual and aggressive aspect of the Oedipal tales were significantly less disguised and less repressed, than they were in the class-stratified societies like the Western one.


From their findings we can suppose that the Oedipus complex is a cultural universal and therefore also present in the Hindu tradition. And one of the clearest examples of the Oedipus tale, as we will see, is the myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth.

Gaṇeśa’s Creation
Gaṇeśa is created from Pārvatī’s bodily substances, from the scurf or residue, which she rubs from her limbs to create a son. She is the sole creator of her son in the majority of the myths describing Gaṇeśa’s birth and in those myths he is created because of a conflict between Pārvatī and Śiva – “either Śiva is too far away, as when Pārvatī makes Gaṇeśa to relieve her loneliness during his long absence, or he is too close, as when she stations Gaṇeśa at her door to keep him away.” (Courtright 1985, 52) Either way Gaṇeśa’s creation always plays a role in his mother’s sexuality, whether guarding it from his lustful father, or satisfying it with his intimate and loving presence. The fact that Gaṇeśa is created solely by his mother can be interpreted as a maternal denial of the father’s role (ibid., 42) in the conception and raising of the child. The other, in my opinion more plausible interpretation in which I depart form Courtright's interpretations, is that it represents the view of a young boy of his mother. He cannot grasp the fact that both his mother and his father created him, and thinks that his mother is his sole creator. That assumption may derive from seeing his mother (or other women) pregnant, deducing from his own experience with his faeces (which form in his body by themselves, he is the sole creator), or from his upbringing, where his mother is more present than his father, which signals to the child, that the mother is more important than the father in every respect. A boy’s view of his mother as his sole creator makes the mother look even more powerful and almighty in his eyes and confirms his view of her as a supreme being. Another interesting aspect of Gaṇeśa’s creation by Pārvatī is the allusion to masturbation. “The association of the thigh with the phallus in the Indian tradition dates from the Rig Veda,” (ibid., 61) and was therefore well established in the time Puranas were written. Pārvatī rubs her limbs (including thighs) and from the substance that comes off her limbs, she creates a child. With association of the thigh and the phallus in our minds, we can easily see the reference to male masturbation that produces the substance from which children are created. The fact that Gaṇeśa’s creation was an autoerotic sexual act introduces the theme of sexuality at the beginning of the myth and already implies the sexual undertone that will accompany the entire story.


The Mother-Son Relationship between Pārvatī and Gaṇeśa
The relationship between Gaṇeśa and his mother Pārvatī is similar to the one described earlier where a boy is in love with his mother, except that in this myth we encounter some evidence that suggests incestuous desires even from the mother. Firstly, it is necessary to establish the connection between Gaṇeśa and his mother’s sexuality. Gaṇeśa is set outside the door of his mother’s bathroom and private chambers, where he guards the entrance and does not let anybody inside. The bathroom and the chambers are a place where his mother cleans, enjoys and relaxes herself, and often those actions involve nudity. The nudity itself implies sexuality and by Gaṇeśa guarding her bathroom, he guards her sexuality and the access to it. The bath is symbolic for Pārvatī’s sexuality (ibid., 65, 107, 116) and before the arrival of Śiva, Gaṇeśa has what any boy going through the Oedipal phase wants – the access to it. He is the only one who can access his mother’s sexuality and limits the access to others. And he does that with his mother’s own instructions. We could see some evidence of mother’s incestuous desires even from the fact that she sets him to guard her bathroom, as with that she gives him the role to guard her sexuality and the access to it, but the myth gives us further evidence of her desires for her son. “After Pārvatī made Gaṇeśa from her bodily residue /…/, she said to him, ‘You are my son, my very own. No one else belongs to me. No one else is to enter my quarters without my permission.’” (ibid., 63) With that Pārvatī tells her son that he is the only one desired in her chambers (her sexual life), he is the only one allowed to submerge in her sexuality and that he is the only one entitled to access it. We find further evidence of Pārvatī’s desire for her son if we expand our focus on the myth to other variations of it. In some myths Gaṇeśa is created by Śiva as his lookalike, but when Śiva sees that Pārvatī is looking at Gaṇeśa with desire, he curses him to be ugly with an elephant head and a potbelly. (ibid., 48) Here Pārvatī’s desire for Gaṇeśa is clearly expressed although in a different setting. Although she did not create him, Gaṇeśa is still perceived as her son and she shows obvious desire for him. Why the maternal desire for her son? It might be that mothers unconsciously desire their sons, but I would argue that a better explanation is again the view of a young boy of his mother. A young boy senses his love, also sexual love, that he feels for his mother and assumes that this is the only way you can love someone, as this is the only form of love he knows. He also clearly senses that his mother loves him, because she takes care of him, caresses and protects him. These two views – that there is only sexual love and that his mother loves him – combine into an assumption that his mother also loves him sexually. Later his assumption is repressed


into the unconscious and remains unfulfilled. The boy’s view that his mother also desires him sexually is then translated into certain elements of the myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth and there the individual’s unconscious wanting to be sexually desired by his mother experiences fulfillment.

The Conflict between Śiva and Gaṇeśa
When Śiva returns from his long absence, he is faced with Gaṇeśa, preventing him from entering into Pārvatī’s chambers. As we have already established, Pārvatī’s chambers and her bathroom are symbols of her sexuality, so when Śiva, the father, returns from his absence, he is stopped by his son, who claims to be the only one that has access to Pārvatī’s sexuality. They consequently get into a fight – “Śiva and Gaṇeśa quarrel over the territory of Pārvatī’s private chamber, which /…/ is sacred to Śiva.” (ibid., 35) Śiva is a notorious womanizer and a lustful individual in Hindu tradition that highly values Pārvatī’s sexuality and is, after a long meditating absence, especially interested in it. When he is faced with Gaṇeśa, they get into a violent conflict over access to or possession of his mother’s sexuality. Before we go further I would like to point out a parallel in the ‘real world’ of the Oedipus child and his father. As Kahn (2002, 67) indicates, so far in the child’s development the father “has not been around as much as the mother. Also typically he represents the outside world with all its fascinating freedom. He seems more powerful that mother.” Before this stage the child sees his mother as almighty, all powerful, and sexually in love with him. The father is mostly in the background and at the time the Oedipus complex starts to take shape, he might start reclaiming his right to the mother’s attention or it is simply noticed by the boy, that he takes a lot of her attention. With the realization of the boy that he has a competitor for the mother’s attention and love, he starts to engage in rivalry with him. As Kahn said, the father represents the outside world, freedom and is more powerful that the mother – and these characteristics are evident also in the myth. Śiva represents the outside world, as he returns from Mt. Kailāsa, he represents freedom through his ascetism and sudden appearance, and he appears to be more powerful than the mother, which results in Gaṇeśa’s beheading. One thing that is different from the ‘real world’ in the myth is the ignorance of the rivals of each other’s identity. Neither Śiva nor Gaṇeśa are aware of each other’s true identities – Śiva does not know who the boy is and Gaṇeśa thinks that he is fighting an anonymous intruder. (Courtright 1985, 118) Through their ignorance the myth masks “the implications of the father killing his own son” (ibid., 63) and conceals an important aspect of the Oedipus


complex. In the ‘real world’ father and son are two identified and intimately connected individuals, who fight over the mother.

Freud assumed that the Oedipus complex for a young boy would come to an end when his wishes to possess the mother brought him into direct conflict with the father. At that point the young boy would realize that his father was too powerful to be defeated by a young boy like him and he would assume that his defeat would result in castration. (Caldwell 1989, 38-9) Because of that fear the son gives up his rivalry with the father and renounces the sexual desire for the mother. Instead of desiring the mother, the little boy now starts to identify with one of the parents. Either he identifies with his mother or he intensifies his identification with his father. “We are accustomed to regard the latter outcome as the more normal; it permits the affectionate relation to the mother to be in a measure retained. In this way the dissolution of the Oedipus complex would consolidate the masculinity in a boy’s character.” (Freud 1986, 455-6) In any case, the Oedipus complex for boys is resolved with the threat of castration. But in the myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth the complex does not resolve with the threat of castration. The castration actually occurs, although in a symbolic, displaced form. As Freud (in Csapo 2005, 97) puts it - “Cutting off the head = castration.” In every variation of the myth that includes Gaṇeśa’s beheading, the act is connected with Śiva, the father. This is coherent with the fear of castration in the Oedipus complex, where the father is seen as a threat to one’s penis, except that in this myth the threat is realized. In many Indian traditions the head is associated with sexual potency and cutting it off would represent an ‘actual’ castration. But more evident examples of the castration appear in versions of the myth, where Gaṇeśa already has an elephant head and “the displaced castration takes place on an even more obvious surrogate, the tusk.” (Courtright 1985, 117) With the act of cutting off the head (or the tusk) Śiva performs a castration that cuts through Gaṇeśa’s monopoly over Pārvatī’s sexuality and establishes him as the only one entitled to it. He cuts off the previous knowledge about the mother and her sexuality and substitutes it with a new knowledge – new head. I would argue that Gaṇeśa’s castration (although displaced) serves as a confirmation to the readers or listeners of the myth that unconsciously reassures them that the threat of castration was indeed real and that they made the right decision by complying themselves to their fathers’ demands and renouncing their sexual desires for their mothers.


The new head that Śiva supplies for Pārvatī’s beheaded son could be understood as Gaṇeśa’s second birth. He is brought to life again, this time under the father’s conditions, with a clear hierarchical structure that places Śiva above his son and prohibits him to desire his mother. Their confrontation ends with the restoration of Gaṇeśa “to the proximity of his mother, but not intimacy with her.” (Courtright 1985, 103) If we compare this to the model of the Oedipus complex, we can see that after the emergence of the fear of castration in young boys, the father climbs up the hierarchical ladder from a person of secondary importance to a model of identification. He becomes the creator of the boy’s superego with his initial prohibition of the mother and the prohibitions that follow. Gaṇeśa too forms a new consciousness, a superego, which is symbolized by the new head. He does not claim access to his mother’s sexuality anymore and respects the hierarchically higher position of his father. But although Gaṇeśa’s desire for his mother is suppressed by his father and a newly created superego, his desire for his mother persists and can be seen in some of the characteristics Gaṇeśa possesses. One of the ways Gaṇeśa attempts to stay close to his mother is by keeping his youthful, childlike appearance. As Courtright (ibid., 109) says: “The iconography is clear enough; Gaṇeśa is a child, a baby.” Gaṇeśa in his mythological life never grows up, stays close to his parents and keeps his childlike form. His childlike appearance is vividly expressed in his lower body, as he is always represented with short, childish legs. Another thing that shows Gaṇeśa’s dependence on his mother and his repressed desire of her is “his unwillingness to marry because no woman could be as beautiful as his mother is.” (ibid., 59) In Hindu tradition Gaṇeśa is generally represented as celibate and never has a female mate, because, as Moor (in ibid., 110) puts it: “Gaṇeśa remains celibate in order to stay close to her /Pārvatī/ – to continue to be her little boy.” Moor also suggests that Gaṇeśa is celibate because of his father as well. He remains celibate in order not to compete erotically with his father Śiva, who is a notorious womanizer, for either his mother or any other woman Śiva might desire. After the displaced castration of Gaṇeśa and Śiva’s resurrection of him, Śiva names Gaṇeśa as the lord of gaṇas, Śiva’s devotees, from where Gaṇeśa’s name also originates. Śiva also makes Gaṇeśa the god of obstacles and new beginnings, gives him his divine powers, as well as orders the gods and the humans to worship Gaṇeśa before all undertakings. (ibid., 5) He gives him these powers, but interestingly enough, not because of his brave fight in their conflict or his heroic guarding of Pārvatī. He delegates these titles and powers to Gaṇeśa as a reward for submission to him. (ibid., 120) Here we again see the reference to the second birth of Gaṇeśa with his new head, which is now a permanent reminder of his beheading, and we 10

could almost say that Gaṇeśa’s second birth is also his social birth. His father gives him powers with which he is now socially accepted as an equal by the gods and assures him respect from them and humans. This is not completely parallel to the Oedipus complex as it is conceptualized by Freud, because the young boy does not get accepted into society as a full equal after the resolution of the Oedipus complex. But the boy does get accepted by his father as a comrade, a companion, a buddy, which we could parallel to Gaṇeśa’s acceptance by his father as a son and a god.

Gaṇeśa’s Latency Period
Although latency period is not strictly related to the Oedipus complex, it chronologically follows it and gives us some insight into the sexual development of an individual and also Gaṇeśa. The sexual development of an individual so far has, according to Freud, gone through three phases. The oral phase focuses on the mouth and pleasures of sucking; the anal phase emphasizes the pleasures connected with bladder and excretory control; and the phallic phase introduces genital pleasure and the discovery of the penis (or lack of it for girls). (Heller 2005, 43-6) During the phallic phase the Oedipus complex appears and gets resolved and as a consequence of the repression an individual moves into a new phase – a latency period. During the latency period the erotic impulses of the phallic period and the Oedipus complex are repressed and for most children all sexuality is repressed, although they still experience powerful sexual impulses (Kahn 2002, 73-4). Although specific phases are separated in time, one phase does not end when the next one begins and they coexist throughout childhood and survive also into adult sexuality. (Caldewell 1989, 21-2) I argue that Gaṇeśa’s latency period stretches throughout his mythological life and that while in his latency period, he regresses into the oral phase of sexual development. The worship of Gaṇeśa is characterized by devotees practically burying him with ‘modakas,’ sweet wheat or rice balls, to satisfy his insatiable appetite and hunger for them. Gaṇeśa as a god is always hungry and gets upset if he is not fed with enough modakas, which evokes associations of oral eroticism. “Gaṇeśa’s impatience for food suggests an anxiety, a hunger that is never completely fed no matter how many modakas he consumes.” (Courtright 1985, 113) Courtright (ibid., 109) suggests that Gaṇeśa’s insatiable appetite for modakas and “his tendency towards oral erotic gratification” serves “as compensation for his arrested development at not reaching the phallic stage,” but I would reshape his argument, although only slightly. I find it more plausible that Gaṇeśa did reach the phallic phase, but after his


displaced castration he regressed into the oral phase in which he remains. The change in the argument does not change its results, but it makes it more coherent with the theory of the Oedipus complex. If we understand the myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth as a latent story of the Oedipus complex, than the assumption, that Gaṇeśa’s oral eroticism is a compensation for not reaching the phallic phase, is false, because the Oedipus complex takes place in the phallic phase of a child’s sexual development. Occurrence of the Oedipus complex is, according to Freud’s theory, only possible in the phallic stage, so we can deduce that Gaṇeśa did reach the phallic phase of his sexual development and later regressed into the oral phase.

Symbolism surrounding Gaṇeśa is very much correlated with the Oedipal complex and therefore worth mentioning. Gaṇeśa has four hands and in those hands he usually carries some of his attributes – a hatchet, a goad, a noose, a tusk, or a modaka. The hatchet is supposedly the one with which in some variations of the myth Śiva cut off his tusk and is a symbol of cutting away of illusion and false teaching. (ibid., 4) As was mentioned earlier, Śiva’s cutting off Gaṇeśa’s head (or tusk in this case) could be interpreted as substituting previous, false knowledge or an illusion of Gaṇeśa’s access to his mother’s sexuality with a new knowledge of hierarchical order and the access to Pārvatī’s sexuality which is limited to the father. So the hatchet did cut through the illusion and revealed the truth. A goad symbolizes the logic that cuts through the illusion (ibid.), which could be interpreted in a similar way as the symbolism of the hatchet. A noose represents the restraint of passions and desires (ibid.), which could be interpreted as the restraint of Gaṇeśa’s passions and desires for his mother Pārvatī. He is also often depicted with the cut-off tusk in his hand, which he occasionally uses as a weapon or a writing instrument (ibid. ,121) and serves as a constant reminder of his symbolic and displaced castration. Another thing he is recognized for is a modaka that he carries in his hand, which is a symbol for his fondness of them and a representation of his oral phase of sexual development to which he has regressed. Another important symbol connected with Gaṇeśa, which is also the most obvious one, is the elephant head. Although the myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth presents the use of the head of an elephant as a choice not made deliberately, we can see some psychoanalytic symbolism surrounding it. The trunk is a displaced phallus, which is a caricature of Śiva’s masculine and womanizing character and his potent phallus. “It poses no threat because it is too large, flaccid, and in the wrong place to be useful for sexual purposes.” (ibid.) Gaṇeśa’s trunk is an


exaggerated limp phallus, which could not compete with Śiva’s for the sexual affection of Pārvatī or any other woman. Gaṇeśa’s elephant head also carries another symbolism – the symbolism associated with the elephants. In Indian tradition the elephants are perceived as having two different characters, depending on whether they are tamed or wild. The tamed elephants symbolize domesticated power and order, while the wild elephants are perceived as driven by heat of sexual desire or burning fever of disease and they represent attachment to desire. (Courtright 1985, 23, 29) The character of the elephant can change at any time and a tamed elephant can get out of control and turn into a wild elephant instantly. The attributes connected with both tamed and wild elephants could be observed also in the symbolism surrounding Gaṇeśa. Before his beheading he was attached to his desire of his mother and we could even say that he was driven by the heat of that sexual desire, as he rigorously guarded Pārvatī’s sexuality and even fought with Śiva over it, and was therefore perceived as a wild elephant. But after the beheading he turned into a tamed elephant, a symbol of domesticated power and order with the creation of the superego and a new hierarchy, which were both established under Śiva’s terms.

While interpreting the myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth I have showed that it is possible, if not even probable, to interpret it in connection with the Oedipus complex. Although I left out many aspects of the myth, which could be interpreted through the psychoanalytical perspective of Freud, and there are probably even many more that could not serve as examples for Freud’s theories, I hope I have presented a representative image of application of Freud’s theory onto a Hindu myth. After using Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex to interpret the myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth, it is time to assess its utility. Although the concept proved to be rather useful when interpreting this particular myth, it has some deficiencies. One is valid for Freud’s theory in general and that is the fact that the theory is self-referencing and confirms one of its hypothesis with another one, which makes it difficult to validate or falsify either one of them. The other one, which I found to be more pressing, is that the theory almost forces itself onto a myth. Interpreting certain aspects of the myth with Freud’s concepts was easy and almost came naturally, while others reluctantly refused to fit nicely into Freudian boxes (e.g., symbolism of the elephant head). Using Freud’s theory to interpret the entire myth seemed very much like to the Abraham Maslow’s paraphrase – “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks 13

like a nail.” When all you have is Freud’s concept of Oedipus complex, interpretations of various aspects of the myth that could otherwise present various meanings get reduced to their bare sexual minimum. But I must nevertheless recognize the value of Freud’s theory when it comes to interpreting the myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth. Contrary to the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, which serves only as an outline of roles present in the Oedipus complex, the Hindu myth of Gaṇeśa’s birth follows the theory of Oedipus complex in astonishing details. Not only does it include symbolism of son’s desire for his mother and conflict with his father, but it also includes notions of castration, formation of the superego, and above all it follows the chronology of the events connected with the complex almost in its entirety with only few exceptions. Gaṇeśa’s birth myth actually follows the timeline and the structure of the Oedipus complex, which makes it difficult to negate the usefulness of Freud’s theory when interpreting this particular myth.


Brown, Robert L. 1991. Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God. New York: State University of New York Press. Caldwell, Richard. 1989. The Origin of Gods: a psychoanalytic study of Greek theogonic myths. New York: Oxford University Press. Accessed via: http://lib.myilibrary.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/Open.aspx?id=44135&loc=&srch=undefined &src=0 (19th November 2011). Courtright, Paul B. 1985. Gaṇeśa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. New York: Oxford University Press. Csapo, Eric. 2005. Theories of Mythology. Malden (?): Blackwell Publishing. Freud, Sigmund. 1986. The Essentials of Psycho-Analysis. London: The Hogarth Press. Heller, Sharon. 2005. Freud A to Z. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. Kahn, Michael. 2002 (?). Basic Freud: Psychoanalytic thought for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books. Segal, Robert A. 2004. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press. Wollheim, Richard. 1974. Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Anchor Books.


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