The current state of global pandemic and individual attitude towards re-appropriating the deities in the ethos nudged me to take a closer look at the evolution of the deities. I was reading up on composite deities with half-animal and half-human forms, and how these depictions represent various ailments to the human society…and how, in some cases, the composite deities emerge as the saviors.

Although not planned for a specific effect, this discussion post on Ganesha is the beginning of a new mode for structuring the posts on this blog. The reader will find a list of points highlighted in the post, and may choose to jump to particular sections of their choice. This format of presentation could help instructors use these posts as teaching aid or reading material for their class.

Ganesha’s physical form

Brief history of Ganesha in India

Ganesha in Indonesia, Cambodia, Japan and Nepal

The Hindu God credited as the remover of obstacles, Ganesha, has an intriguing history. Ganesha continues to be worshipped at the beginning of an auspicious task or generally to mark beginning of something (although this was not always the case) according to a majority of Hindu sectarian traditions.

During the brief opening of the Asian Arts Museum in San Francisco, I revisited the South-Asian collection to look at the intricately carved Ganesha statue dated to the Hoysala art style (c. 1187 – 1343 CE) from Karnataka, India. The elephant-headed, four-armed, pot-bellied deity flanked by delicate floral patterns has captivated many scholars and devotees alike. This form of Ganesha however, is but a stage in the development of iconography and symbolism of the deity.

Ganesha’s physical form

The form of Ganesha as a composite deity, that is, with an elephant head and human body, serves a multitude of functions. The narrative backdrop of Ganesha’s parents reviving a slain human boy by fixing an elephant’s head, is popularly recounted to discuss the physical form of the deity. And this very narrative imbues Ganesha with divinity that comes to him after the resurrection. The resurrection of Ganesha as an elephant-headed boy in the care of parents who are themselves worshipped as divinities in the Hindu tradition, further add a plethora of narratives for us to devour.

The textual tradition of the Hindu religious texts in South Asia further positions Ganesha as the quintessential agency in the production of the texts. For Mahabharata, Ganesha is the apprentice to Vyasa who writes the text as Vyasa narrates it from his memory. For the Puranas, Ganesha is often one of the speakers or discussants. Some Puranic texts begin with invocations to Ganapati or Ganesha as the remover of obstacles. With the literary backdrop, it is not surprising to find Ganesha depicted as holding a book, or closely associated with knowledge and intellect in the symbolic repertoire of Hindu imagery.

A further dive into the attribute of Ganesha is the name – Gana + esha or Gana +pati. Both names signify Ganesha’s role as a leader or commander of “gana” or followers of Shiva. Although ordinarily understood as such, “gana” went on to mean people or followers in the literary descriptions of Ganesha over the years. The name owes a great deal in making the deity popular for the masses from all walks of life.

Brief history of Ganesha in India

The elephant-headed deity is conspicuous in the early literature of South Asia. The attributes and associations of the deity are of varying nature – malevolent to attendant. A group of malevolent beings known as “Vinayakas” is significant to trace the history of a now benevolent deity, Ganesha. The Vinayakas mentioned in Mahabharata (MB XII 284. 202) stirred up trouble, and needed to be appeased and pacified. The law books, one notebaly Yajnyavalkyasmriti, furnishes details of Vinayaka while mentioning a guardian Vinayaka appointed by Shiva, who was named Ganapati-Vinayaka. From here, one can trace the gradual transformation of a beast-like troublemaker transform into a pious, harmless looking Ganesha of the modern day.

Of the many narratives about Ganesha that emerged in the period of c. 100 BCE to 500 CE, the narrative of Ganesha (sometimes as trouble-causing Vinayaka) losing one of his tusks gained popularity. The epithets of elephant-headed deity absorbed the broken-tusk imagery in naming Ganesha as “Ekadanta” (with one tooth). “Pillaiyara” epithet for Ganesha was a likely product of his “one-toothed” appearance. Word “pella” or “pilla” meaning tooth in Tamil was likely used for Ganesha with the epithet of “Pillaiyar”. Other suggestion from linguistics is the use of the word “pillu” for the young one of an elephant (or any animal?) that garnered this epithet. And as the narratives and epithets spread and took root, the images of Ganesha started to emerge across South Asia since the early 5th century CE.

Ganesha emerged in the role of an attendant deity, often depicted standing guard or flanking main deities of worship such as Lakshmi (Hindu goddess of wealth) or Parvati (goddess of fertility). It was therefore not surprising to find Ganesha depicted on coins and in sculptural panels with goddesses and other deities. The iconography of dancing Ganesha gained momentum and Ganesha became a multifarious deity. The early depictions of Ganesha without any ornamentation or special attributes gradually changed to depict Ganesha with multiple arms and flamboyant commanded by other deities in South Asia.

Ganesha is not restricted to Hinduism alone. Buddhist and Jain narratives describe elephant-headed deities and demi-gods. Often in the role of a custodian, the elephant-headed deities in Buddhism and Jainism follow a very diverse trajectory than Ganesha in Hinduism.

Reproduction of a c. 19th century miniature painting (Source: Internet)

The miniature painting above probably attributed to the Deccan area in India as its provenance, depicts Ganesha as a king or commander of ganas. Four-armed Ganesha rides spotted beasts, an embodiment of disease and malice. Popular depiction of Ganesha shows him astride a rat, which is associated with impurity. And Ganesha, who wards off malice and disease, makes the disease carriers (rat or other vermin) his slave. Popular notion around the symbology of the rat varies considerably, and some narratives lay a sanctified role onto the rat that carries Ganesha. The image above illustrates the “ekadanta” form of Ganesha. His decorated person and ganas carrying offerings and royal paraphernalia highlight the royal status attached with the deity. The gilded elements, setting sun, charming retinue and a tiger on the forefront of the image could be further talking points in analysing why this form of Ganesha was chosen as a representation by a certain king or commissioner for the piece.

Ganesha in Indonesia, Cambodia, Japan and Nepal

Ganesha’s travel from being malevolent to benevolent did not go unnoticed for the population in diaspora. Merchants and rulers traveling from India on land and waters carried the narratives with them. The elephant-headed deity is worshipped in India and the worshippers of Ganesha carried Ganesha worship with them to Nepal, Bhutan, Cambodia and other South East Asian countries. Some of the epithets and narratives of Ganesha anchored more in some countries than the others.

Ganesha in Indonesia

A representative image of Ganesha from Indonesia continues the narrative if Ganesha overcoming malice or of being a Vinayaka himself to be pacified. This sculpture shows Ganesha seated on a throne made of human skulls, wearing a skull ornament in his hair. The matted hair of Ganesha and a cobra around the neck echos strong Shivite association for this sculpture. What could we discuss more about Shiva and Ganesha in Indonesia?

Standing Ganesha from Cambodia c. 7th century CE (Currently housed at the MET museum, photo courtesy: internet)

A pre-Angkor Ganesha sculpture from Cambodia depicts him with a minimal decoration and in a Cambodian style of realism. Although four-armed Ganesha was in vogue around c. 7th century CE, this sculpture shows two-armed Ganesha. What could we say about the role of this sculpture in the scheme of sculptural elements at Cambodia then? See more sculptures from Cambodia here.

Kangiten in Japan (centre sculpture)

Elephant-headed deity in Japan could be inspired by Ganesha, and might have been introduced in Japan through Buddhism. Mahakal and Ganesha as a pair of protectors at numerous Mahayana Buddhist shrines is a well-researched aspect from Ganesha’s iconography. Kangiten could be approached as a form of Ganesha elevated and absorbed in the local pantheon of deities. The radish/carrot or a root vegetable holding deity is the continuation of Ganesha’s attribute with fertility and fecundity. Kangiten gets depicted as a pair of divinities – generally as two elephant-headed deities embracing each other.

Ganesha on a tantric scroll from Nepal, c. 18th century CE

A multi-armed ferocious looking Tantric Ganesha from Nepal encompasses the many stages of development Ganesha’s iconography had to straddle across. The flaming halo conveys divinity with a flare or destructive power. As for one of the posts on this blog about decoding a complex visual representation, this Tantric painting could reveal a layered understanding of Ganesha’s history and place in the Buddhist pantheon.

Ganesha in performative theatre (2019)

Popular in the oral, aural and performative narratives, Ganesha is now worshipped at the commencement of any task. This is an ode to Ganesha’s past as Vinayaka who had to be appeased so as not expect any trouble with the task at hand. In the photo above, a masked actor playing Ganesha blesses the drama retinue before the main act begins. And so, Ganesha – traveling from the past as a malevolent deity – triumphs as a benevolent deity.

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Select References:

A case study of Ganesha in Pune: Kale, Bhagyashree. “Ucchista Trishunda Mayureshvara Ganesha”, Bulletin of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute Vol. 56/57 (1996-1997), pp. 125-128 (4 pages)

A walkthrough of the history of Ganesha: Dhavalikar, M. K. “Origin of Ganesha”, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute Vol. 71, No. 1/4 (1990), pp. 1-24 (29 pages)

Ganesha worship in pre-modern and modern context: Rege, Sharmila. “Understanding Popular Culture: Satyashodhak and Ganesh Mela in Maharashtra”, Sociological Bulletin Vol. 49, No. 2 (September 2000), pp. 193-210 (18 pages)

An essay on Ganesha

An essay on the Ganesha cult

Some notes on Buddhism in Japan and the role of Ganesha