Lord Ganesha or ‘Ganapati’ denoting the Lord of the Ganas, is also known as Ekadanta, Gajamukha, Lambodara. The eldest son of Lord Shiva and Parvati, he is considered the ‘manas’ or mind if Shiva is ‘atman’ or the soul.
He is worshipped for his various qualities in the beginning of all religious rituals as he is regarded as the Lord of the Remover of obstacles (Vighnaraja and Vighna-vinasana), Creator of successes (Siddhidata) and the Creator of obstacles (Vighnesha, Vighneshvara). He is believed to confer knowledge to the seeker of wisdom, progeny to the childless, moksha (liberation) to those seeking it and prosperity for those seeking material wealth. He is one of the most loved Hindu deities in all of his several forms from a child Ganesha to the one where he is depicted with his two wives Riddhi and Siddhi. No Hindu family considers it auspicious to initiate any personal or professional project without first offering prayers to an image of Ganesha.
It has been a challenging task for art historians over ages to trace the origin of Ganesha and his popularity. The most important work on Ganesha has been by Alice Getty and we discover from her findings in ‘Ganesa – Monograph on the elephant faced God ’ that “he is not found in sculpture before the Gupta period, when his image appeared not only suddenly but in the classical form by which he may be identified from the 5th century to the present day.” Dr Pratapaditya Pal corroborates that and adds “…since the Gupta period, he has remained the most popular theriomorphic deity in Indian art and Hindu religion.” He says that though the name Ganapati has been attributed as an epithet in the oldest Indian literary work Rigveda, circa 1500 BC, in an invocatory prayer there is much controversy amongst scholars regarding this.
We are very familiar with the visual depiction of Ganesha where he has an elephant head with large ears and a trunk with a pot bellied human body. Several legends about the loss of his human head and the origin of his elephant head find their source in the Brahma-Vaivarta Purana. The Shiva Purana explains the contradictory stories regarding his origins by saying that he took different forms in different ages (yugas).
E B Havell writes in ‘The ideals of Indian Art’ , “… Ganesha is the personification of man’s animal nature… an apotheosis of all the qualities which man shares with the animal creation.”
Though the iconographic representation of Ganesha varies with historical periods, he is usually seen standing in the ‘Dvibhanga mudra’ (a standing posture with a slight bent in the body) or sitting. Of his four arms, he holds a ‘bowl of laddu or modak’ (traditional Indian sweet) in the lower left hand. He traditionally holds an axe and a noose in the other arms. Jewelled armlets, bracelets, necklace, yajnopavita (sacred thread) and an upvita (belt) of snake adorn him. He sometimes wears a crown. His right tusk is usually portrayed as broken supposedly knocked out in his fight against Parashurama. Next to the idol is his divine vehicle, the mouse – you would rarely spot a depiction of Ganesha without his mouse. Coexistence of the mighty and the small has been traditionally emphasised.
A very popular Hindu deity mainly in the western and southern India, Ganesha is found in both Shvetambara Jainism and Buddhism. The Shvetambara Jain earliest Ganesha image is a small 9th century seated one currently in the Mathura Museum. There he is depicted as an attendant, or as a son, to the prominent Jain goddess Ambika. Though images of Ganesha-like elephant headed deities have been found, an image of Ganesha is rare. Paul Dundas and James Laidlow draw a parallel between Ganesha and Gautama Svami, the first and favourite monastic disciple of Lord Mahavira since medieval times as he too can “perform magical feats”. They feel this is how Ganesha is present in the Jain tradition “in a radical structural transformation.”
Eminent historian Gouriswar Bhattacharya traced Ganesha’s earliest Buddhist representation in the Indian subcontinent in the ruins of the Paharpur monastery in the Rajshahi district, Bangladesh. The reverential name Ganapati is more popular than Ganesha where Aparajita, the unconquerable, vanquishes Ganapati in the form of obstacles (vigna) that are attempting to disturb the Buddha while obtaining ‘bodhi’ or Enlightenment. Interestingly in Nepal, amongst Hindus, Ganesha is a Remover of obstacles while amongst Buddhists, a Creator of one.
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All photos taken by author, locations mentioned in the captions.