Ganesh's rise to prominence in the Hindu pantheon is an example of the dynamism inherent in Sanatan Dharma, where deities evolve and adapt to societal changes.
Om Gam Ganapataye Namah!
ॐ गं गणपतये नमः
Most Hindu ritualistic functions in this age, across the world and irrespective of the aims, secular or religious, start with an invocation of Ganapati. Though his worship is ubiquitous today, it has been argued by scholars that the firm emergence of Ganapati as an independent and powerful remover of obstacles became a part of standard Hinduism around the 4th – 5th century AD in the Gupta era. While coins and art figures depicting Ganapati have been recovered from as early as the Kushana period, yet the deity truly stamped his mark on the Hindu consciousness, remarkably, with the later emergence of the Ganapataya sects in western India. Even the popular story of Ganapati penning the Mahabharata is considered by scholars to be a later addition to the great epic. The term Ganapati, though, found in the Mahabharata, is mostly used as an adjective for Siva.
So, how exactly did Ganapati enter into the Hindu pantheon of devatas? Some believe that the origin lies in the four or six fierce Vināyakas whose references can be found in the Mānava-Gṛhyasūtras and the Yajnavalkya Smriti. They were known as a class of dreadful troublemakers, who needed to be propitiated with various offerings, including raw meat. Eventually these become combined into one deity, a single Vināyaka, who was appointed by Rudra as the lord of ganas – ganAnAm Adhipataye. The Kṛṣṇa Yajur Veda also mentions a deity named Dantin with the head of an elephant – hastimukha. Of course popular stories of Ganesha’s birth are found in many of the Puranas, with slight variations which have now become common knowledge. However, this magical transformation of a group of terror-inspiring beings into a formidable mainstream devata, capable of fulfilling all human aspirations from the material to the spiritual – the Ganapati Atharvashiraequates Ganapati with the Supreme – is something that has troubled scholars for ages. And rightly so, for the ex-post facto explanations and theories are speculative and unconvincing and seem divorced from the practical reality of present Hinduism.
Maybe the answer to this lies not in the logical labyrinths of dry scholarship, but rather the living force of spiritual practices, which constitutes the real engines of dharma. It is a known fact that while Hinduism accepts the idea of a Supreme Being, it does not deny the reality of deities and acknowledges their diverse nature, roles and influences in the world of humans. How does one interact with the deities? Or rather, how does a deity interact with a human being? It may be rather difficult for an intellectual, as we define the term today, to understand how such can be possible, but there are innumerable examples of sages and saints across the history of India who succeeded in such endeavours and their words are considered to be authoritative in this matter. There are texts and paths which guide us on the process of this communion which is known more simply as sadhana.
Almost all acts of sadhana, from the simplest panchopachara, to more complex multi-day rituals, basically involve a process of “feeding” or offering, prāṇa to the devata. Everything in this Universe from the subtlest or grossest, thrives on prāṇa. We humans absorb it while breathing as well as through the food consumed. Devatas do it in a more subtle manner given that they are essentially non-physical in nature. Based on the predilection of the devata, texts dealing with practical instructions on worship therefore recommend specific items which need to be offered to each of them. For example, Bel leaves remain a favorite of Siva, while Tulasi is offered to Vishnu. One way of looking at this process of interaction between humans and devatas is that each one requires the other too! As such it is neither uncommon nor unlikely that a devata modifies the way it interacts with our world depending on changes in human society or factors which are not easily perceivable to us. Their scope and vision is vast and spans great lengths of time. Thus a fierce Rudra becomes the tamer Siva, dreaded Vinayakas become Ganapati, Indra gets pushed back from his authoritative position, while Vaishnavism transforms from a meditative, contemplative approach to a more devotional setting.
Just as the iconography or symbolism of a deity is not merely the romantic fantasy of an artist, but the revealed knowledge and vision of a seer, incorporating various attributes of the devata, similarly the changes in the way a devata is approached over time is no more a mere product of a shift in societal outlook but also, equally, a transformation in the influence created by the devata himself! By the time the Puranic Hinduism came into maturity, Ganapati had already become a powerful and independent god, helped no less by a family of exemplary saints who originated in northern Karnataka and eventually moved to Maharastra near Pune. This family, so goes the lore, was given a blessing that Gaṇēśa would incarnate in their lineage for seven generations. The first among them, Morayā Gosāvi, who lived during the 13th – 14th century, is undoubtedly the single most influential factor in spreading the worship of Gaṇēśa across western India. It is in reverence to him that Gaṇēśa Caturthī festivals in Maharastra are still celebrated with slogans of “Ganapati Bappa Morya”. Indeed, whatever great men do, others follow. So when certain quarters raise concerns that some aspects of worship in Hinduism have been forsaken with time, it must be reminded that this happened, at least significantly, due to the inability of those sidelined practices to produce powerful individuals who could be emulated by masses. As the Gita states:
yad yad acarati sresthas tat tad evetaro janah sa yat pramanam kurute lokas tad anuvartate – Gita 3.21. (Whatever action is performed by a great man, common men follow in his footsteps. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.)
In the Yogic parlance, Gaṇēśa is a personality of the Supreme that controls ganas, who are a host of occult beings acting through the agency of the physical world and can be roughly equated with the wide range of inputs received by the sense organs. Why an elephant’s head? Because some believe that an elephant best represents the nature of this deity – a gentle giant in most cases, but extremely destructive when enraged. Being the Lord of ganas, he is capable of amplifying certain positive influences, while curtailing all that is troublesome to the worshiper which helps in creating a pleasant reality for the sadhaka. A pouranik verse attests to the prompt benefits that the worship of Gaṇēśa can bring in this age – Kalau Chandi Vinayaka: in Kali Yuga Chandi and Vinayaka (bring fastest benefits). In Tantras, Gaṇēśa is considered to be the Lord of the first Chakra – mūlādhāra – and therefore capable of producing a balance between the spiritual and the material aspects of life. Naturally, unless the environment around stops drawing our awareness away into the external world, or if one is subject to constant provocations and disturbances, it is unlike that a sadhaka will be able to sufficiently concentrate his mind in order to enter into powerful spiritual states. At the same time, true to Hinduism’s henotheistic character, Gaṇēśa is considered as the personification of the absolute Brahman for those who take him as their Iṣṭa-devatā.
Scripturally, there are at least 32 different forms of Gaṇēśa as mentioned in the Mudgala Purana, most of them pertaining to specific applications with intricate mantras, rituals and prayogas. Some of this knowledge was transmitted orally through various sampradayas in India. Though many such lines of transmission have died down, it is still heartening to see that the popularity of Gaṇēśa worship has not shown any signs of receding. Indeed, the heart of Sanatana Dharma lies not in unquestionable dogmas and obtuse doctrines but the ability to rediscover and re-live the experiences recorded in the scriptures by every new generation. Practicing religion just because it is traditional and customary is a weak argument; but if the same inherited practices or sadhanas, when performed consistently, lead to an experience of the world of gods, that then automatically infuses a great vital energy in the life of the race and generates a sanguine faith on the efficacy of the traditional forms and methods. May the brilliant effulgence of Gaṇēśa illuminate our minds and invigorate our lives!
Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God, Robert L. Brown
Gaṇēśa : Unravelling an Enigma, Y. Krishan