Ganesha Worldwide

This most popular of Hindu Gods is also perhaps the most widely travelled, reaching as far as Japan. Savie Karnel on the many Vinayakas there are, including a female one

 

Once, while visiting a Muslim family in their home, I was surprised to see a one-foot high idol of Ganesha on a corner table. When I asked the woman of the house about it, she replied, “He is a stylish God. I like to have him around.” She was referring to the fluid artistry of the image, something Ganesha seems to lend himself to quite easily. When I looked at the statue, the deity seemed to smile, the way he always does. We rarely see an image of Ganehsa where he appears angry.

 

I have also noticed that children find it easier to relate to Ganesha than other gods, perhaps, because of the many stories where he is shown as a naughty and smart kid. Every mother wants a son as obedient as Ganesha, who fought with Shiva and was willing to be beheaded to abide by his mother. Fathers too want a child like Ganesha, who considered his parents his universe. Every child looks up at the sky and wonders if he too could eat tons of sweets and then ride home on a mouse, pausing only to whack the moon on the cheek because it dared to laugh at him.

 

But was Ganesha always like this? Some scholars don’t think so. They claim that the current image of Ganesha was developed during the Gupta period around 4th century AD. The Gupta kings brought in Brahmanical influences in the predominant Jain and Buddhist society of the time. While doing so, they incorporated the elephant-headed God worshipped by some cults.

 

At the cave temples of Udaygiri in Madhya Pradesh, known for the first temples to be built, one sees hewn Ganeshas on the walls of the cave. In contrast with the panel of intricately designed avatars of Vishnu sculpted in giant sizes by the Vaishnavite Guptas, the Ganesha carving is rough and without any details. Perhaps, these are the earliest images of Ganesha, when he was being raised to the level of a Hindu God.

The earliest known carving of Ganesha, at Udaygiri Caves, near Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh

 

In his book, Ganesa’s Rise to Prominence in Sanskrit Literature, historian Ludo Rocher says there is no mention of Ganesha in Vedic literature. The Rig Veda has references to Ganapati, meaning leader of the people. This, Rocher says, does not refer to the modern Ganesha, but is a title of Brahaspati or Jupiter, the teacher of the gods. The Puranic stories and myths may have been later additions.

 

Later in the 9th century AD, Shankaracharya included Ganesha in the five primary deities of the Smartha tradition, which further popularised Ganesha.

 

While Ganesha is also called Vigneshwara or Vinayaka, the lord of obstacles—one capable of placing or removing them—ancient texts show the name has a more curious origin. In ancient Hindu mythology, Vinayaka referred to four troublesome demons who created obstacles and problems. The four Vinayakas were merged into one Vinayaka and elevated to the status of one God, says H Heras in his book, The Problem of Ganapati. In Mahayana Buddhism, Vinayaka appears both as a deity and as a demon. As a Buddhist God, he is shown dancing, while as a demon he is shown being trampled by Mahakala or Shiva.

 

The Buddhists took Ganesha to Japan, where he is called Kangiten. Here he is also called Binayaka-ten, the evil one who creates discord and obstacles. They believe that when pleased, he bestows good fortune, prosperity and wealth. While many pray to him for wealth, the young pray to him for success in love. Kangiten is as also shown as a couple embracing each other. An image of a male and a female elephant-headed pair standing and embracing each other is used to represent Kangiten.

 

The female form of the elephant- headed God is also seen in some temples in India and is called Vinayaki. I saw one such sculpture in the 10th century Chausath Yogini temple in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. Here, Vinayaki represents one of the forms of the Goddess Shakti. The image is also found in most other Chausath Yogini temples in the country.

Vinayaki, the female form of Ganesha at the Chausath Yogii Temple, in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh

 

The female form of Ganesha is also found at the Thanumalayan Swamy Temple in Suchindram, in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district. In Madurai, the female form is worshipped as Vyaghrapada Ganeshani, where the image has an elephant head, a female human body and tiger feet. In Tibet, she is worshipped as Gajanani.

While some call Vinayaki the consort of Ganesha, other scholars hold her as an independent goddess. The earliest evidence of a female Ganesha is a terracotta plaque found at Raigarh in Rajhasthan, which dates to the first century. P K Agarwal in his book Goddess Vinayaki, the Female Ganesa, points to Puranic references to her. The Matsya Purana mentions Vinayaki as one of the two hundred celestial mothers created by Shiva to kill the demon Andhaka.

Perhaps it is the unique quality of Ganesha that he can take any form and yet make us feel secure and protected. While a trader places him on a pedestal and feels assured of profits, a driver keeps the Lord of Obstacles on his dashboard and feels he is certain to have a safe journey.

 

You can also read the story at http://talkmag.in/cms/trends/item/181-ganesha-worldwide

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