Nov 24, 2007

Ganesh: a grama-devata?

There has been some discussion on Ganesh who is a popular god inIndia. Apparently Ganesh has no direct connection with Jainism, but some Jains worship Ganesha while others object to such practice. According to Sandhya Jain, Ganesh is not a vedic or aryan god, but is a folk-deity. Even though the article has nothing to do with Jainism, it may of beof interest to students of history.


Ganesh: a grama-devata? By Sandhya Jain

Scholars generally agree that Ganesha is of humble non-Vedic origins. He entered popular mythology only around the third or fourth centuryAD, but quickly acquired national eminence. Like Varaha, Narasimha and Hanuman, Ganesha is the rianthropic (part animal, part man), which suggests a tribal or folk origin; he entered the Hindu pantheon when these groups were co-opted as part of India's ceaseless integration process. D.P. Chattopadhyaya and H. Mitra opine that Ganesha got his animal head from an ancient tradition that revered the elephant. Recent findings of coins of Indo-Greek kings in the early pre-Christian era reveal the existence of an elephant panth in the north-west.

A Mohenjodaro seal shows a horned deity (prototype of Shiva) in yogic pose, with an elephant and a tiger on his right and a rhinoceros and a bull on his left. The bull evolved into the vehicle of Shiva and the tiger that of his consort, Parvati. The elephant evolved into the the rianthropic Ganapati, an independent god regarded as a son of Shiva. The animals on the Harappan seals were possibly deities o fgroups named after them. The Matangas (elephants) found in the pre-Christian era are synonymous with `Kiratas' and `Chandalas'. They were native tribes who evolved into a caste in the Vedic period, and may have worshipped the elephant. As they were looked down upon, this could explain why the elephant deity is not mentioned in pre-Christian sacred literature. The latter-day Matsya Purana mentions a goddess, Matangi, tutelary deity and consort of the elephant deity of the Matanga tribe.

Panini mentions a tribe called Hastinayanas (hasti=elephant), the martial Astakinoi whom Alexander encountered in the region of Bactria, Kapisha (modern Begram, 80 kms north of Kabul ) and Gandhara with its two capitals at Taxila and Puskalavati. The elephant wa slinked with the tutelary goddess of the city of Kapisha. Coins at tributed to Eucratides bear an image of a female deity, Kavishiyenagara devata (deity of the city of the Kapishi), along with the symbol of a mountain and the head of an elephant. Indo-Greek coins found at Taxila also depict the elephant. Philostratus reports that a sacred elephant lived in the Sun Temple of Taxila in the firstcentury AD.

The elephant figures on a number of tribal coins in early India . The Arjunayanas (approx. 100 BC) of the Delhi-Jaipur-Agra region had acoin showing an elephant with uplifted trunk before a tree. The Kadasin the Punjab region, late third century or early second century BC, had coins depicting the elephant and bull, as did the Yaudheyas. TheAudumbaras (Kangra, approx. 100 BC), linked the elephant with the sacred tree or with the snake.

The earliest literary reference to Ganesha is found in Hala's Saptasati, in Prakrit. It contains an obscure reference to the god's mysterious power over the sea. Tiruvalanjuli near Kumbhakonam inTanjore district has a tenth century temple with an image of SvetaVinayaka, believed to have been worshipped by the gods so they could successfully churn the ocean.

Scholars concur that Ganesha is a composite deity, who over time achieved divinity by acquiring four hands and an exclusive vahan, the mouse. He is a fusion of Gajanana (elephant-faced), Lambodara (pot-bellied), Ekadanta (one-tusked), Ganadhipa (Lord of ganas), Vinayaka (great leader), Vighneshvara (Lord of obstacles), Vighnakarta (creator of obstacles) and Vighnaharta (remover of obstacles). He won priority of worship (agrapuja) as Vinayaka shanti (pacification of Vinayaka) became the key to success in any activity.

Ganesha was most likely originally a gramadevata Vinayaka who was aVighnakarta. There were four Vinayakas gramadevatas causing suffering and disease, at least from the time of the Manavagrihyasutra (7th-4thcentury BC). These coalesced into a single Vinayaka by the time of the Yajnavalkyasmirti (1st-3rd century AD). Vinayaka now became son of Ambika, who merged with Shiva's spouse, Parvati. By the post-Gupta period, Vinayaka became the son of Shiva and Parvati and leader of Shiva's hosts, the rudraganas. He became Ganesha, lord of ganas, agod of high status. From two-armed Vinayaka, the god acquired four(or more) arms. His familiar attributes include laddus/modaka(sweets), ankusa (goad), pasa (noose) and a tusk.

Modern scholars are emphatic that Ganesha is not the Ganapati of theVedas. In fact, this Ganapati has been identified with different deities at different times:- Agni, Vishnu, the Maruts, Varuna, Indra,Soma, Rudra. The identification of Ganesha with Ganapati of the RigVeda (II.23.I) came only in the fifth-sixth century AD through the efforts of the now extinct group, the Ganapatyas. At this time he was also elevated as elder (jyestha) brother of Skanda, who was historically older, because the mantra designated Ganapati asjyestharajam!

That Ganesha is not a Vedic deity can be seen from the fact thatGanesha, Vinayaka and Ganapati are missing in the Vedic rituals of Vaisvadeva (Visvedevah), sacrifices to devayajna (sacrifice to gods), bhutayajna (sacrifice to spirits) involving bali-harana (offering butnot in fire) and pitryajna (sacrifice to manes). Vedic shanti rites to appease the male volent aspects of a deity and make it benevolentare addressed to several Vedic gods, but not to Ganesha, Vinayaka or Ganapati.

The Mahabharata (critical ed.) does not mention either Ganesha orVinayaka; the term ganeshvara is an epithet of Vishnu (Mbh.13.135.79); this suggests the epic was composed prior to the `invention' of Ganesha. The legend of Ganesha serving as scribe of Vyasa to record the epic is not mentioned in the grantha manuscripts or in Ksemendra's Bharatamanjari; only in the tenth century Rajasekhara asserts in Balabharata I.120 that Vinayaka was appointed lekhaka (scribe) for the Bharata Samhita or Mahabharata.

That Ganesha was not a classical god is evident from the fact that hedid not have a vehicle of his own. The mouse became vahana of only five incarnations (Ekadanta, Mahodara, Gajanana, Lambodara and Dhumravarna). The vahan of Vakratunda is simha (lion), Vikata ismayura (peacock) and Vighnaraja has the sesha (divine serpent). In Jaina iconography Ganesha is a Yaksha of Tirthankara Parshvanatha and his vehicle is the tortoise. Jaina temples depict the god with other vahanas such as the elephant, ram or peacock. In Thailand, he can be seen standing on a tortoise.

The choice of mouse as the god's vahana identifies Ganesha as a low-level folk deity. The Ganesha Purana reveals a rat frequently causedextensive damage in Rishi Parasara's ashram, devouring grain anddamaging clothes, books, and garden. Finally, Parasara's son Gajamukha caught the rat with his noose (pasa) and made it his mount, symbolically subjugating it. The rat symbolises destruction, evil, obstacles to success; its status as vahan of Ganesha underlines the god's humble origins as a gramadevata, sub jugator of the enemy ofvillage folk.

Ganesha's rising stature was ensconced forever once the god caught the imagination of Maharashtrian bhakti saints, especially Jnanesvara, in the thirteenth century. Sarasvati Gangadhara (fifteenth century) in Gurucharitra said Ganapati prevented Ravana from possessing the Shivalinga, which would have made him invincible.

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