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THE MEANING OF GAṆAPATI
This text is part of a longer essay by Alain Daniélou published in the Adyar Library Bulletin (Vol. XVIII, part 1 § 2) in 1954. In what follows, the chosen passages on the famous deity Gaṇapati or Gaṇeśa (the origins of whom should be traced back to Shiva’s companions, called Gaṇas) have been edited bearing in mind Daniélou’s unpublished notes and variations in typed and handwritten form, which have also necessitated minor changes concerning grammar, spelling and style.
(photo: FIND Archive, Zagarolo)
The elephant-headed god is one of the most prominent deities of present-day Hindus. He is worshipped at the beginning of every enterprise. His image is seen at the entrance of every temple and house. Gaṇeśa represents one of the basic concepts of Hindu mythological symbolism, the identity of the macrocosm and the microcosm, which among other things reaffirms the idea of a divine aspect of man. This notion of human divinity and the immanence of the god’s power should be in our mind whenever we begin anything, hence Gaṇeśa is the first to be saluted.
The identity of macrocosm and microcosm can be observed in the permanence of certain relations that are the substratum of all the aspects of the perceptible universe. These relations can be best expressed in terms of number. Hence, number is easily seen as a common element, the all-pervading consistency of manifestation. It is the essence of the nature of Gaṇapati, whose name means ‘Lord of the Numbered’.
Like every other Hindu deity, Gaṇapati can be represented through different symbols, hence there is a mantra or sound-representation, a yantra or graphic-representation and an icon or image of Gaṇapati.
The Maudgala Purāṇa says: gaṇeśasyāpi pūjanaṃ caturvidhaṃ caturmūrtidhārakatvāt (“The worship of Gaṇeśa [as that of the other gods]is of four kinds, according to his four symbolic representations”). The mantra or ‘sound-image’ of Gaṇapati is the monosyllabic AUM uttered at the beginning of every rite. Its meaning is also expressed in the sacred formula tat-tvam-asi, “Thou art that”, which represents the fundamental identity of the macrocosm and the microcosm.
In the Gaṇapati Upaniṣad we read: tvameva pratyakṣaṃ tatvamasi, that is, “Thou (the living being) art the visible form of That (the supreme essence)”.
The swastika is the graphic symbol of Gaṇeśa. It is a cross representing the development of the multiple from the basic unity, the central point. But the four branches are bent to form a square, symbol of the Earth. This is intended to show that through the outward forms of the Universe we cannot directly reach their basic unity. Hence the principle is said to be ‘crooked’. There is also a more elaborate diagram called Gaṇeśa, a yantra used for ritual worship. Another symbol of Gaṇapati is the stone Svarṇabhadra.
The image of Gaṇeśa has a man’s body and an elephant’s head. The elephant represents the macrocosm, the Great Being, and the man the microcosm, the small universe. The identity of the boundless, all-powerful Cosmic Being and the bounded, powerless human, of the elephant and the man, would seem an eternal impossibility. The image of Gaṇeśa constantly reminds us of the reality of this apparently impossible identity. Man is truly the image of the cosmos, so all realisation lies in a certain sense within himself. By studying our inclinations, our inner structure, we can understand the mystery of the Universe.
The Number Principle
Everything which our senses can perceive, or our mind grasps, can be expressed in terms of quantity, of relation, of number. Thus, it is logical for us to consider numbers the fundamental elements underlying existence, as the following passages of the Gaṇapata Upaniṣad clearly illustrate:
gaṇyante buddhyante te gaṇāḥ
“All that can be counted or comprehended is a quantity (gaṇa)”.
gaṇaśabdaḥ samūhasya vācakaḥ parikīrtitaḥ
“By the word quantity is meant any collection of things”.
We see that the principle of number through which the relations between different quantities or orders of beings can be understood is of the same nature as the relation between the macrocosm and the microcosm.
gaṇānāṃ patiḥ gaṇapatiḥ
“The ruler of all that can be numbered, Gaṇapati“
Here Gaṇapati can be identified with the Divine Nature in all its aspects.
oṁ laṃ namaste gaṇapataye tvameva pratyakṣaṃ tattvamasi l tvameva kevalaṃ kartā’si tvameva kevalaṃ dhartā’si tvameva kevalaṃ kartā’si tvameva kevalaṃ khalvidaṃ brahmāsi l tvaṃ sākṣādātmā’si
“I bow to the Power of the Root-centre (AUM-LAM). I bow to the Lord of the Numbered. Thou alone art the visible form of the principle. Thou alone art the Creator, thou alone art the Sustainer, thou alone are the Destroyer, thou alone art unmistakably the principle of all, the real Self”.
According to this passage, number transcends intellect. The presence of the god becomes nevertheless very concrete and encompasses the different aspects of the cosmic process (creation, preservation and destruction).
mahatattvāditattvagaṇānāṃ patiḥ gaṇapatiḥ
“The Lord of the Numbered rules over Universal Intellect (mahat-tattva) and the principles of the elements (tattva) derived from it”.
Gaṇapati, identified with Bṛhaspati, is already mentioned in the Ṛg Veda, as the following passage indicates:
gaṇānāṃ tvā gaṇapatiṃ havāmahe kaviṃ kavīnāmupamaśravastamam l
jyeṣṭharājaṃ brahmaṇāṃ brahmaṇspata ā naḥ śṛṇvannūtibhiḥ sīda sādanam ll
“O thou who of all that is numbered art the Lord, the poet of poets, unrivalled in wealth, King of Elders, Lord of the Principle of Principles, hear us and take thy place bringing with thee all enjoyments” (Ṛg Veda 2, 23, 1).
Named indirectly in the Taittirīya Āraṇyaka (10.1.5) and in [an interpolated passage of]the Maitrāyani Saṁhitā (3.12.20), Gaṇapati really appears in this present form only in the later parts of the Mahābhārata.
The Agni Purāṇa (Adhyāya 72, verses 1-8) and the Yājñavalkya Smṛti (Adhyaya 1, verses 270-282) briefly describe a ritual of Gaṇeśa. In the Yājñavalkya Smṛti he is shown as a demoniacal being, and he plays a significant part in Tantrism also because of the transgressive forces related to the Gaṇas. The Prapañca Sāra Tantra (Adhyāya 17) provides an elaborate image of him.
on Ganesha are based (photo: FIND Archive, Zagarolo)
For followers of the Gāṇapatya sect, he is the supreme deity. He is one of the five deities of the Smārta cult. Several Purāṇas place him above the Trimūrti. He is the favourite deity of the common man.
Gaṇeśa is the patron of letters, of schools. He is the scribe who writes down the scriptures. The Brāhmaṇas accept him as the god of learning. In Māhabhārata 1.1.77. we also find the same motif: lekhako bhāratasyāsya bhava tvaṃ gaṇānāyak (“Be thou, Leader of the Numbered, the scribe of the story of this war”).
Description of Gaṇapati based on the Gaṇapati Tattva by Swāmī Karpātri (Benares, 1943)
Thou art That
In terms of the world, a man cannot be an elephant, yet this can be true in terms of Divinity, for Divinity is that where opposites unite. This becomes evident when we trace each symbol to its essential meaning. The sacred utterance which represents Gaṇapati is tat-tvam-asi, ‘Thou art That’.
The pronoun ‘That’ is satyam jñānamanantam brahma, the limitless transcendent principle which is truth and knowledge, aloof from all attributes. The pronoun ‘Thou’ (tvam) represents the principle qualified, whose form is the Universe. Both ‘That’ and ‘Thou’ are welded in an indivisible identity by the third term ‘art’ (asi), that is by Existence.
Existence is the co-ordination of the absolute and the relative, of That and Thou. True knowledge is the realisation of this unity including all concrete aspects of manifested being.
Elephant and Man
The word ‘man’ (nara) is defined as meaning ‘qualified divinity’. Man is the progeny of the cosmic being, hence narājjātāni tattvāni nārāṇīti vidurbudhāḥ (“The beings born of the [Universal] Man are known to the sages of men”).
The word gaja (elephant) is taken to mean the origin and the end.
samādhinā yogino gacchanti yatra iti gaḥ l
yasmāt bimbapratibimbavṛttyā praṇāvātmakaṃ jagajjāyate iti jaḥ ll
“The stage reached by the re-integrated being, the Yogi, in his experience of ultimate identification (samādhi) is called ga, the Goal; while the principle is called ja, the origin, from which the syllable-of-obeisance AUM is said to issue through a process of multifold reflection”.
The elephant is thus the janmādyasya yataḥ stage (Brahma Sūtra, 1.1.4.) “whence existence begins”, and yasmādoṇkārasaṁbhūtiryato vedo yato jagat “whence the syllable AUM issues, from AUM the Universal law (the Veda) and from the Veda the Universe”.
The man-part of Gaṇapati, representing the Principle manifest, is inferior to the non-manifest, which is the elephant part. The elephant is therefore shown as the head. One should also meditate on the force of the animal and its spiritual meaning.
Gaṇapati in his totality is the indivisible blissful unity pervading all existence.
The Representation of Gaṇapati
ekadantaṃ caturhastaṃ pāśamaṅkuśadhārinam l
amayaṃ varadaṃ hastairbibhrāṇam mūṣakadvajaṃ ll ११ ll
raktalambodaraṃ śūrpasukarṇaṃ raktavāsasam l
raktagandhānuliptāṅgaṃ raktapuṣtaiḥ supūjitam ll १२ ll
bhaktānukampinam devaṃ jagatkāraṇamacyutam l
āvirbhūtaṃ ca sṛṣṭyādau prakṛteḥ puruṣātparam ll १३ ll
evaṃ dhyāyati yo nityaṃ sa yogī yogināṃ varaḥ ll १४ ll
“He has one tusk, four arms, two of his hands hold a noose and a hook, two other hands show the gesture of ‘removing fear’ and ‘granting boons’. A mouse is on his flag. Red, obese, with ears like winnowing baskets, clad in red, his limbs are anointed with red sandal paste. He is worshipped with red flowers. Merciful to his devotees, he is the infallible deity, origin of the worlds. He appears in the beginning of creation beyond Nature, beyond the Cosmic Person. He who ever meditates on his form becomes great among the reintegrated” (Gaṇapati Upaniṣad 11-14).
Gaṇeśa has only one tusk. According to Maudgala Purāṇa:
ekaśbdātmikā māyā tasyāḥ sarvasamudbhavam l
dantaḥ sattādharastatra māyācālaka ucyate ll
“The word ‘one’ is the symbol of illusion; from it everything has sprung. The tooth (or tusk) is the support of existence, it is therefore the impeller of illusion”.
Gaṇeśa is one-toothed because in him are united the qualified or manifest being which is illusion (māyā) and the non-manifest unqualified being who is the support of illusion, the illusion-giver (māyi). This also means that unity as consistency of being essentially corresponds to diversity as manifestation.
Like every other Hindu deity, Gaṇapati can be represented by different symbols, hence there is a mantra or sound-representation, a yantra or graphic-representation and an icon or image of Gaṇapati.
(photo by Jacques Cloarec)
Gaṇeśa’s trunk is bent: vakramātmamukhaṃ yasya (“his face, shape of the Self, is crooked”). While the outward form of the world appears intelligible to mind and words, Divinity cannot be directly understood and is therefore said to be crooked.
mastakaṃ brahmavācakaṃ l vakrākhyaṃ yona vighneśāstenāyaṃ vakratuṇḍakaḥ ll
“His head, image of the Principle is crooked. His trunk is also said to be bent because he is the master of obstacles”.
The trunk of Gaṇeśa is represented as bent sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left. These directions correspond to the two ways in which obstacles can be got round and the supreme goal – that is, the realisation of the path free from obstacles – can be reached. These are the right- and the left-hand ways. This meaning also applies to the swastika, which is the yantra of Gaṇeśa and can be bent to either side.
The four Arms
As universal ruler, Gaṇeśa has four arms. It is he who established the four kinds of beings. It is he also who instituted the four castes and the four wisdoms (vedas):
svargeṣu devatāścāyaṃ pṛthñyāṃ narāṁstathā’tale l
asurānnāgamusvyāṁśca sthāpayiṣyati bālakaḥ ll १ ll
tattvāni cālayanviprāsthasmānnāmnā caturbhujaḥ l
caturṇāṃ vividhānāṃ ca sthapako’yaṃ prakīrtitaḥ ll २ ll
“In Heaven this child will establish the predominance of Gods, on Earth that of men, in the Nether World that of the anti-gods and serpents. O priest, he causes the four principles of the elements to move and is therefore called four-armed. There are many kinds of quaternary. He has established them all”.
One of the four hands holds a noose, another an elephant-hook (aṅkuśā), another hand grants boons, another allays fear. To catch delusion (moha), the enemy of all seekers, he holds the noose. The driving-hook is the insignia of the ruler of the universe, and the giving hand shows him as the fulfiller of desires. The hand allaying fear shows that Gaṇapati is beyond the realm of time and death, to which pertains all fear.
The vehicle of Gaṇeśa is the mouse (mūṣaka). The mouse is the master of the inside of everything. The all-pervading Ātman is the mouse that lives in the hole within the heart of every being, and is the real enjoyer of the pleasures of all creatures. This Self is also a thief, because, unnoticed, it steals all that people possess. It hides itself behind the inscrutable shapes of illusion, and no one knows that this inner ruler takes for himself the pleasures people believe they enjoy. “It is he also who is benefited by all penance” (bhoktāraṃ sarvatapasām). The word mūṣa comes from the root mūṣ-, to steal. Although it steals from people the things they enjoy, the mouse has no concern as to whether those enjoyments are virtues or vices. Similarly, the inner ruler of everything, hidden beneath inscrutable illusion, enjoys the pleasures of all, but remains unaffected by vice or virtue.
Gaṇeśa is obese
Gaṇeśa is obese because all manifestation is contained in his belly; yet he himself is not contained in anyone: tasyodarātsamutpannaṃ nānāviśvaṃ na saśyaḥ (“Many vast universes were born from his belly, of this there is no doubt”).
The winnowing Ears
The ears of the God resemble winnowing trays because he winnows the words that men address to him. He throws away the dust of vice and virtue. Real values alone then remain to be apprehended.
rajoyuktaṃ yathā dhāryaṃ rajohīnaṃ karoti ca l
śūrpaṃ sarvanarāṇāṃ vai yogyaṃ bhojanakāmyayā ll १ ll
“Only by winnowing does corn, dust-mixed, become dust-free for every man to desire it as his food”.
tathā māyāvikāreṇa yutaṃ brahma na labhyate l
tyaktopāsanakaṃ tasya śūrpa-karṇasya sundari ll २ ll
“Thus, O lovely One! He who neglects the worship of the winnowing ears will never find the Absolute buried under the changing forms of appearances”.
śūrpa-karṇaṃ samāśritya tyaktvā malavikārakam l
brahmaiva narajātistho bhavettena tathā smṛtaḥ ll ३ ll
“Men seek the protection of the winnowing ears, and reject the impurities of all that changes, in order that the Great Being may establish himself in their midst, and they become one with him”.
Gaṇeśa is also ‘king-of-the-elders (jyeṣṭtha rāja): he is first among the Great and presides over the assembly of the gods.
The Remover of Obstacles
The Lord of the Numbered is the destroyer of obstacles. In this sense, the Gaṇapati Upaniṣad (15) reads: vighnavināśine śivasutāya varadamūrtaye namo namaḥ (“I bow to the son of Shiva, to the embodiment of the giver of gifts, who destroys obstacles”). Explaining the previous passage, Sayaṇācārya writes: samayakālātmakabhayahāriṇe amṛtātmakapadapradatvāt (“He it is who, by giving immortality, removes the fear inherent in times and duration”).
The Lord of Obstruction
The Skanda Purāṇa and the Maudgala Purāṇa tell the story of Prince Pleasing-to-all (Abhinandana), who organized a vast sacrifice to the Gods, from which, however, he excluded Indra. Hearing of this, Indra became angry; he summoned Time and ordered him to stop the sacrifice. Time took the shape of the genie Obstruction (Vighna-asura) to put an end to the sacrifice.
The genie Obstruction killed Prince Abhinandana and then wandered hither and thither, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible, obstructing all rites. Bewildered, Vaśiṣṭha and the other sages went to the Creator Brahmā, seeking his protection. He ordered them to pray to the Lord of the Numbered who alone is beyond Time, whom no other deity has the power to conquer.
Vanquished by Gaṇeśa, the genie Obstruction placed himself under his protection and served him obediently. Thus, it is that Gaṇeśa is also called “The Lord of Obstruction (Vighnarāja) and, if any good work is undertaken without praying to and worshipping Gaṇeśa, obstacles will inevitably occur. Henceforth Obstruction lives under the protection of the All-Powerful Gaṇeśa. Being the nature of Time, Obstruction, too, is an aspect of Divinity: viśeṣeṇa jagatsāmarthyaṃ hantīti vighnaḥ (“An obstruction is that which prevents the realisation in the world of the apparently possible”).
That which restricts the power of even Brahmā and the other gods to create, sustain and destroy is verily called obstruction. Hence, in an auspicious invocation preliminary to all sacrifices (puṇyāhavācana), we hear the following: bhagavantau vighnavināyakau prīyetām (“May the two gods Obstruction and its masterer, be pleased!”).
None but Gaṇeśa can control obstacles; the Yoga-Vaśiṣṭha relates how, when the sage Bhṛgu was on the point of cursing Time, the latter took the shape of Obstruction and said:
mā tapaḥ kṣapayābuddhe! kalpakālamahānasaiḥ I
yo na dagdhe’smi me tasya kiṃ tvaṃ śāpena dhakṣyasi ll
brahmaṇḍāvalayo grastāḥ nigīrṇā rudrakoṭayaḥ l
bhuktāni viṣṇuvṛndāni kva na śaktā vayaṃ mune ll
“O fool! Do not waste the merits acquired by thy penance! I who could not be burnt in the furnace of the ages, could thy curse destroy me? O Sage! I who have devoured the eggs of all Universes, swallowed the lords of Destructions (rudras) by the million, and feasted on all the Pervaders (viṣṇus), what can be beyond my power?”.