One of the books I bought while in Chicago recently is, “The Book of Ganesha” by Royina Grewal. I’ve only read the introduction and part of the first chapter, but it’s already been really interesting. Some of what I’ve read I’m not sure how I feel about – stuff like the Aryan Invasion Theory, which this book seems to support. But generally, most all of what I’ve read would be classified as myths surrounding Ganesha’s origin. I love this stuff.
After reading through a number of origin stories I came to one I was less familiar with. Actually, I was familiar with it superficially, but hadn’t looked into it much. As it turns out, the following story is one created by Vaishnavs for, what I perceive, are very obvious purposes.
“Such was the popularity of the elephant-headed deity that the Vaishnavas also wished to claim Him as their own and developed myths to establish the connection of Ganesha with Vishnu. One presents Ganesha as an incarnation of Krishna, with Shani instead of Shiva as the agent of beheading. And it is Vishnu who revives Ganesha and grants him his special status.
(And the story goes…)
Shiva advised Parvati, who wanted to have a son, to propitiate Vishnu and observe vratas (fasts and rituals) in his honor for a year. “Then,” he said, “The lord of gopikas, Krishna himself, will be born as your son.” Parvati observed the vrata, and to her immense joy, Krishna was born to her as an infant of unparalleled beauty.
All the gods came to pay homage to Parvati’s new son. The great ascetic Shani, son of Surya, was among them but he kept his eyes cast down and would not look at the child. When Parvati asked him the reason for this, he explained that once he had been so absorbed in the contemplation of lord Vishnu that he had not noticed his wife’s attempts to gain his attention. Furious that her fertile time would pass unfulfilled, she had cursed him, saying that anything his eyes rested upon would be destroyed. It was because of this that he would not look at the child.
Parvati and her attendants mocked Shani, and she demanded that he admire her son. And so with great fear, and only out of the corner of his eye, Shani looked at Parvati’s infant and his glance instantly severed the child’s head. Vishnu, moved by the mother’s grief, flew off on Garuda towards the north. He brought back the head of a young elephant which he joined to the headless body of Parvati’s son, reviving him. Vishnu blessed “Krishna-Ganesha” thus: May your puja be performed before that of any other god. May you be situated in all venerable beings and may you be the best among yogis. This is my boon to you. ”
Thus ends the Vaishnav origin of my ishtadevata. Does anyone else find it “typical” that Vishnu is in the spotlight so much in this rendition?
1) Parvati had to appease Vishnu to win His favor, which took a year.
2) After winning favor, Parvati is the lucky gal who gets to birth the all-star, Krishna (Vishnu).
3) All the gods paid homage to Her son, who is Krishna/Vishnu
4) An ascetic devotee of none other than Vishnu had the curse (power?) which severed the head of the infant Krishna (an interesting paradox, indeed).
5) Vishnu, who came to adore His own infant form, was also the one who saved the day by getting a new head for the baby AND being responsible for reviving him.
6) A wond’rous boon was afforded the babe, who is Krishna, by Sri Vishnu – just because?
So Vishnu gave the blessing, which was conveniently His own appearance. Then somebody who loved Vishnu “too much” was responsible for the child’s death, which allowed Vishnu – who had arrived solely to adore His own infant self – to become the hero and fix a mess that, at best, He’d only indirectly caused. And as icing on the cake, he gave a boon to His infant self.
A better-known version of Ganesha’s origin seems more balanced, impartial, and frankly more reasonable: Shiva (traditionally known as the master of all yogis) had been away for a while meditating (as the master of all yogis would be inclined to do) when Parvati decided to create a child/guardian of Her own body. Shiva comes back and ignorantly makes a mess of the situation because He isn’t aware that the child is essentially His. When Parvati sees the mess, She threatens to annihilate all of existence in Her grief. To prevent this, Shiva ends up with an elephant head, which he installs on the child’s body and restores to life. Then because He’s the one who made the mess to begin with, He not only makes everything right again, but adds icing on top with a boon that requires “sacrifice” on His own part – which is to give Ganesha dominion over His (Shiva’s) gunas, among other aspects of the boon.
I personally find this version to be far less lop-sided than the Vaishnava version. From the beginning it follows basic foundational concepts of Hinduism: Parvati, the Mother, is where everything comes from and it’s from Her body that Ganesha is formed – like everything else in existence. Her very upset threatens the entirety of existence, which makes sense because “everything” is energy, aka Shakti, aka The Mother – which further supports that Ganesha should have come from Her to begin with. Then Shiva, the one who jacked everything up because of His own yogic imbalance, is the rightly one who made everything good again through His own effort and sacrifice – aka the Law of Karma.
And finally what you’re left with is Ganesha: The universal symbol of Hinduism regardless of sect, second only to Om itself – which He’s also uniquely recognized as the embodiment of. His strange form transcends reason and conceptual limitation, just as with Brahman Itself. His form is also a poetic combination of natural and supernatural, magic and mundane, creator and creation – signifying not only the indefinable nature of our Source, but also that He’s the harmony found perfectly situated at the center of every paradox. He rules all karmas, as no substantial action should be started without Him, and no barrier can be erected or removed without Him. He’s known to be the ruler of the Muladhara Chakra and is known to be “centered in the chest where the breath is felt” which tells us that He’s the closest to us, the most easily accessed, the true Starting Point, and intimately connected to our very existence. No other conception of God is worshipped successfully without first worshipping Him.
I could probably go on and on, but I bet you’re about to hurl. Fair enough. Every once in a while I just gotta make a post like this and get it out of my system. Thanks for tolerating.
Om Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha