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The Destroyer of Obstacles

Let us think of the one-toothed, let us meditate on the crooked trunk, may that tusk direct us. One tusk, four arms, carrying noose and goad, with His hands dispelling fear and granting boons, with a mouse as his banner.

Red, with a big belly, with ears like winnowing baskets, wearing red, with limbs smeared in red scent, truly worshipped with red flowers. To the devoted a merciful Deva, the Maker of the World, the Prime Cause, who at the beginning of creation was greater than gods and men.

He who always meditates thus is a Yogin above Yogins.

Hail to the Lord of Vows, hail to Ganapati, hail to the First Lord, hail unto you, to the Big-Bellied, One-tusked, Obstacle-destroyer, the Son of Shiva, to the Boon-Giver, Hail, hail.

From the Ganesha Upanishad

Ganesha, the elephant-headed one, is one of the most popular deities of India. All auspicious events begin with an invocation to him. He is invoked before an act of business or trade, or before laying the first stone of a new building.

Images of Ganesha may be found in many different places - at the entrance to villages, drawn on the pavement in cities, or in wayside shrines on lonely roads. Reverence and devotion to Ganesha has spread from India, Tibet and Nepal, throughout south-east Asia and as far as Mexico.

Ganesha is usually portrayed as having the head of an elephant and the body of a huge-bellied man. In some depictions he is standing, whilst in others he may he dancing or sitting. As with the iconography of other Indian deities, the number of heads or arms an image of Ganesha possesses may vary. Ganesha is often shown wearing a serpent for a girdle and riding a mouse.

Significantly, unlike other deities of the Hindu pantheon, there are no strict rules or canons binding the form his worship may take. He may be revered in any form. Ganesha is addressed in hymn and prayer by many different titles such as Vinayaka (remover of hindrances), or Vakratunda (of the twisted trunk). Prayers to Ganesha ask for the removal of obstacles from the path of the devotee, and for success in one’s endeavours.

We can read "Ganesha" in several ways. Firstly, he is the Lord of the Ganas - the host of Shiva’s spirit-horde. It is suggested that he rules the Ganas primarily by his great wisdom and intelligence. Secondly, we can read "Ganesha" as Lord of the categories of existence - i.e. of everything in the manifest universe.

The origins of Ganesha

It is generally agreed by scholars that the origins of Ganesha predate the Vedic era, and the theory has been advanced that the elephant-headed god was first worshipped as both a scribe and a harvest deity by the tribes of the Nagas - the ancient pre-Vedic peoples who once ruled over most of India. The earliest forms of Ganesha are to be found in the Deccan region of Southern India, where sugarcane was, and remains, a major crop. These images are often related to the Seven Mothers the Saptamatrika, a group of fertility goddesses. Primitive images of Ganesha, particularly those found under trees, are often accompanied by Naga stones depicting coiling snakes.

The Naga tribes were animists, worshipping countless nature spirits known as Yakshas or Ganas. Both the Mahabharata and the Grihyasutras describe these nature spirits as being malevolent and evil-natured.

Hidden within such descriptions are the echoes of the clash between the fair-skinned, sun-worshipping invaders, and the dark, mysterious peoples of the forests and mountains.

The Vedic tradition is permeated by an ambivalent attraction and repulsion towards the mysteries of nature, magic and the unknown. Ganeshas relationship to the Ganas is particularly interesting, as these dwarf-like entities (often misidentified as demons) are part of the host of Shiva. One legend has it that the Ganas were once humans, who had won the favour of Shiva by austerities and pilgrimages. They often attended Shiva in the cremation ground, and loved music and dancing.

The birth of Ganesha

There are many legends describing the circumstances of the birth of Ganesha. In one of the Puranic tales, the Devas approached Shiva asking for help, as they were under attack by demons. Shiva graciously consented to aid them and out of his mind there appeared the glowing figure of a child with the head of a powerful elephant. It is said that Parvati, on seeing this beautiful child, placed him on her lap and decreed that no endeavour, whether it be by mortal or god, would be successful if prayers were not offered to the child. Shiva made the elephant-child lord of his Ganas.

Another version of the birth of Ganesha has it that Ganesha was formed from the sweat of Parvati as she rubbed herself with sweet oils and powders. Parvati lowered the child into the River Ganga, whereon he grew into a large being. Here Ganesha is given the title Dvaimatura - the son of two mothers, as he is both the son of Parvati and the river Goddess Ganga.

Attributes of the God

Attempting to provide a clear interpretation of the symbolic attributes associated with Ganesha can be a daunting task, and much depends on whether one is examining the god from a Brahmanic or a Tantric viewpoint. However, the following general comments can be made.

All the qualities of elephants are signified by Ganesha’s head. These are the qualities of strength, auspiciousness, and wisdom. Like the elephant, Ganesha can be powerful and destructive, yet he is similarly loyal, kind and may be swayed by the affection of his devotees. His large ears - like winnowing baskets - sift truth from untruth, and recall the Vedic axiom that learning may only take place at the feet of the guru. A tantric interpretation of this idea is that learning can only take place when one has quelled the internal dialogue and learnt to listen attentively to the world as it is, rather than how one would like it to be. To Ganeshas trunk is attributed the quality of discrimination - the primary quality required for any kind of spiritual progression. The elephant uses its trunk to perform both delicate and brutal tasks. Ganesha’s trunk may also represent the root-mantra OM.

Ganesha’s most unusual facet is his single tusk, the other having broken off. This assymetrism goes against the Hindu obsession with balance and orderliness. There are several legends which account for this. In one legend, Ganesha’s tusk is broken when he is struck at by Parashurama, an avatar of Vishnu whom Ganesha had prevented from entering the chambers of his father, Shiva.

However, another legend harks back to Ganesha’s pre-Vedic roots as a sacred scribe, as the story tells of how Ganesha wrote the Mahabharata. According to this legend, the sage Vyasa, the author of this epic, was advised by Brahma to ask Ganesha to be the scribe.

Ganesha agreed to this, on the condition that Vyasa would dictate continually, without pause. Vyasa agreed to this, adding his own condition that Ganesha should understand every word and phrase and its implications before writing it down. This gave Vyasa time to compose a few stanzas mentally and dictate them when Ganesha was ready. Ganesha used his broken tusk as a quill.

Om Ganapati namah

Another unusual aspect to Ganesha is his vehicle or mount, the mouse. Unlike other vehicles such as Garuda, who are venerated in their own right, Ganesha’s mouse seems to be largely ignored. One interpretation of the relationship between Ganesha and his mount suggests that the god is paired with a mouse or rat to signify that one of his attributes is the power to keep pests under control, in the same way that Shiva is often shown dancing atop a squirming asura (demon). One of the Puranic legends tells how Ganesha fought with the demon Gajamukha, and defeated him by breaking off his right tusk and hurling it at the demon, cursing him to change into a mouse. Ganesha then made the mouse his vehicle, thus keeping it under control.

This having been said, there is also a positive side to the mouse. The mouse is able to gnaw its way past, or slip under seemingly impassable obstacles. Thus the mouse may represent the qualities of cunning or subtlety. There is also an undeniably comic aspect to the images of Ganesha seated upon a mouse, recalling once more that Ganesha is very much a playful god, a divine child beloved of gods and mortals alike.

Circling the World

Ganesha’s playful wisdom is perhaps best illustrated in the story of his race with his brother Kartikeya. The story is that Shiva and Parvati had been given a fruit which contained the nectar of divine knowledge and immortality. Both Ganesha and Kartikeya coveted this fruit, and so Shiva and Parvati decreed that the brothers should race for it. The first of the two to circle the world three times and return would receive the fruit. The warrior-like Kartikeya at once leapt upon his peacock mount and sped off, stopping off at all sacred places to offer up devotions.

Now Ganesha knew that he would never beat Kartikeya riding on his mouse, so he merely walked around his parents Parvati and Shiva three times. When asked why he was not circling the earth with his brother, Ganesha replied that his parents - Shiva and Shakti have the whole universe within them, and that he need go no further than this. Charmed by his wisdom and cunning, Shiva and Parvati granted him the fruit, thus pointing to the importance of intelligence and wisdom over strength or physical achievements. In another version of this story, Ganesha wins for himself his consorts or Shaktis -Siddhi (achievement) and Buddhi (wisdom).

Ganesha worship

Puja (worship or ritual) is the most common way of propitiating Ganesha. Tuesdays and Fridays are days that are seen as being particularly good for Ganesha Puja. Young girls in Tamil Nada perform Tuesday Ganesha puja for a year, as it is believed that this will bring them a good husband and home. Sankarahara Chaturthi is a special day for rituals to remove sorrows. There is also the tantric equivalent of a magical retirement whereby puja is performed daily for 41 days.

Ganesha may be invoked here in his form, Mulahadra Ganapati. Mulahadra is the root-support chakra, whose symbolic vehicle is an elephant, and which is the seat of Kundalini-Shakti - the serpent power which binds all forms in equilibrium. The aim here is not so much to force the arousal of Kundalini, but to strip away the veils of conditioning and illusion until one feels the power of Kundalini working through you. Obviously, one way to explore this further is to meditate on Ganesha seated in the muladhara, and to meditate on how Ganesha’s qualities relates to that chakra - both in its inward and outward action.

Katon Shual, in Sexual Magick (3rd revised edition, 1996) gives an outline of an ‘astral temple’ space which features Ganesha.

In India, the great celebration of Ganesha Chaturthi takes place once a year on the fourth day of the bright fortnight of the moon-month Bhadrapada (near the end of August). Huge images of Ganesha are specially made, and after several days of celebration, then are taken in procession to be left in the sea or rivers, where they are ‘sacrificed to become one with the elements. Ganeshas filled with sweets are also popular, and on his day, one may look at the moon.

This injunction hearkens back to a legend which tells that one day, Ganesha was riding home on his mouse after partaking of a huge meal of puddings and sweets. Suddenly, his mouse was frightened by a snake and stumbled. Ganesha tumbled from his mount’s back and his over-full belly split open, spilling all the sweets and puddings. Ganesha picked up the snake and tied it around his belly as a belt. He then heard the Moon laughing at him, so he hurled his right tusk at the Moon, cursing it never again to shine at night or appear in the heavens. Without the Moon there was no night or twilight, and soon all the gods pleaded with Ganesha to relent. Ganesba then allowed the Moon to reappear, but from now it would wax and wane. It is said that if one sees the moon during Ganesha Chaturthi, one will become the victim of scandal.

The 32 aspects of Ganesha

Lists of the 32 aspects of Ganesha may well differ according to source. The aspect-names are usually followed by "… Ganapati", hence Bala Ganapati can be read as -

"The Lord of the categories who is childlike."

Title Meaning Title Meaning
Bala "Childlike" Taruna "youthful"
Bhakti "devoted" Vira "Heroic"
Sakti "Powerful" Dvija "Twice-born"
Siddhi "Accomplished" Ucchishta "Lord of Blessed Offerings"
Kshipra "quick-acting" Heramba "protector of the weak"
Lakshmi "giver of success" Maha "great"
Vijaya "victorious" Nritya "dancing"
Urdhva "elevated" Ekakshara "single lettered" [i.e. Gam]
Varada "boon-giver" Tryakshara "Lord of the 3 letters" [i.e. A-U-M]
Kshipra Prasada "quick rewarder" Haridra "the golden one"
Ekadanta "single tusk" Srishti "Lord of manifestation"
Uddandu "enforcer" [i.e. of dharma] Rinamochana "Remover of humanity’s bondage"
Dhundi "the sought-after" Dvimukha "two-faced"
Trimukha "three-faced" Simha "riding a lion"
Yoga "Great Yogi" Durga "Saviour"
Sankatahara "dispeller of sorrow"    

For example, one might meditate on "Dvija Ganapati" (Lord of the Twice-born) and in doing so try and find out more about the phrase "twice-born" and it’s significance in Hindu/tantrik esoterics.

Ganesha may be propitiated to remove obstacles from the path of the devotee. In Tantrik magic this is known as klesha-smashing. The Kleshas (blocks) are the bindings of conditioned belief and response - habitual patterns of attitude and emotional loops which maintain the boundaries of our achievable reality. In the Natha tradition, the root Kleshas are Ignorance, Ego, Revulsion, Attachment, and Clinging to Life. Invoke Ganesha to illuminate the dark corners of your psyche, to open the doors marked "I dare not enter here". Ritual is not enough. What matters is thought, world and deed - action in the everyday world. The results of each act of magic must be made flesh. Each knot unbound is a release; an orgasmic realisation of the dizzying freedom open to us beyond the artificial limitations we set up for ourselves. The Mudgala Purana lists 8 forms of Ganesha who mastered 8 demons or weaknesses:

Dhumravna [smoke-coloured] vs Abhimana [pride]
Vaklatunda [twisted trunk] vs Matsurya [jealousy]
Mahodra [big belly] vs Moha [infatuation]
Gajanana [Elephant face] vs Lobha [greed]
Lambodara [corpulent belly] vs Krodha [anger]
Vikata [deformed] vs Kama [lust]
Vighnaraja [King of Obstacles] vs Mamata [ego]

A short puja

Obtain an icon or painting of Ganesha and place it on a small pedestal facing the rising sun.

In front of the image, draw a swastika in red paint on paper, and light candles and joss sticks around the image of Ganesha.

A simple and effective invocation of Ganesha is to meditate upon him taking form within your belly, and reflecting upon the qualities he embodies which you wish to emulate. A simple mantra such as OM GANAPATI NAMAH (obeisance to the Lord of the Categories) can be used. This meditation is known as "Internal Worship" and is followed by "External Worship" - breathing out the Ganesha within into his image or icon. The Ganesha indwelling the image may then be worshipped, by offerings of fire, incense, sandalwood, red paste, red flowers, water, music and of course, sweets. You may also offer him your experiences - "Om Ganapati, I offer the great laugh which burst from me when I listened to Howard Stern this morning." In return for your heartfelt offerings, Ganesha might well grant you a boon.

Useful Books

Ganapati: Song of the Self - John A. Grimes (State University of New York Press)

Loving Ganesha - Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami

Ganesha … the Auspicious - the Beginning - S. Jagannathan & N. Krishna

Sexual Magick - Katon Shual, Mandrake of Oxford

Tantra Magick - AMOOKOS, Mandrake of Oxford

This essay is based on "The Sacred Elephant" first published in Talking Stick magazine, issue 28 (Spring 1995) and "The Destroyer of Obstacles" first published in Chaos International No.15.