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The Changing Faces of an Elephant Headed Divinity

A Srinivas Rao

22 Sep, 2010 As the festivities ebb with the mingling eventide and the thronging crowds wade back to their shore of cares; bidding adieu to their favourite benign elephant faced deity. I write down the tale of Ganesha as gleaned from Indology.

Theistic Hinduism in modern times pertains to the worship of deities who have specific functions within the cosmos. Modern myth interpreters such as Swami Chinmayananda and of late Devdutt Pattnaik tend to allegorise these deities in seeing a cosmic unity and order. Many of these modernist interpretations resort to symbolism and esoteric hidden meanings which to my mind seem very far fetched. They bring a false sense of modernity to an ancient idea and making them seemingly contrived. These interpreters are apologists and revisionists. For example the trunk of Ganesha is seen by Swami Chinmayananda as a symbol of discrimination "viveka" and his large ears as one of an earnest student "shravaka"; his noose and goad "pasha-ankusha" as instruments to bind the devotee and egg him to practise `sadhana'. The problem with this approach is that one should then be open to multiple interpretations of symbology. Then one should also be open to an alternative psychoanalytic interpretation by Wendy Doniger the American scholar who was famously irreverent of Ganesha's trunk as a "limp phallus of Shiva" causing a furore among Hindus especially of Rajiv Malhotra and other Hindus in the US. What is the touchstone that legitimises one interpretation over the other? Is it merely what seems acceptable to the religiously minded? Then what is the touchstone to truth (if there is any)? If one sets these myth makers aside and one heeds the textual origins of these deities an interesting and more earthy and believable picture emerges; which is occluded if one buys into a complex interpretation of symbols. Early Vedic theism deified the forces of nature and classified them as benign or malevolent, bounteous or implacable. The most ancient of these was Rudra from whom the idea of Ganesha originates (not as a father). Rudra was identified with the dreadful and destructive, the storms, and the plagues the thunderbolts, epidemics and those phenomena that seemed violent and implacable. Rudra was a minor Vedic diety and his transformation into the benign Shiva took several centuries of evolution of an idea. Rudra translates itself into the "howler" accompanying the stormy winds (Maruts) generating the eerie and terrifying sounds. These Maruts were his sons and also called Rudriyas. The Vedic texts seem to suggest that there were many Rudras as spirits that inhabited the deep forests, the paths, the crematoria, the mountains and solitary places. The singular term Rudra was a later generalisation. Rudra was

"kapardin" or the one with wild matted hair, "krittim vasanah" or wearing hide (probably of an elephant). Rudra elsewhere in the early literature of the Vedas was also identified with the Nishadas, forest tribes who were cart makers, potters carpenters etc. The groups of these Rudras were called Ganas and their leader was the Ganapati. There is a class of supernatural beings in ancient Indian literature of Kinnaras, Gandharvas and Yakshas. It is the Yakshas that interest us. The Yakshas were guardians of forests, mountains, lakes, villages etc and had a dual nature, and they could be malevolent or benign. They later became stewards of the earth and of buried treasure and protectors of "shramanas" or heretical mystics and thinkers especially Jain and Buddhist. The Rudras presiding over the forests as spirits were either influenced by the Yaksha idea and early references to Ganesha were as a Yaksha like Kubera and Lakshmi who were all protector guardians of earth and wealth. So we still find Ganesha and Lakshmi along with Kubera worshipped as Yakshas in Jainsim. Even today every image of a Jain Thirthankara is flanked by a Yaksha and Yakshini. Given the dual nature of the Yaksha they were more feared as malevolent and in need of propitiation and placation. The hosts of Rudra the Maruts were also called Ganas their groups were each led by a Ganapati. In one section of the Mahabharata there is reference to "Vighnakartrinam" or creator of obstacles or mischief, which was the original idea of a Yaksha an idea that evolved into our present day "Vighnaharta" the exact opposite. The idea of Ganesha writing the Mahabharata with a broken tusk is a later tale added to the Mahabharata and not an original version of the core "Jaya" which went through much editions and interpolations. In many versions of the Mahabharata this tale is absent. In fact the idea of Ganesha being identified with the intellect or the buddhi is because of the confusion created by some early verses in the Rig Veda that called the Brahmansapati or Brihaspati or the teacher of the gods as Ganapati. There is also a reference of Indra being called Ganapati ("lord of the companies or hosts"-the Maruts). So it seems Ganapati was a generic term. Vinayaka was a term used for a spirit in the Mahabharata making references to Ganesvaras and Vinayakas. These Vinayakas were everywhere and saw all of human action. In another reference there are four Vinayakas (who are called Shalaktankata, Kusumandarajaputra, Usmita and Devayajana). These Vinayakas possess people and cause nightmares, listlessness, and unease, prevent princes from getting a kingdom, women remain barren, girls unmarried, and teachers have no pupils (now I know ;-)), afflict trade etc. By the performance of certain rites these spirits are exorcised and the rites are elaborate. This rite in a later version mentions Ambika as the mother of six Vinayakas. The multiple Vinayakas then coalesced over many centuries into one Ganapati-Vinayaka with Ambika (Amba means mother) as his mother. But this took a long time. Most references in archaeology and sculpture show references only from the eight century especially in panels of the seven mother goddesses the saptamatrika where the panel is preceded by Ganapati and ends with Veerabhadra or Kubera seen at Ellora or even Elephanta. While early Rudra wore an elephant hide scholars don't know when the elephant head got affixed and the Oedipal legend of Ganesha beheaded by Shiva is a much later puranic legend. But around the eighth century CE an influential sect of

Ganapatyas emerged and by the time of the advent of Adi Shankara (788-822 CE) was already well established. These Ganapatyas had six further sects. Of these three were major of Mahaganapati who is the creator of Brahma, Haridraganapati where the sect tried to seek origins of Ganesha in the Rig Veda, Uchhisthaganapati, which was a form of Left handed Tantra. These sects tried to give antiquity to Ganapati and probably also caused the interpolations of the text of Ganesha Atharvashirsha into the Vedas which is popular even today in Maharashtra. With the rise of this sect and the need to align the teeming gods and goddesses to a more monistic vision Shankara formulated the system of five or panchayatan which gave primacy to only five gods, Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Surya and Ganapati. Ganapati finally emerges from his wooded wanderings as a Yaksha to a principal deity. So when we next invite the friendly benign face of our favourite deity into our homes cars, books and shrines we know what a historical course the idea has taken to emerge into its current form. And as we consign the idea to the waters we revisit the past.
References Bhandarkar RG, Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Other Minor Religious Systems, 1913, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt Ltd, New Delhi