he remover of all obstacles and bestower of wishes, he is worshipped in myriad expressions of form and material -wood, terracotta, bronze, clay, silver and stone. He is easily recognized by his elephant-head and curving trunk resting over his enormous belly.
Watercolour painting of Purnabhadra
from Rajasthan.19th century.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
Om maha Ganapathe namaha
Sarva vignoba shantaye
Om Ganeshaya namaha.
Every morning, for longer than I can remember, I have begun my day with that prayer. I learned it without being fully aware what all the Sanskrit words meant, knowing only that I was invoking, like millions of Hindus around the world, the name of the great elephant-headed god to bless all my endeavours to come.
Ganesh, or Ganapathi as we prefer to call him in the South, sits impassively on my bedroom shelf, in multiple forms of statuary, stone, metal and papier mache. There is nothing incongruous about this; he is used to worse, appearing as he does on innumerable calendars, posters, trademarks and wedding invitation cards. Paunchy, full-bodied, long-trunked (though with one broken tusk), attired in whatever costume the artist fancies (from ascetic to astronaut), Ganesh, riding his way across Indian hearts on a rat, is arguably Hinduism’s most popular divine figure.
Few auspicious occasions are embarked upon without first seeking Ganesh’s blessing. His principal attribute in Hindu mythology – a quality that flows from both his wisdom and his strength – is as a remover of obstacles to the fulfilment of desires. No wonder everyone wants Ganesh on his side before launching any important project, from starting a factory to acquiring a wife. My own courtship violated time-honoured Indian rules about caste, language, region, age and parental approval; but when we got married, my wife and I had an embossed red Ganesh adorning the front of our wedding invitations.
I have since developed an even more personal connection to Ganesh. The great 2,000-year-old epic, the Mahabharata was supposedly dictated by the sage Vedavyasa to Ganesh himself; since then, many a writer has found it helpful to invoke Ganesh in his epigraph. When I recast the characters and episodes of the Mahabharata into a political satire on 20th-century Indian history, The Great Indian Novel, I had it dictated by a retired nationalist, Ved Vyas, to a secretary named Ganapathi, with a big nose and shrewd, intelligent eyes, who enters with elephantine tread, dragging an enormous trunk behind him. Such are the secular uses of Hindu divinity.
For in my Hinduism the godhead is not some remote and forbidding entity in the distant heavens. God is immediately accessible all around us, and He takes many forms for those who need to imagine Him in a more personalized fashion. The Hindu pantheon includes thousands of such figures, great and small. Ganesh is the chief of the ganas, or what some scholars call the “inferior deities”. He is not part of the trinity of Brahma (the Creator), Shiva (the Destroyer) and Vishnu (the Preserver), who are the principal Hindu gods, the three facets of the Ultimate First Cause. But he is the son of Shiva, or at least of Shiva’s wife, Parvati (one theory is that she shaped him from the scurf of her own body, without paternal involvement).
As a writer I have always been interested in the kinds of stories a society tells about itself. So part of the appeal of Ganesh for me lies in the plethora of stories about how this most unflappable of deities lost his (original) head and acquired his unconventional appearance.
The most widely-held version is the one my grandmother told me when I was little – about the time that Parvati went to take a bath and asked her son to guard the door. Shiva arrived and wished to enter, but Ganesh was firm in his refusal. Enraged by this effrontery, Shiva cut off the boy’s head. Parvati, horrified, asked him to replace it, and Shiva obliged with the head of the first creature he could find, an elephant.
The perfect son
This was a salutary lesson in the perils of excessive obedience to your parents, though I don’t think my grandmother intended me to take it that way. My mother, who always tried unsuccessfully to resist the temptation to boast about her children, had another version: a vain Parvati asked Sham (Saturn) to look at her perfect son, forgetting that Shani’s gaze would reduce the boy’s head to ashes. Once again, an elephant’s was the head that came to hand.
Parvati asked her two sons,
Ganesh and Kartikeya, to go
around the world in a race.
Kartikeya set off at once.
Ganesh took a few steps around
his mother and sat down.
Parvati reminded him of her
challenge. “But yon are my
world and I have gone around
you,” Ganesh replied. Needless
to say, he won the race.
Growing up in an India where loyalty seems all too often on sale to the highest bidder, I could not but be impressed by Ganesh’s rare quality of stubborn devotion to duty. However he may have lost his head, it was Ganesh’s obduracy as a guard that, in my grandmother’s telling, cost him a tusk. “The powerful avatar Parasurama” she recounted, as we little ones gathered round her at dusk, “possessor of many a boon from Shiva, came to call on the Great Destroyer at his abode of Mount Kailash. Once again, Ganesh was at the door, and he refused to let the visitor disturb the sleeping Shiva. Parasurama, furious, tried to force his way in, but found Ganesh a determined opponent.” (My eyes widened in excitement at this part.) “Ganesh picked Parasurama up with his long trunk, swung him round and round till he was dizzy and helpless, and threw him to the ground. When his head cleared, Parasurama flung his axe at the obstinate Ganesh. Now Ganesh could have easily avoided the axe, but he recognized the weapon as one of Shiva’s. He could not insult his father by resisting his weapon. So he took the axe humbly upon his tusk.” Ever since, Ganesh has been depicted with only one tusk.
The missing tusk
The thrill of that story did not diminish for me when I learned the more prosaic version which says that Ganesh wore down one tusk to a stub by using it to write down the epic verse of the Mahabharata. For this reason, the missing tusk sigrufies knowledge. As I grew older, I learned A Brahmin doing Ganesh puja. of more such symbols associated lithograph by Madame Belnos. Published with Ganesh. Scholars of Hinduism 1851. Courtesy Phillips Antiques, Mumbai tell us that Ganesh’s fat body represents the hugeness of the cosmos, its combination of man and pachyderm signifying the unity of the microcosm (man) with the macrocosm (depicted as an elephant). Some suggest it has the less esoteric purpose of demonstrating that appearances mean little, and that an outwardly unattractive form can hide internal spiritual beauty.
(In any case, his looks do not prevent Ganesh, in most popular depictions, from being surrounded by beautiful women, including his twin wives, Siddhi and Buddhi.) Further, Ganesh’s trunk can be curled into the symbol “Om”, the primal sound; and the snake found coiled around his waist represents the force of cosmic energy.
“But Ammamma,” I would ask my grandmother, “why does Ganesh ride a rat?” For in most of the pictures in our prayer room, the deity is shown on this unusual mount. At the simplest level the sight of an elephantine god on a tiny mouse visually equates the importance of the greatest and smallest of God’s creatures. And, as my grandmother explained, each animal is a symbol of Ganesh’s capacities: “like an elephant, he can crash through the jungle uprooting every impediment in his path, while like the rat he can burrow his way through the tightest of defenses:” A god who thus combines the attributes of elephant, mouse and man can remove any obstacle confronting those who propitiate him. No wonder that many worship him as their principal deity, despite his formally more modest standing in the pantheon.
My own affection is for Ganesh himself
a god who cheerfully reflects our own physical
imperfections. After all, a country with
many seemingly insurmountable problems needs
a god who can overcome all obstacles.
And what is the secret of his appeal to a late-20th century urbanite like myself? As his unblinking gaze and broad brow suggest, Ganesh is an extremely intelligent god. When I was very young I heard the story of how Parvati asked her two sons, Ganesh and Kartikeya, to go around the world in a race. Kartikeya, the more vigorous and martial-minded of the two, set off at once, confident that he would encircle the globe faster than his corpulent brother. Ganesh, after resting a while, took a few steps around his mother and sat down again. Parvati reminded him of her challenge. “But you are my world,” Ganesh disarmingly replied, “and I have gone around you.” Needless to say, he won the race – and my unqualified admiration.
So it is no surprise that Ganesh is worshipped in India with not just reverence but enthusiasm. Sometimes this can be carried to extremes, as when Ganesh devotees in Western India in the 1890s allowed the bubonic plague to take many lives rather than co-operate with a British campaign to exterminate the rats that carried it (for the rats were also, after all, Ganesh’s mounts).
In late September 1995, word spread around the world that statues of Ganesh had begun drinking milk. In some cases, statues of his divine parents, Shiva and Parvati, were also reported to be imbibing these liquid offerings, but Ganesh it was who took the elephant’s share. Early on Thursday September 21, the rumours started in Delhi that the gods were drinking milk; it was said that an idol of Ganesh in a suburb of the capital had swallowed half a cup. Within hours, the frenzy had spread around the globe as reports came in of temples and private domestic shrines in places as far removed as Long Island and Hong Kong witnessing the same phenomenon. At the Vishwa temple in London’s Indian-dominated Southall district, a 15-inch statue was said to be drinking hundreds of spoons of milk offerings; the august London Times reported on its front page that “in 24 hours 10,000 saw it drink”. At the Geeta Bhavan temple in Manchester, prodigious quantities were ingested by a three-inch silver statue of Ganesh. Hard-bitten British tabloid journalists, looking for a fraud to debunk, filmed and photographed the phenomenon and professed themselves flabbergasted. “I gazed in awe,” confessed the man from the Daily Star; his rival from the Sun “gawped in disbelief”.
In India, the rationalists were quick to react. It was, they averred, a matter of simple physics. Molecules on the rough stone and marble surfaces of the statues had created a “capillary action’ which sucked in the droplets of milk. These were not really absorbed into the statue but formed a thin layer of droplets on the surface which would be visible if the statue were dark. A team of government scientists proceeded to demonstrate this on television, placing green powder in the milk and showing a green stain spreading over the face of a white marble statue. Mass hysteria was alleged; Indian priests who live off the offerings of devotees in the temples were merely trying to whip up more custom, said some; it was all politics, said others, pointing to the need for the flagging Hindutva movement to attract the credulous to their credo.
Delhi’s Pioneer newspaper published a photograph of a spout emerging from the back of a temple from which milk poured into a bucket; the implication was that it was chicanery, not divine ingestion, that accounted for the disappearing milk in the temples.
The lady of the house took us to her little shrine, an unremarkable pujaroom like so many in Hindu homes around the world. She had a number of statues and portraits, but only one was drinking milk: a tiny terracotta statue of Ganesh, no more than two and a half inches high. My Sikh friend, with trembling hand, extended her spoon towards the miniature trunk of the statue and we both watched the milk disappear into the little Ganesh. It was now my turn; with callous incompetence I held the spoon firm and level and the milk held steady. “Tilt it a bit,” our hostess urged, and when I did the milk duly disappeared into the statue. It was not as if I had poured the milk out, because then it would have flowed differently; nor was the milk simply spilled, though a couple of drops fell to the floor. Instead there seemed to be a gentle drawing out of the milk by an unknown force, perhaps capillary action. (Om capillary actioneyeh namaha?) The statue, we were told, had been “fed” some 180 times a day for eight days; surely its capillary channels and overall absorptive capacity would have been exhausted by now? As we stood mulling these thoughts, a young Indian woman in T-shirt and jeans, evidently part of the new generation of subcontinental Americans, came to take her turn before the statue. Ganesh drank willingly from her extended spoon.
The lady of the house took no money, accepted no offerings. Her husband was neither a priest nor a Hindu revivalist; he held a senior executive position in a Houston
computer firm. When we spoke to her she exuded the simple religiosity of so many middle-class, and I dare say middle-aged, women; she was touched by what was happening in her own home, she believed implicitly in the miracle, she did not question its nature or purpose, she sought nothing from it (indeed put up with considerable inconvenience because of it) except vindication of her own personal faith. Every night she bathed the little statue and put it “to bed” in a little golden throne, swaddled in muslin; the next morning Ganesh was back on the low pedestal in the puja-room, thirsty as ever.
I did not know how to react to what I had just seen. I had come out of curiosity, not to explore or affirm belief. The milk-drinking was essentially irrelevant to “my” Hinduism; my faith was neither strengthened nor exalted by the sight of a statue drinking milk, nor would it have been shaken or diluted if Ganesh had refused to imbibe. I was prepared to believe that there might be a fully rational explanation for the event, but I was equally willing to accept that something might have occurred that was not readily susceptible to the demystification of scientists. I believe the world has more questions to pose than science has yet found answers for, and so have no intellectual difficulty with the notion of the supernatural. Nor, more to the point, do the millions of devotees who flocked to temples worldwide, who saw in the phenomenon a simple message from the heavens that the gods remained interested in the affairs of ordinary mortals.
“Brit Ammamma,” I would ask my
grandmother, “why does Ganesh ride
a rat?” For in most of the pictures in our
prayer room, the deity is shown on this
unusual mount. At the simplest level the
sight of an elephantine god on a tiny mouse
visually equates the importance of the
greatest and smallest of God’s creatures.
Seated Ganesh miniature. Rajasthan. Folkstyle. 19th century. Courtesy Phillips Antiques.
The milk miracle
But Hindus have always believed that to be the case; the “milk miracle” merely reinforced an unstated assumption about the nature of the Godhead. Our gods crowd the streets, smile or frown on us from the skies, jostle us for space on the buses; they are part of our daily lives, as intimate and personal as the towels in which we wrap ourselves after a bath. If they push us out of our beds tomorrow, there will always be scientists pointing to a geological fault, but Hindus will accept the divine intent to arouse them just as they accepted the miracle of the milk.
So the intrusion of the gods into our lives through the milk-drinking episode is no great aberration. They are part of our lives anyway; we see ourselves in them, only idealized. My own affection is for Ganesh himself, a god who – overweight, long-nosed, broken-tusked and big-eared cheerfully reflects our own physical imperfections. After all, a country with many seemingly insurmountable problems needs a god who can overcome all obstacles.
Ganesh dancing with the mother goddesses.
9th century. Sandstone. Madhya Pradesh.
Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA .
When I was a child in Bombay (now Mumbai), I was enraptured once a year by the city’s great Ganesh Chathurthi festival, in which India’s bustling commercial capital gives itself over to celebration of this many-talented deity. Hundreds of statues of Ganesh (and of his beautiful wives) are made, decorated and lovingly dressed; then they are taken out across the busy city streets in a procession of over a million followers, before being floated out to sea in a triumphant gesture of release. As a little boy I stood on the beach watching the statues settle gradually into the water while the streams of worshippers dispersed. It was sad to see the giant elephant head disappear beneath the waves, but I knew that Ganesh had not really left me. I would find him again, in my wall-calendars, on my mantelpiece, at the beginning of my books – and in the prayers with which I would resume my life the morning after the festival:
Om, I invoke the name of Ganapathi;
Bringer of peace over all troubles,
Om, I invoke the name of Ganesh…..
The most interesting story
concerning Ganesh is the belief that
he was the scribe who wrote the
Mahahharata. Sage Vyasa, the author
of this epic was advised by
Brahma to ask Ganesh to be the
scribe taking down the dictation of
the epic in verse form. Ganesh used
his broken tusk to write the
Mahabharata, the longest epic the
world has ever known.