Thursday, October 20, 2011

An alternate Ganesha

One of the most prominent symbols of Indian mythology and the major share holder in the Hindu pantheon of Gods is without a doubt Ganesha. Every year, millions across the world bow down in salutation to this much beloved and revered deity and ask him to forgive their sins and to bless them with health and success. If you were born in India then you probably know the story all too well. Introduced to you by an elder (usually the mother or grandmother) in infancy and then consistently reinforced throughout your teen and adult existence with such alarming frequency that some eventually reach what I call a state of 'religious coma'. This is that stage where your hands automatically go up in a temple when the aarti is done to the idol, when you mechanically extend your hands out when the teertha (holy water) is offered by the priest and you find it almost blasphemous to walk away without a piece of the flower that had been used in the pooja. While in Udupi a few months ago, I saw a singular evidence of such seasoned behavior when a fellow swallowed a piece of gopi chandana thinking it was a sweet prasadam. It was after the powedery lump had hit his taste buds that he inevitably swallowed it with much visible annoyance. This blog, hence, is an attempt to try and step past that state of coma and look deeper into the man behind the God.

So we look closer at Ganesha. We all know him as the son of Shiva and Parvati and the brother of Kartikeya. We also know that he is popularly called the vignanaashaka or remover of obstacles and is often used as the first point of reverence by many whenever a new venture or undertaking is initiated. Is there a bigger more recognized Indian deity for all intents and purposes? Unlikely. The buck certainly begins and stops at the mooshaka-vaahana Ganapati. The million shlokas out there form an impenetrable bulwark against the glory of this timeless icon.

The most popular version of how Ganesha ended up with an elephant's head is of course also common knowledge. If you are unaware of this somehow, then I can certainly guide you to the right starting point. But my pondering with this post isn't about what we've already heard. It is about the possibility of removing the mythical aspect from Ganesha's story and examining it with a more relevant pair of eyes in today's setting. Why? Because of two critical reasons: One, it throws open possibilities that might not seem as far fetched as accepting a story of an elephant's head being medically compatible with a (dead) human body. And two, it perhaps will engage us, force us even, to look at Ganesha outside this 'religious coma' I mentioned earlier, as a deity who definitely deserves our eternal devotion but for more humane reasons than divine.

So what am I talking about then? Well this – what if none of what we have heard actually happened when Ganesha was born? The whole beheading of a boy and then reviving him back to life by replacing his head with that of an elephant's head? What if, for the sake of focus, Parvati did actually give birth to a healthy baby boy who unfortunately was born with a huge facial disfigurement that made him look like someone with an elephant face? Perhaps an elongated nose that appeared like an elephant trunk? There are several cases reported every year all over the world of people with facial tumors and such being operated upon so this does not seem too unlikely if we discount the mythological aspect from it. The famous 'Elephant Man' being one of them and the recent instance of a Chinese man who was operated upon had a similar affliction. We can safely assume that such a potentially life threatening medical procedure was not around back then which is why there wasn't much anyone could do for the boy and hence was thereafter affectionately called gajamukha – the elephant faced one.

The most intelligent one

For this cruel infliction that nature had cast upon little Ganesha, it appears that it made it up in an extremely generous way. Ganesha wasn't just naturally brilliant but was also blessed with an amazing accuracy for detail. He is said to have been an immensely curious boy who had an inexhaustible appetite for learning. Given his physical limitations, it is possible that he spent all his awake time reading up every veda and upanishad ever written. This not only made him the most learned person in the universe but also an extremely wise one. This was conceivably a feat beyond compare since it automatically made him a symbol of learning and education. The men who wrote scriptures thereafter perhaps began using Ganesha as a source of much motivation every time a new venture would come by since what better way to energize oneself than thinking of a lad who, despite his physical limitations, had overcome every obstacle to keep himself intellectually hungry? This is perhaps why even today Ganesha remains a primary point of reverence amongst religious folks in India.

The most devoted son

There are various stories that highlight how devoted Ganesha was to his parents, especially his mother. The rationale behind this also doesn't seem too far if we consider how much love and pampering he had been showered with right from his birth. He had been kept on a very high diet of sweets (modak being his favorite) and other rich delicacies which not only made him gain weight but also slowed down his movements considerably. This is why that metaphorical story of him circling his parents when challenged to go around the world three times is often narrated. Maybe this indeed happened and maybe his brother Kartikeya did actually get on a bird and fly around the world. But given the impossibility of Ganesha of doing something similar, he chose to be the wise one and rightfully highlighted that his parents were his only world. Why would he do this unless he was absolutely convinced that no one loved him more than his parents? This story since has also become an ideal example for kids to learn that they should respect their parents.

The perfect scribe for Mahabharata

It is a well known fact that Veda Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata, used Ganesha to pen down the epic. Why would he do this unless he was certain of Ganesha's unmatched literary prowess? We can all agree that the epic was Vyasa's biggest project. Then why not choose someone who had gained some experience in that area earlier? Simple: because there was no one like Ganesha when it came to not only jotting down what was being said but also doing it with elegance beyond compare. This is perhaps why Ganesha had told Vyasa right at the beginning that he would write down the epic only if Vyasa narrated (or sang it) without a pause. Vyasa had then agreed to that after laying his own condition that Ganesha should 'understand' each phrase before jotting it down. Ganesha's intellect was so superior then, that Vyasa had to force himself to dish out such complex phrases that despite the speed at which Ganesha was processing and writing it down, he would need to pause and decipher the meaning before proceeding. These were the moments where an aged Vyasa would sit back to take a break. Hence, this arrangement was designed to get an aging Vyasa's work done by a young and curious Ganesha who loved reading and writing.

The ideal leader for the Ganas

Since we have already mentioned several times as to how big a source of inspiration he was to everyone around him, it is not impossible to think that the Ganas automatically looked up to him as their friend, philosopher and guide. Given his vast wisdom, it is possible that they would turn to him for all kinds of advice and directions to lead their lives in the best way possible. This is perhaps why, aptly so, he was labelled the 'eesha' for the 'ganas' – Gana-Eesha – Ganesha or Ganapati.

Iconic associations

a) The mouse at his feet
Ganesha is often portrayed as being seated with a mouse at his feet. There are many versions as to what this actually means. One of them appears in John Grimes' 'Ganapati – Song of the self' where he says that the mouse is representative of the various obstacles (or vighnas) that life presents us with. Ganesha, given his mastery at having overcome much hardship in life, is then definitely the right representative to look for if the biggest obstacle in life can become as small as that mouse in the Ganapati photographs and kneel down in front in meek surrender. Another version of this representation from Alice Getty's 'Monograph of the elephant faced God' is that despite being a glutton, Ganesha allows the mouse to go ahead and eat some of his laddoos and modaks because he was that generous. He never judged anyone based either on their caste or economic worth. He helped everyone who came his way with his wisdom and intelligence. This is why the mouse represents the needy and the helpless who can always turn to Ganesha for support.

b) Ganesha's wives – Buddhi, Siddhi and Riddhi
There are various interpretations as to whether or not Ganesha was married. Given the kind of child he is portrayed to have been, the only feminine associations he seems to have had was with his mother. He was most attached to her at such lengths that separating him from her was practically impossible. Given such a huge motherly attachment, it is unlikely that Ganesha was ever interested in any other woman. This earned him the status of Bramhacharya (state of strict celibacy). In the Ganesha purana, there is also mention of his being associated with buddhi (intellect), siddhi (spiritual power) and riddhi (prosperity) – all of which we can surmise were true given how intelligent,spiritually powerful and prosperous a life he had led thanks to extremely doting parents. So, in essence, he becomes a symbol of all three rolled into one thus making him a grand metaphor to look up to as a divine being. In the Shiva Purana, he is also said to have two 'sons' in Subha (auspiciousness) and Labha(profit). No surprises here either if we try to decode the meaning. If you are intellectually prosperous and spiritually adept, then every moment is auspicious and profitable thus translating to a consistent phase of contentment. Again, all metaphorically designed to keep us motivated from Ganesha's achievements.

c) Many hands/heads of Ganesha
This too is another popular interpretation where he is shown to have multiple hands (and sometimes multiple heads too). Just like Ravana, Ganesha too was gifted with such superlative intellect that it was as if he had multiple hands and heads. He could think as quickly as someone with four or five heads and write down stuff as swiftly as someone with four hands. Again, metaphorical interpretation only.


So what can we make of all this? Quite a bit. Even today we look up to people who have accomplished impossible seeming tasks despite their physical limitations purely because of a determined mind and call them heroes. If Ganesha also were to be looked at from an alternative angle then a similar source of much inspiration appears. Ganesha's story could be that of a sweet-mannered boy who was born with a horrible facial disability but just by his sheer determination went on to become one of the biggest icons of history. The fact that writers over the centuries have painstakingly ensured that only one popular version of his birth exists seems to indicate just how unprepared they must have been to tell a story where the son of Shiva and Parvati (both major divinities in India) did not have 'normal' features. And yes – if we want to believe that he was created by Parvati's 'essence' (some stories say sandal paste on her body, others say sweat or dirt) then that still holds true if she gave birth to him naturally. He is still a product of her being. So it is possible that authors made up the whole story of his head being cut off by Shiva since it not only lent itself to the mythical aspect but also contributed generously to the divine.

As with my earlier post on Hanuma, this post is not at all to undermine Ganesha's divinity in any way whatsoever. But it is to try and look at him from a human angle where he becomes a huge source of inspiration for all the projects we undertake and not a fictitious figurine from Hindu mythology who we pray to in a state of seasoned 'religious coma' and expect somehow success to come to us magically since I doubt it works that way. If Ganesha deserves our devotion it could be for the hurdles he overcame as a person, for his well mannered wit, his unmatchable intellect and his everlasting wisdom. These are the lessons I would take away and hence think of the man behind the God before my hands mechanically go up in salutation the next time I visit a Ganesha temple.

You might also like these posts in the Mythology section
Poem on last days of Dvarka
The Rama ~ Krsna Timeline
Looking for the real Hanuman
In search of Mayasura

0 reflections: