THE JOYOUS ELEPHANT-FACED DEITY known as Ganesa is revered by one billion Hindus worldwide, and though his worship has little place in the modern-day Hare Krsna movement, his personality and pastimes are part of ISKCON's heritage.
Ganesa is often seen as the creator and remover of obstacles, as the guardian at entrances, and as a spiritually potent figure who can avert all evil influences. In popular Hindu lore he is thus the god to be worshiped first, before all religious ceremonies, public and private. Things tend to start off with Ganesa, and this is reflected even in common idiomatic phrases. For example, in Maharashtra when a dedication or inauguration is to be performed, a Marathi speaker may refer to the occasion as Sri ganesa karane ("doing the Sri Ganesa"). Another such expression is ganapatice kele ("to conceive a child"). Similar phrases are found in other Indian languages.
Since Ganesa is considered the lord of beginnings, for the first installment in this series about the demigods we start with him.
According to the Vedic literature, behind the workings of the cosmos stand powerful controllers, known as devas, or demigods. As we people in this world control our cars or homes, the devas control various aspects of the cosmos.
Ganesa is a popular hero whose image adorns the walls of shops, homes, and temples throughout India. Even for people unfamiliar with Indian culture or the Vedic literature, Ganesa is perhaps the easiest of all demigods to identify, with his human body, elephant head, and potbelly. He is usually pictured standing, sitting, or dancing, with his jolly elephant face looking straight ahead. Ganesa is at times depicted with quill on palm leaf, for as Vyasa dictated the Mahabharata, Ganesa served as the scribe to write it down.
Ganesa is missing one tusk, a piece of which can sometimes be found in one of his four hands. In another hand he sometimes holds a hatchet (parasu), which, according to some texts, is for cutting away illusion and false teachings. Another of Ganesa's hands often gestures fearlessness and reassurance (varada-hasta-mudra). He also holds a goad (ankusa) like that used by an elephant trainer, symbolizing his insistence on proper training or spiritual discipline. He sometimes holds a noose (pasa) used for restraining wild animals, here representing the restraint of passion and lustful desires. Sometimes he is seen holding sweets (modaka), for which he is said to have an inordinate fondness. Hence the belly.
Who is this strange-looking god, and what, if anything, does he have to do with the worship of Krsna or Visnu?
Vedic texts reveal that Ganesa is the son of Siva and Parvati, although his sonship like that of his half-brother, Skanda-Subrahmanya, is peculiar. Ac cording to one version, Siva "emits" from his body a handsome son who becomes a seducer of women. Parvati is offended by her son's exploits and curses him to have the head of an elephant and a big belly-in other words, to be ugly. Though with this he would seem fated to celibacy, he gradually settles down with two wives: Buddhi ("wisdom") and Siddhi ("success"), who can see beyond his physical ugliness.
As time passes, Ganesa becomes the commander of Siva's troops (gana- isa or gana-pati), and because he be comes famous as one who creates obstacles for the demons and removes obstacles for the demigods or the devotees, he is known as Vighnesvara ("lord of obstacles") and Vinayaka ("one who removes [obstacles]"). The "obstacle" theme also tells us why Ganesa uses a rat as his vehicle. As rodents generally succeed in gnawing their way through any obstruction, the rat, it is said, symbolizes Ganesa's ability to destroy every obstacle.
In another, more popular version of the Ganesa story, Parvati, wanting to seclude herself from her passionate husband, Siva, especially while bathing, creates a son from her perspiration and appoints him the guardian of her quarters. Soon after, when Siva seeks admission into Parvati's inner chambers, Ganesa, unaware of Siva's identity, refuses him, pushing him away from Parvati's door; Not one to be slighted, the enraged Siva summons his attendants (ganas) to do away with this bothersome upstart. But Ganesa defeats them one by one. Finally Visnu arrives, and drawing upon His maya (mystic potency) He creates confusion on all sides. This enables Siva to cut off Ganesa's head.
Parvati, furious at what has become of her "son," decides to send a multitude of goddesses to harass the demigods. These celestial women succeed in making it clear to the noble gods that their queen can be appeased only if her guardian is revived. Siva then tells the gods to go north and cut off the head of the first living being they see. The head is to be mystically placed on the body of the decapitated Ganesa, who will then come back to external consciousness. As fate would have it, the first living being to cross the path of the gods is an elephant.
The various Ganesa stories described above -- found primarily in the Siva Purana and the Brahma-vaivarta Purana -- are somewhat divergent, and tradition accounts for this by placing the variations in different cycles of cosmic time. "Because of the distinction between kalpas [ages]," the Siva Purana explains, "the story of Ganesa's birth is told in different ways." The cyclical structure of Vedic time allows for repeated descents of the Lord and His devotees, so details of the pastimes may vary.
According to popular Indian tradition, Ganesa is a benign and helpful deity who brings success and assures worldly well-being. Since devotees of Krsna are more interested in spiritual realization than in worldly security, ISKCON tends to forgo the worship of Ganesa. Lord Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita (9.23), "Those who are devotees of other gods and worship them with faith actually worship only Me, 0 son of Kunti, but they do so in a wrong way." Lord Krsna uses the word avidhi purvakam: "in an inappropriate way." Why is such worship of demigods inappropriate? Because it is materially motivated. As Lord Krsna says, "Men in this world desire success in fruitive activities, and therefore they worship the demigods." (Bg. 4.12)
Since we are essentially spiritual beings in a material body, material rewards can never truly satisfy us. Only spiritual rewards are satisfying for a spirit soul. Therefore Srila Prabhupada concurring with the above two Gita texts, says "[To worship] Ganapati is not required, but sometimes we do it. Just like the gopis-they worshiped Goddess Durga, Katyayani. They did not require to worship her, but that was part of the social system. But they asked, Mother Katyayani, give us the opportunity to have Krsna as our husband. Their aim was Krsna." (Morning walk, Los Angeles, January 10, 1974)
So the worship of Ganesa, like that of his mother, Durga (Parvati), is not condemned, but it should be done for the proper reasons: Ganesa is a devotee of Lord Krsna, and we can pray to him to remove obstacles on the road to Krsna consciousness. In this regard, Brahma- Samhita (5.50) explains that Ganesa is Krsna's devotee. The success achieved by worshiping Ganesa depends on Lord Krsna, and therefore such worship should ultimately be directed to Krsna: "For the power to destroy all obstacles to progress in the three mundane worlds, Ganesa holds on his elephant head the lotus feet of Govinda. I worship Govinda, Krsna, the primeval Lord."
Satyaraja Dasa is a disciple of Srila Prabhupada and a regular contributor to Back to Godhead. He has written several books on Krsna consciousness. He and his wife live in New York City.