The Origins of Gaṇeśa

Gaṇeśa seated on a lion throne, 10th century. The Met Museum

Gaṇeśa has come to be called Lord of the heavenly hosts or gaṇas, the wisest of the wise, lord of treasure of treasuries, Supreme among those who pray, King of kings. Through his multitude of epithets, he is variously equated with Indra and Agni. The Amarakōśa lists a few of his epithets —

vināyako vighnarājo dvaimātura-gaṇādhipaḥ
apyekadanto heraṃbo laṃbodaragajānanaḥ

The 9th-13th century eulogy Gaṇeśa gīta in both content and phraseology is almost wholly drawn from the Bhagavadgīta, with Gaṇeśa replacing Krsna. He too is identified with the supreme being, and is endowed with the highest compassion, karuṇa. In consequence of this identification with Vedic gods Gaṇeśa was endowed with their familiar attributes, in visualization and art. Through the goad, the thunderbolt, and the lotus he rivals Indra; through the tiger-skin garment, the crescent moon emblem, and the snake as sacred thread he rivals Rudra/Śiva; through the noose he rivals Varuṇa; and through the axe he rivals Brahmaṇaspati. As “buddhidāta” he is endowed with the intelligence of Brahmaṇaspati, and as “siddhidāta” with the bountiful nature of Indra. He is invoked in this form even now by nearly all Hindus at the beginning of any religious ceremony and on special occasions.

The current idea about the association of this God of peculiar iconographic traits with wisdom seems to have been due to the confusion made between his name and that of the Vedic sage god Bṛhaspati or Brahmaṇaspati who is invoked also as Gaṇapati.

गणानां तवा गणपतिं हवामहे कविं कवीनामुपमश्रवस्तमम |
जयेष्ठराजं बरह्मणां बरह्मणस पत आ नः षर्ण्वन्नूतिभिः सीद सादनम ||
Ṛg Vēda 2.23.1

“We call thee, Lord and Leader of the heavenly hosts, the wise among the wise, the most famous of all,
The King supreme of prayers, O Brahmaṇaspati: hear us with help; sit down in place of sacrifice.”
(tr. by Ralph T.H. Griffith)

The Aitareya Brāhmaṇa and the Kauśītakī Brāhmaṇa (one of the Upaniṣads make it clear that in the first Rigvedic hymn cited above (ii, 23, I) the term Gaṇapati is addressed to Bṛhaspati or Brahmaṇaspati. This confusion was perhaps comparatively late in its origin, borne out of the apocryphal character of the tradition of Gaṇeśa’s having served as the amanuensis of Vyāsa when the latter was engaged in the task of composing the Mahābhārata.

In the Śatārudríya of the Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā which belongs to the Black Yajurveda we come across the epithets of Rudra as karāṭa (one having the ears of an elephant), hasti-mukha ( elephant-faced), and dantin (one with tusks) is needless to state that here we already very clearly have a vivid description an elephant-headed deity which is none else but the Gaṇeśa-Gajānana of the medieval period.

tatpuruṣāya vidmahe vakratuṇḍāya dhīmahi tanno dantī pracodayāt
Taittiriya Āranyaka, X. 1. 5

The Vedic Bhāṣyakāra or commentators of the mediaeval period in no case find a reference to Gaṇeśa in the hymns cited above. Instead they interpret Gaṇapati in a wide variety of ways: as lord of the hosts of Gods; as Lord of all creatures, specifically as Indra; as Rudra, lord of beasts, especially horses; Lord of hosts; and as the Lord of the gathering of women. These commentaries establish conclusively that the term Gaṇapati in the Vedas was not identified with the elephant-headed and pot-bellied Gaṇeśa, and that the word gaṇas did not mean the mischievous Siva’s attendants. The Gaṇeśapurāṇa states that Ṛṣis, or sages, Brahma, the Vedas, the Upaniṣads, and the śāstras do not know the true nature of Gaṇeśa.

Gaṇapati became inducted into the Brahminical pantheon relatively late through the Gaṇāpatya sect in the 1st millennium AD when it came into prominence. He was probably connected with two groups of early folk divinities, Yakşas and Nāgas according to Coomaraswamy (a theory now contested). Though this cult never became of such importance as some of the other major cults, in His current iconographic form, the elephant-headed, pot-bellied God came to be regularly worshipped, especially after the late Gupta age. This was the approximate time when the first literary/scriptural references to Gaṇapati are found in post-Gupta literature, where He begins to be associated with the Śiva-Śakti cult through the creation of purāṇic accounts of his origin.

The literal meaning of Gaṇapati is the leader of the Gaṇas, who have almost invariably been associated with Śiva not only through his Vedic counterpart Rudra’s association with Marutgaṇas but also Śiva himself who is described as Gaṇeśvara in the Mahābhārata, explaining the ideologocal association with Gaṇapati though Gaṇeśa himself is not explicitly mentioned in the corpus of Sanskrit literature of the time.

Siddhānta astrology, which became dominant under Babylonian and Greek influence around the third century A.D. added a new dimension to the cosmic evil with which men had to contend: the planetary forces that were believed to shape an individual’s destiny. As protection against inauspicious movements of the Navagrahas, the nine heavenly bodies, the most effective counter-measures were held to be the performance of special, elaborate rituals, the graha pūjā or graha hōma — which weren’t always accessible. Thus the worship of other protective gods and goddesses was formalized to meet the needs of all castes. The cult of Vināyaka or Gaṇeśa was perhaps the most successful of these substitutes called on to meet the threats of both terrestrial and planetary forces of evil. Small wonder that Gaṇeśa has been a god of the people, of the multitude. His protection extends to all.

References:

  1. The development of Hindu iconography, Jitendra Nath Banerjea
  2. ORIGIN OF GAṆEŚA M. K. Dhavalikar
  3. The Origins of Gaṇeśa Y. Krishan

__________________________________________

If you find value in my work, I hope you consider becoming a patron through Patreon. Hindu Aesthetic requires a lot of time and effort and your support would mean that I can continue bringing you the highest quality content. Link to my Patreon:

Curating Hindu art and knowledge - a testament to the glorious culture and heritage of a resilient civilisation. patreon.com/hinduaesthetic