Ganesha is undoubtedly the most celebrated god in India. Part of this popularity is because of his unique body. Just like how we all love teddy bears and Mickey Mouse in our childhood. And the rest is all attributed to the political convenience and the artistic and cultural liberty that the subcontinent has embraced for thousands of years.
In this post, we will explore the archaeologically deep, geographically wide, and culturally confusing origins and evolution of a god who's captured the hearts of millions - Ganesha!
Puranas typically depict Ganapati as the creation of Parvati, but his character is shrouded in various contradictory legends. In some regions, he's portrayed as celibate, while in others, he's married with kids. Some worship him as an obstacle remover, while others see him as the creator of obstacles.
Why do we have such contradictions to a figure that unties India like no one else does?
The answer can be traced back thousands of years to the local deities of the tribes in the northern and northwestern parts of India. Vinayaka first appears as a deity worshipped in temples around the 5th century CE, seemingly emerging quite suddenly. However, something intriguing was unfolding behind the scenes for many centuries before this.
Elephants have been domesticated and respected in India since the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, as evidenced by the Harappan Seals. However, these seals only depict elephants, not gods with a fusion of elephant and human features. There is evidence of multiple scattered settlements and tribes paying respects to elephants in various forms, but none of them align with the characteristics of the present-day Ganesha, not even in terms of names. Elephants would have held significant importance due to their strength, which aided in protecting kingdoms during wars.
All of this pertains to the pre-Vedic period. So, what about the Vedas? Surprisingly, there is no mention of any elephant-headed god with a mushika vahana (mouse vehicle) in any of the Vedas. However, we cannot simply dismiss the Vedas. The shloka that we often recite during Ganesh Puja, 'gananam tva ganapatim havamahe,' is part of the Rig Veda. But here's the catch: the Ganapati mentioned here is not the elephant-headed god.
If you delve deeper into this shloka, you will understand that it refers to the deva guru Brihaspati.
गणानां त्वा गणपतिं हवामहे कविं कवीनामुपमश्रवस्तमम् ।ज्येष्ठराजं ब्रह्मणां ब्रह्मणस्पतआ नः शृण्वन्नूतिभिः सीद सादनम् ॥
If you're wondering why Brihaspati is addressed as Ganapati, then you should know that 'Ganapati' simply means a leader of a 'gana,' which means a leader of a group of people. Therefore, as the leader or guru of the devas, Brihaspati was referred to as Ganapati.
Even Indra, who is the king of the Devas, is referred to as Ganapati in some slokas, and the same goes for Shiva. Words like 'Ganesha' and 'Ganeswara' were also used for Shiva.
Moving on to the Krishna Yajur Veda, it discusses Vinayaka, but once again, there is no remotest connection to the modern-day Ganesha. It mentions four demonic obstacle creators, namely Slakantaka, Kusumandrarajaputra, Devayajana, and Usmita, as Vinayakas, and none of them have elephant heads.
Another text from the same period mentions names such as Hastimukha and Danti. Although these names suggest an elephant-headed god, there is no further elaboration about them.
Now, let's shed some light on the great Indian epics... Neither the Ramayana nor the Mahabharata mentions anything about Ganesha or an elephant god by any other name. The story that Vinayaka helped Vyasa write the Mahabharata was added to the epic only in the 10th century. However, similar to the Yajurveda, a sloka in the Mahabharata also refers to Vinayakas as Rakshas, Pisacahas, Bhoothas, and troublemakers.
The Greek Connection
So far, we have not encountered any traces of Ganesha that resemble the modern-day god. Surprisingly, the earliest available artistic depiction of Ganesha, resembling the modern-day god, is found on a coin of the Indo-Greek king named Hermaeus.
But why did the Greeks take an interest in this elephant-headed god? As I mentioned earlier, Indians had long domesticated elephants and efficiently used them in wars. The armies of Alexander were terrified by the havoc caused by the Indian forces' elephants. Alexander had to sign a deal with the king of Takshashila to use their elephants against Porus in the Battle of Hydaspes.
After the war, Alexander and his successors began to patronize elephants. They even started wearing crowns with elephant symbols on them, as we can see on one of their coins.
Now, let's return to the Hermaeus coin. Hermaeus ruled over the region that is present-day Afghanistan. There was a small area near present-day Kabul called 'Hastika' or 'Hastanagari.' According to Greek sources, the people of this area were called Astacians and were ruled by a leader named Astis or Hasitis. After conquering this region, Hermaeus might have included the imagery of the local deity on his coins to appease the people and assert the continuation of his authority to rule.
The Afghan-Tamil Connection...
Now, if you are wondering about the name of this elephant deity, he was called Piloura according to Greek sources and Pillushara according to Chinese sources. If you are a Tamil-speaking person, the name Piloura might sound similar to the name often associated with Ganesha in Tamil Nadu. 'Pillayar' is the Tamil name for Ganesha. If we delve deeper into this name, 'Pel,' 'pal,' or 'pil' in Sanskrit and Pali means 'teeth.' Sometimes, baby elephants were referred to as 'Pillakas.' It's worth noting that not only in Sanskrit but also in all the South Indian languages, there are similar words for 'teeth.'
We can connect the dots from here: the one with tusks was named Piloura. Isn't it surprising to see how two distantly placed regions like Afghanistan and Tamil Nadu have a similar name for an elephant god, while all the regions in between have other names like Ganesha, Vigneshwara, and Vinayaka?
Even in Sri Lanka, Ganesha is called Pulleyar. However, unlike in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, he is not considered the son of Shiva. This variation evolved because Ganesha was introduced to Sri Lanka through Buddhism long before Ganesh was adopted into the pantheon of Hindu gods.
The Sri Lankan Ganesha...
Not only in Sri Lanka but also in various parts of Southeast Asia, Ganesha is prominently seen. However, a significant variation from the Indian representation of Ganesha is that the 'Mushika vahanam,' or the rat, is not considered his vehicle in these nations. This discrepancy arises because the rat was incorporated into Ganesha's imagery only in the 9th and 10th centuries in India. The concept of Ganesha had already been exported to Southeast Asian nations in the 7th and 8th centuries.
The Evil Tantra Ganesha...
In India and Southeast Asia, Ganesha is widely worshipped and celebrated as the remover of obstacles and the giver of prosperity. But, in Tibet, China, and Japan, he is perceived as an evil deity who requires pacification. Consequently, he became a part of Tantra Buddhism in Tibet and China. According to Tantra Buddhist texts, radishes were used in the rituals performed to pacify Ganesha. In many ancient artistic depictions, Ganesha is shown holding a radish in one of his arms.
This portrayal is often mistaken for the broken tusk of Ganesha. Some historians even speculate that early Ganesha images did not feature any tusks, and the radish originally held in his hand later merged into his face as a tusk when the deity was shedding his negative image and transforming into the popular Hindu god. The reason behind this transformation could be that certain texts prohibited Brahmins from consuming tubers or anything that grew in the soil, so they might have symbolically transformed the radish into a tusk.
But, Why is Ganesha perceived negatively in Tibet and China? The origins of this portrayal can be traced back to India. All the texts that depicted Ganesha as a lord of evil within the context of Tantra philosophy originated in India and were subsequently translated into Tibetan and Chinese. However, we lack reliable sources to understand when, why, and how this deity of evil transformed into the god associated with prosperity, education, and the removal of obstacles, among other attributes.
The Dual Ganesha...
If you noticed, in the past minute, we focused on Tibet and China, but not Japan. In Japan, although Ganesha is also seen as a lord of evil, the stories surrounding him differ from those in China. Furthermore, there's no need for elaborate rituals to pacify him in Japan. Instead, he is often depicted in a dual form or in an embracing position with an elephant-headed goddess believed to be a positive deity. She is thought to keep the mischievous male Ganesha under control, presenting a unique interpretation compared to China and Tibet.
The Erotic Ganesha...
Just as in China and Tibet, this dual aspect of Ganesha also originated in India. There are several ancient depictions of Ganeshi or Vinayaki, the female form of the elephant-headed god. Moreover,
Ganesha's imagery can even be found in erotic forms in India, as seen in the Uchchhishta Ganapati statue from Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. In this representation, the god and goddess are depicted nude and touching each other’s intimate parts, although the goddess in this context is not elephant-headed.
Let's fast forward to modern times before we conclude this video. We all know how grandly Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in the present day, but this celebration also has political connections. Until 1893, it was primarily a domestic festival in India. People offered pujas at home to clay idols of Ganesha, much like we do today, and then participated in processions to immerse these idols in a water body.
In the late 19th century, the British in India, still grappling with the aftermath of the First War of Independence, were concerned about the potential for another mass movement. They implemented a series of ordinances to ban large public assemblies, especially political gatherings. However, there were no such restrictions on religious gatherings. This situation motivated the freedom fighter Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak to organize the annual Ganesh Utsav, aiming to unite Indians and break caste barriers, particularly among Hindus.
You might wonder why Ganesha was chosen to unite people. One reason behind this choice lies in the fact that, in medieval India, Dalits were often barred from entering temples in many places. However, they continued to worship from outside the temples. Ganesha's idol was typically placed outside temples due to the mythological story of his origins as the doorkeeper of Parvati. Therefore, he was a god accepted and revered by people of all castes. As mentioned at the beginning of the video, his unique childlike form appeals to a wide audience, making Ganesha the ideal choice for this purpose.
Share this video with a friend who can't resist dancing during the Ganesh Nimarjanam procession. Don't forget to like and subscribe to TackOn TV for more videos like this. Also, share your interesting Ganesha stories in the comments section. Until next time stay curious!