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The Curious Tale of Ganesha’s Origins


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Ancient Ganesha Carving

In yet another bout of spring cleaning yesterday, I stumbled upon an old paper cutting sent across by my father sometime last year. It’s a fascinating article exploring the origins of Ganesha as a deity and his worship. Such serendipity! With Ganesha’s birthday celebrations in full swing in India as we speak, it was a post I had to write.

This is a loose translation of the said Marathi article written by published in the Maharashtra Times.
Sandeep Sonanvne writes:

In light of all the excavated evidence found in the Indus Valley, there is little dispute among the experts today that Ganesha has been worshipped for at least 5000 years since the early Vedic times. However, his origins lie not in the Vedas but outside of them.

Historians have reasons to believe that there must have been a group of early Indus Valley people who regarded the elephant as the guardian/deity of their clan. Masks found at Harappa suggest elephant head masks were worn during festivals and rituals as early as 5000 years ago. These turned into statues when idol worship was adopted from the Dravidians. Puja which has come to denote the general Hindu form of worship is a Dravidian  word meaning ‘to smear.’

In the earliest days of Ganesha worship, the masks and statues he would have been smeared with blood from human sacrifice and later animal sacrifice. As the people became more civilised this turned into oil and vermillion powder, as it is done today. The headgear of an ancient elephant mask unearthed at Harappa clearly shows the telltale orange traces of vermillion. The head gears adorning the deities are not very different either from ones we see today.

Harappan Ganesha Mask

In the beginning, there would have been different clans worshiping different guardians, the Naga clan, the Mouse clan etc. among others. As time passed the different clans merged into one as did their deities. The Naga, became the snake coiled around Ganesha’s belly and the mouse became his vehicle.

Some historians believe Shiva and Ganesha were actually two faces of the same deity. Just as Shiva has three eyes, so does Ganesha. Shiva is known as the first lord of the common people and so is Ganesha. Ganesha has an elephant head while Shiva wears elephant hide. Several bronze age coins depicting Shiva in this form have been found. It is only in later mythology that Ganesha becomes Shiva’s son.

Ganesha’s reputation as the god who removes all obstacles also has curious beginnings.

In the early days, there was constant friction between the larger Vedic population and the vratya, the breakaway groups who lived outside the main fold of Vedic society and practiced their own form of austerity and esoteric rites. One of Ganesha’s many names is Vratpati, the leader of the vratya. The vratya were against the Vedic rituals of yagna, the sacrificial fire and would often disrupt these practices. It is perhaps why, before performing any yagna we chant the Ganesha shanti mantras to this day, to appease the vratya. He who was the remover of obstacles for the Vratya, was, in fact, a major obstacle for the Vedic people.

No surprise then that we don’t find any mention of Ganesha at the start of any Vedic texts.   Contrary to popular belief, Ganapati does not feature anywhere in the Atharva Veda. Neither do we find Om, the first mantra associated with Ganesha anywhere in the Vedas.

The Rgvedic hymn addressing the Lord of the People ,which is included in the Atharvashirsha, was meant for Brhamanaspati and not the Ganesha we worship.

Another interesting fact is that, while several Ganesha temples are found all over India and South East Asia, the eight foremost Ganapati temples ( Asthavinayak) are found in Maharashtra, leading the experts to believe that this was his geographical birthplace. It was from here that his popularity spread, via the tantric tradition to Myanmar, Cambodia, Bali, China and even as far as Mexico. Just like Shiva, Ganesha too was an important tantric deity. In fact, many of Ganesha’s names were given to him by the tantric tradition. Later his influence abroad waned, and in 1017 A.D the tantric worship of Ganesha was actively banned by the Chinese Emperor, Chen Tsung.

In the eight century, Adi Sankaracharya gave Ganapati a prominent place in his pachyatan puja and it saw a resurgence of Ganesha worship. In the thirteenth century when Dnyaneshawar composed Dnyaneshwari he began it with a hymn to Ganesha. Over the 500 years, Ganesha -the God of the People had become firmly entrenched into mainstream Hinduism.The great Atharvashirsha, comprising of Ganesha mantras and which is now attached to the Atharva Veda was composed around; this time.

However, the practice of bringing a Ganesha idol at home to mark his birthday and worshiping him with ostentatious celebrations was started by the rich Peshwas in the late seventeenth century. Large processions would accompany the bringing home of the idol and also when it was taken for immersion into the sea. Festivities and cultural programmes would take the centre stage for a fortnight.

In 1893, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a freedom fighter and visionary, understood the power of communal celebrations to bring together all strata of society and called for communal Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations to become more commonplace. It soon became an annual event with more and more common households picking up the mantle. These joint celebrations became a great tool for infusing the freedom struggle with energy and vigour. With Ganesha to remove all obstacles in the difficult path to freedom, what was there to fear?

From being a Vinayak Gan Esha, the lord of a leaderless people of the Indus Valley civilisation, Ganapati Bappa has come a long way to rule all the homes and hearts across the sub-continent.