— Consider reading the article From Java, Philippines, Bali, Cambodia, Borneo to Burma: Understanding Ganesha from an iconographical perspective on OpIndia website —
With Ganesha festival around the corner, but with humble celebrations owing to the coronavirus spread, it seems this year will be a muted one for most religious festivals with most people being forced to stay indoors. So instead of focusing on the celebrations, my article takes a look at Ganesha – Vighnesvara from a different perspective, with a brief look at his iconography and the stories associated with him.
Ganesha, also popularly referred to as Vighnesvara, is the god who presides over obstacles, by both placing them in the way and also removing them. His capability of doing both is explained through a story in the Lingapurana. The story states that the various rakshasas and asuras through their virtuous acts and sacrifices received many boons from Shiva. Armed with these boons they then turned to attack the devatas and defeated them.
After facing many such defeats the gods headed by their king Indra requested Shiva to create someone who would provide obstacles in the way of the asuras and rakshahas in their virtuous acts, hence making them unfit for any boons. Shiva agreed, and from one of his amsas (his energy or power) came to life a being known as Vighnesvara, who was asked by Shiva to create obstacles for the asuras, rakshasas, and other evil beings in their acts of virtues and sacrifices.
He also asked Vighnesvara to help the devas and other pious beings in their good deeds by removing all obstacles. In Shivapurana, Matsyapurana, and Skandapurana the birth of Ganesha is however attributed only to Parvati where while bathing she combined the oils and ointments with the impurities that came from her body and created the figure of a man, which she brought to life by sprinkling the waters of the Ganga.
Interestingly, if we study the various Puranas and Agamas, we will see various versions of Ganesha’s origin, where we see him as the son of Parvati alone, of Shiva alone, of both Shiva and Parvati, and even with an independent origin (Swaymbhu- Surya Vinayaka, a popular narrative in Nepal).
It is stated that while composing Mahabharata, Vyasa had Ganesha as his amanuensis or scribe, who wrote with his own tusk as Vyasa dictated the verses non-stop. In Brahmavaivarta-purana Ganesha was Krishna himself in human form. In modern times Ganesha is the deity who is invoked by all those that are performing pujas, sacrifices, while invoking other gods, during difficult compositions in writing, and in other times in the daily affairs of men. Ganesha- Vighnesvara’s other names include Ganapati, Ekadanata, Heramba, Lambodara, Surpakarna, Gajanana, and Guhagraja
According to historian Y. Krishan, 1981-82, “Ganesha has now come to be called as the lord of all heavenly hosts, wisest of the wise, lord of treasures of treasuries, most adorable of all, the supreme of all beings, and the king of all kings. In Ganesha-purana various verses from the Purusha-sukta of the Rig Veda have been used for invoking Ganesha, and the 9th-13th century eulogy of Ganeshagita has been almost wholly taken from Bhagavadgita, where Ganesha, like Krishna, is a supreme being endowed with karuna (highest level of compassion). Since Ganesha was later identified with Vedic gods, he was also endowed with their attributes in visual imaging (murtis and paintings). With the ankusa, vajra, and lotus he is made at par with Indra; the crescent moon, tiger skin garment, and snake associates him with Rudra/Shiva; with his pasa (noose) he equals Varuna, and the axe makes him equal to Brhmanaspati.”
The first terracotta images of Ganesha found by archaeologists are from Pal (Maharashtra), Chandraketugarh (West Bengal), Verrapuram (Tamil Nadu), and Ter (Maharashtra), all of which belong to the 1st c. CE. The earliest Ganesha murtis in stone are from Mathura, and they belong to the Kushana era (2nd–3rd c. CE).
From various available books, research papers, and images it can be derived that the earliest murtis of Ganesha, of both the standing and sitting varieties, were with two arms holding a parasu and a mulaka (radish). The potbelly and one tooth are also among the earliest characteristics seen that continue even today. TAG Rao in his book on temple iconography presents a general form of Ganapati collected from various text sources that show him as four-armed; however, the Brhatsamhita in a couplet describes him with two arms carrying a kuthara (parasu) and a mulaka, potbellied, and with one tooth:
Pramathadhipo gajamukhah pralambajatharah kutharadhari syat| Ekarisano bibhranmulakakandan…….
Interestingly, the pot of sweets that is now synonymous with Ganapati finds no mention in Brhatsamhita, which has the earliest mention of the deity; however, the pot of sweets appears early in iconography from 1st c. CE (seen in the Pal terracotta Ganeshas). Later texts like Suprabhedagama, Vishnudharmattora, Rupamandana, etc. show Ganapati with four arms (which can go up 6, 8, 10, or even 16 arms) carrying the attributes: own tooth (svadanta), modaka (sweets), ankusa (elephant goad), pasa (noose), naga, vajra, japmala, lotus, wood apple (bael), etc. It is in these later texts that we find a mouse being described as his vahana, and there are mentions of his consorts Vighnesvari, Buddhi, Sri, Bharati (Sarda), Riddhi, and Siddhi.
These later books also give traits that are commonly seen now in Ganesha murtis, such as, three eyes, the poses abhanga and samabhanga, tiger skin as garment, and a snake as his sacred thread. These texts have also described many other iconographic forms of the god, such as Bala Ganapati, Bija Ganapati, Sakti Ganesha, Taruna Ganapati, Maha Ganesha, Nrtya Ganesha, Haridra Ganesha, Heramba Ganesha, etc. India once had six subdivisions under the Ganapatya sect, and these were devotees that worshipped the 6 different forms of Ganapati: Maha, Haridra, Svarna, Santana, Navanita, and Unmatta-Ucchista.
Ganesha as a giver of success and fortune is equally venerated by the Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. In fact, Ganesha is seen in many parts of SE Asia, and many medieval era images have been found from Java, Philippines, Bali, Cambodia, Borneo, Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, China, and Japan. These images show the ancient to medieval cultural and religious connections that India once had with these countries, the ties that still remain, despite the innumerable attempts that have been made to erase them.