Monday, 29 October 2012

Ganapathi and the Trinity

A N Moorthy Rao

Ganapathi ranks between the deities just mentioned and the divine Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara­he is not a force of nature but possesses certain unique characteristics  He is reverred and worshipped more than all the gods mentioned before. Not only this; He is close to us and dear to us; and he stimulates humour. We do not, and cannot, take with other Gods the same degree of liberties as we do with Ganapathi. We have ascribed to Siva and Vishnu exquisite forms. Adorned with ash and a serpent around his neck, the beauty of Shiva comes from restraint and renunciation. While His form may, at times (eg: when you think of his 'Runda Maale') appear intolerable - even disgusting- yet, there is glory about Him. Vishnu is the God of splendour. Shiva may turn into furious 'Rudra'. Vishnu, except on some special occasions, is serene.

Courtesy: Wikipedia
It is all totally different with Ganapathi. For one thing, we have given him a grotesque form. The head of an elephant with a skewed trunk: a broken tusk: a protruding tummy, a serpent tied around the belly, lest it should rupture. And the vehicle of this huge, rotund deity is a rat!

If you ignore a few obscure stories, Shiva and Vishnu are without beginning and without end. While their various incarnations do have a beginning and an end in time, they themselves are beyond time. There are many stories connected with Ganapathi's birth. He does have an origin. He has an explicit birth. The story of His birth which I am going to narrate, is one with which we are all familiar. Whether this story is found in any text or is only a popular legend I do not know.

Parvathi wanted to have a bath. She needed some one to stand guard at the entrance to the bath room. She scrapped the dirt on her body (alternate version: the perfumes and cosmetics applied to her body) and made a doll out of it, in the shape of a boy, and infused it with life. Then, she asked him to stand guard at the door. Soon after, Shiva arrived there and was promptly stopped by the boy at the door. Enraged, Shiva cut off his head. This distressed Parvathi. In order to console Parvathi, Shiva tried to revive the boy, but the body had no head at all! "Bring me the head of one who is sleeping with his head to the north," He ordered his servants. They could find only an elephant sleeping in that manner, and they brought its head. Shiva joined the head to the boy's trunk and gave life to it. Thus was born our 'Gajavadana'.

Couldn't Parvathi find clay or flour or some such substance with which to make a doll? Was there so much dirt (or cosmetics) on her body that she could make a doll of the size of a boy out of it ? Was her bathroom not fixed with bolts? Is Shiva so cruel as to just kill a small boy without any enquiry? He could have used the boy's own severed head, which was lying there (or had it been moved away already?), to revive the boy. Why did he have to get another head? Is it not wrong to behead someone sleeping with his head to the north, for no reason at all? Some people have a pseudo-scientific answer to this. I do not quite remember it - it relates to magnetism which is said to flow from the north. Asking these questions - well, it is just not 'done'. It is said it is not advisable to investigate the origins of rivers and saints. If so, investigating the origins of deities is inexcusable! 

Well, let us leave aside the incredibility of this story. Instead, let us be grateful that the imagination of our people could give us a deity like Ganapathy. We cannot say that before this century Indians were bereft of a sense of humour. Still I have at times felt that the literature of those ages was deficient in humour. The legend of Ganesha makes up for that deficiency to some extent. I remember Masti Venkatesha Iyengar's praise of the lotus: 'Though born in mire you won renown'. Similary though fashioned from dirt, Ganapathi won world-wide fame. What an odd shape!! An elephant's head, a human body, and a broken tusk (He is 'ekadanta') and a huge tummy. We can indeed be proud that we have dared give deity such a grotesque shape. If a Christian had so portrayed God it would have been blasphemous. But our people have joyously welcomed such a form. A broken tusk, a skewed form - these may be derisive accounts. But when applied to Ganapathi they are charged with devotion. 'Vakradanta mahakaya',' Pranavaswarupavakradantam', 'Ekadantha ­mupaasmahe' - such expressions are found in hymns and devotional songs.

Evidently, bringing in the rat to carry the huge body (mahakaya) of Ganapathi was a joke. The conveyance for the comic Ganapathi is the rat! But strangely enough, when we worship Him at the time of the Ganapathi Festival, not a sense of the comic but devotion is active. My mind is pervaded by the attractiveness of this conception rather than devotion.

We have seen that Ganapathi, who logically should have been the butt of our jokes, in fact, inspires reverence in us. He can provoke laughter and also laugh at others, If we have to have a presiding deity for impishness (from among our deities) Ganapathi alone would qualify. But behind his puckishness, there is also an active mind. As the story goes, once He and Kumaraswamy quarrelled, each claiming superiority. Shiva, their father, had to resolve the dispute. He told them, "You must both set out at the same time and go round the earth. Whoever comes back first will be adjudged the superior." The two agreed. Poor Kumaraswamy trudged around the globe and returned. But Ganapathi just went round His parents once, and quietly settled down. Kumaraswamy thought, "How can this Ganapathi with His huge tummy go round the earth? Surely I will win". But lo! Ganapathi was already there, and Shiva and Paravathy were all smiles. Explaining how He had so swiftly completed the circumambulation of the earth, Ganapathi said, "The entire universe is in Shiva; I just went round Him. That's all!" This had not occurred to Kumaraswamy.

I recall a verse[i] which bears testimony to Ganapathi's sense of humour. This is the context: 'Shiva and Paravathi are engaged in a lively conversation, with little Ganapathi between them. There arises in both simultaneously, the desire to fondle Ganapathi. Their faces bend down towards Ganapathi, sitting between them. Just as they are about to kiss Him, Ganapathi suddenly draws back His head. Shiva and Paravathi kiss all right - but each other! Ganapathi smiles mischievously.

Ganapathi and excellent dishes go together. The delicious 'kadubu' is particularly associated with Him. The food on the day of His festival is a gourmet's delight. On this account we certainly owe our gratitude to Ganapathi.
But Ganapathi is not just a glutton, He loves literature too. Wasn't it He who wrote down the Mahabharatha to the dictation of Vyasa? Moreover, he is somehow linked with music. As part of His festival (Vinayaka Chouthi) music concerts are held for 10 to 15 days. All music concerts begin with songs in His praise - 'Vathapi Ganapathim', 'Siddi Vinayakam', 'Gajavadana beduve' etc.

Impishness, sociability, humour, learning, intellect, art (even dance - there are statues of dancing Ganapathi. Just imagine the huge-tummied Ganapathi dancing! His shape does not embarrass him in the least): the ability to inspire not just devotion, but even affection among people, the healthy attitude of never neglecting food - in no other deity of any religion can we find all these qualities. Our people admire this unique synthesis of qualities. That explains why every auspicious occasion begins with the worship of Ganapathi. It is not accidental that we have dwelt here at such length on Ganapathi - it is the honour due to His greatness, His pre-eminence.

How could people who created such a deity be attracted to sterile renunciation!

The Trinity

From the theological standpoint, the concept of the Trinity[ii] (Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara) represents a stage which is just one step below the zenith of human imagination. Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara perform the functions of creation, preservation and dissolution, respectively. When man rises to the level of the concept of the Trinity, the water-deities, the mountain deities and the forest deities simply disappear or are relegated to the position of servants of the trio.

Here, 'Brahama' refers to t.he 'Chaturmukha Brahama' of theology and not the 'Parabrahma' of philosophy. Brahma is already through with his function - creation. In fact, there is nothing for him to do until the current 'Shvetavaraha kalpa' runs out. It may be for this reason (according to a story, it is because of a curse from Shiva) that no temples are built for him[iii] nor is he worshipped. He is only nominally a deity. We are told that he would lose even this once the present 'kalpa' ends. Anjaneya is said to succeed him in the next 'kalpa'.

Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (left to right) at Ellora Caves
Courtesy: Wikipedia

There are any number of temples for Vishnu and Shiva where formal worship is offered. Each of them has an exclusive festival for himself - Shivarathri and Krishnashtami. Vishnu or Shiva or both of them have always remained radiant in the hearts of the Hindus. Mahalakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, and Parvathi, the wife of Shiva, are reverred and worshipped almost as much as their husbands are.

Although we have divided the (cosmic) functions and entrusted 'preservation' to Vishnu and 'dissolution' to Shiva, yet, there is within us, the underlying feeling that in truth they are one. We are familiar with the lines: 'Shivaya Vishnu roopaya Shivaroopaya Vishnuve' (Shiva, taking the form of Vishnu, and Vishnu taking the form of Shiva)[iv], "Shivasya hridayam Vishnuhu Vishnoshcha hridayam Shivah" (Vishnu is the heart of Shiva: Shiva is the heart of Vishnu). Harihara, Shankaranarayana - such names reflect only this idea that the two different deities are indeed one. There are temples dedicated to a deity combining these names.

Still, the idea that Shiva and Vishnu are separate is quite deep-rooted in the Hindu psyche. The Smartha community worships both Vishnu and Shiva, but not with the belief that the two are one. This is true not only of laymen. Even learned men and scholars talk of Vishnu and Shiva being separate or of one being superior to the other and so on. Then there are also those who love one deity but cannot bring themselves to give up the other ­they want to eat their cake and have it, too! One such person (I do not remember who) wrote a verse which can be summarized thus: "Certainly I am a Shaiva; I regularly chant the panchakshari. Still my mind lingers with the smiling face of Krishna, radiant like the agase flower, and the darling of the Gopis." This is a liberal-minded author. Perhaps, if engaged in a debate, he would have argured that Vishnu and Shiva are in fact one. But the verse does not transcend the duality of Visnu and Shiva. Vishnu is the Supreme God of the Madhwas and the Srivaishnavas, and Shiva of the Shaivas.

[i] I do not remember the poet. The verse:
Yugapat swagandachumbanalolou pitarau nirikshya herambah | Thanumukhamelanakuthuki swananamapaneeya panhasan paayat ||

[ii] That the Trinity are one single person performing three types of functions is the highest stage. There are 'Thimurthi' icons which present a single human body with three faces.

[iii] I have heard that there is only a single temple dedicated to Brahma in India. I remember reading in the newspapers recently that now (1989) some traditionalists are planning to build thousands of temples dedi­cated to Brahma.

[iv] Shiva vayam, na khalu tatra vichaaraneeyam;
Panchaakshareejapaparaa nirathaam, tathapi |
Cheto madeeyamavathaseekusumaavabhaasam
 Smeraananam smarathi Gopadvadhuukishoram ||

Akkihebbalu Narasimha Murthy Rao (June 16, 1900—August 23, 2003) was an eminent Kannada writer.  He was the first Director of Kannada and Culture Department of the Karnataka Government.

His popular book, Devaru (God), won (1992) the Pampa Award instituted by the Government of Karnataka.

This is the Chapter-2 of the book, which was translated into English by Prof LS Seshagiri Rao and published by Kannada Sahitya Parishath, Bangalore in 1995.


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