Colonialists were never able to come to terms with a people who worship a god with an elephant head.
But all throughout India, people had their reasons to worship and celebrate Ganapati.
The year was 1944. With the 'Quit India' movement and the Indian National Army (INA), the Indian struggle for Independence had achieved a new momentum.
That year, Winston Churchill, who through the Bengal Famine, had wiped out three million people the previous year, was deeply moved by a newly published book.
The book was Verdict on India written by a Beverley Nichols, and was an argument against giving Hindus, specifically Hindus, freedom.
Pakistan was fine. But giving freedom to Indians with Hindus as a majority was wrong, it argued.
In his book, ‘by way of foreword’, Nichols had trained his guns on an interesting target to prove the ‘civilisational superiority of Christendom over the Hindus’ — Ganesha.
I shall never forget my first visit to a Ganesh temple. It was in Bangalore. ... The sun shone on a tiny building of crumbling brick, and inside this building, the monster squatted awaiting us. He was carved from a single hulk of black shining stone, and his trunk and his misshapen limbs were contorted like angry serpents. The forgotten sculptor who had evoked this creature from the rock, so many centuries ago, was a genius, but he was — I felt — an evil genius, a man possessed. For this Ganesh was imbued with a malevolent life; in the fading light his limbs seemed to twitch, as though impelled by ancient lusts. He would escape if he wanted; a flick of that sinuous trunk, a gesture of those twisted arms, and the walls would crumble, and he would walk abroad in the darkness.
A true Christian and a colonialist, Nichols was scandalised that Hindus not only defend this ‘monster’ but even continue to worship it.
To show how Hindus defend Ganesha, he quoted C Rajagopalachari, ‘ex-President of Congress and one of Gandhi's closest friends’. Rajaji had said:
People of the West might not find beauty in Ganesh and might say that the figure was funny and that at best it was a mascot. But to the Hindus, Ganesh represents the sense of universal unity ... beauty and ugliness are combined to make one ineffable beauty in Him. He has the body of a fat man and the head of an elephant, with a mouse as His vehicle. He is fond of good eating but He is not stupid as a Westerner might suggest. We are a curious people, let us continue to be curious, that is my prayer.
If anything, this explanation by Rajaji angered him even more. If it was a ‘strange thing when a man must apologise for his God’, it was ‘an even stranger thing when, having apologised, he continues to worship.’
It may not be a coincidence that every Hindu-hater, from Beverley Nichols with his fanatic Christian supremacist convictions to E V Ramasamy with his pseudo-rationalism as well as Dravidian racism, to Paul Courtright with his pretensions of Freudian deconstruction, loves to hate Ganesha.
The reason may be that Ganesha embodies in Him the core civilisational ethos of this culture so boldly and vibrantly that the hatred for His form is instantaneous.
What are those core values?
In 1941, Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswati of Kanchi Math was at the port town of Nagapattinam for his Chaturmasya Virata. He narrates an interesting event that happened then.
They were breaking coconuts in front of Ganesha (who is called in Tamil Nadu as Pillayar — ‘Pillai’ meaning child). Pointing it as ‘a custom peculiar to the Tamil province’, Swamigal explains:
The people of the Math tried to regulate the mob of children, fearing they might fall on the Swami. So they shouted at the children not to mob and move away. A boy among those children looked at the person who shouted and said in a very clear voice: “After breaking coconut to Pillayar, only we children have the right to the pieces. Then you do not have the right to tell us not to come.” It was seeing the strength of truth in the voice of the child that I got fully convinced that the right of coconuts broken for Ganesha completely belong to the children.Theivathin Kural - Vol.I emphasis added
Thus, Ganesha infuses even in our children the right to food and then, it is no wonder that the cohort of Churchill who engineered the Bengal famine developed an innate hatred for the form of Ganesha.
He also destroys the false distinctions between the divine, the human and the non-human forms of life. He at once combines the non-human animal, the human form and the divine form (in the form of four hands).
For those civilisations which have thrived on the bifurcation of the divine and the human as well as human and the non-human as unbridgeable categories, what can be more shocking?
And this shock can only increase when Darwinian science also blurs the boundaries between the human and the non-human.
Today, the origin of Ganesha, the elephant-headed God of Hindu Dharma, is widely limited to one particular Puranic version. In this, Parvati creates Ganesha to protect her privacy and Shiva, infuriated by Ganesha challenging his right to enter Parvati's mansion, beheads him.
Later realising what he has done, Shiva gets the head of an elephant and attaches it to the body of the boy, creating the beloved form of the deity whom Hindus love so much.
In 2014, in a jovial way, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of this as the first plastic surgery and the ‘righteous indignation brigade’ went into hyper-action. “Mixing mythology and science” got essentialised as the RSS way of looking at history or rather pseudo-history.
As late as August 2019, almost after five years, this casual remark by the PM was dug out by a columnist who explained seriously its impossibility pointing out ‘a large human neck’s circumference would be around 48cm, while the smallest baby elephant’s neck would be around 120cm.’
Then he went on to declare in a pompous manner that ‘if Ganesh was not a human who needed plastic surgery, the plastic surgeon had to be a senior god who created junior gods.’
What Prime Minister made was not a policy statement. It was stated more in a lighter vein than in any seriousness that Ganesha should have been the first person to have undergone plastic surgery.
That being said, one need not think of it as literal but that the poets who sang the Puranas could conceive of an animal organ being transplanted to a human body is in itself a leap for human imagination.
So one wonders who is really against scientific temper — the PM or the columnists and outrage brigade which cling on to an off-the-cuff remark as if it has become the policy statement of the government.
Yet these are worrying times, particularly when it comes to Puranas. Everywhere in the world including the so-called Abrahamic religions, even history-specific narratives are being turned into poetic metaphors.
In the West, the rationalist secular human movements have played a great role in that transformation. Of course, there is a fundamentalist backlash which is a different story.
In India, the situation is tragically different.
As this writer has often pointed out, the so-called rationalists here take a literal, fundamentalist view of Puranas here and the so-called believers (for that is a wrong word for Hindus) often take a view of their deities as symbolic realities at another level.
The belief that the constant, high-voltage propaganda over the elephant-headed deity is nothing but a vile superstition brought by the Brahmins is in a way yielding results.
Spurred by inferiority complex, there are Hindus who look to explain their deities using terms such as ‘ancient aliens’. Not long ago, a famous Guru was recycling the decapitation of Ganesha by Shiva, with a liberal ascription of ‘alien technologies’ to his disciples.
But it cannot be emphasised enough that the decapitation story is only one of the many in the Puranas. And in South India, where Ganesha worship has a tremendous influence, there are other Puranic origins which do not need either ancient plastic surgery or alien technology to explain the elephant-headed God.
In Tamil tradition, the story of Ganesha’s origin that is emphasised is different. Thirumurga Krupananda Vaariyar narrates this thus:
In Kailasha is the famous hall of 70 million Mantric paintings. One day, Siva and Parvati visited this hall. They both looked at two representations of Pranava Mantra —Vyashti Pranava and the Samashti Pranava. When Siva and Parvati looked at them, they both merged and came out as the elephant-headed God Vinayaka.Pillayar Perumai, 1976
That Ganesha arose from the gaze of the Goddess is also stated in Sri Lalita Sahasranama (names 76 and 77) . S V Radhakrishna Shastri, in his commentary based on that of the famous commentator Bhaskararaya describes:
Because of the power structures of delusion created by the demonic forces, the Devas lost their fighting ability. Laziness, sleep, depression, loss of vigour, feeling inferior, delusion and loss of self-respect — all these eight characteristics developed in the army of the Devas. Even the generals of the army of the Goddess could not enthuse their warriors. When the Goddess was informed of this, She looked at the face of Siva who was seated next to Her as Kameswara and from His face emerged the elephant headed Ganesha embracing His consort Vallabai. He had 10 hands (along with the trunk 11) and in them He had the pomegranate, mace, bow made of sugarcane, Trident, discus, conch, binding rope, Nymphaeaceae flower, rice grains, His own tusk and a pot made of precious gems.Sri Lalitha Sahasranama Sthothram with commentary, 1979
Then, Ganesha destroyed the delusional power structures created by the demonic forces and thus freed the army of the Goddess from the sense of defeatism, inferiority and loss of self-respect.
No wonder then that Lokmanya Bal Gangadara Tilak used Ganesha to shatter the Tamasic tendencies engulfing the nation and rouse it to fight against the forces of colonialism.
It is to the credit of Saiva Siddhanta in Tamil Nadu that the inner significance of Ganesha worship has been turned into a very popular one.
Here, Ganesha represents the very basis of Hindu Dharma — unity and diversity — the one becoming the many and the many grounded their essence in the One. He is also Pranava Swarupa — or the very form of the Omkara.
Saiva Siddhanta scholar Vidwan Arunai Vadivelu Mudaliyar explains:
In the auspicious form of Vinayaka, the four-handed form shows the Deva nature while the elephant-ears, trunk as well as the tusks show the animal nature; the big pot belly and the small legs show the Bhuta nature. The asymmetry of tusks with its absence in the right side shows the feminine and the masculine forms united in Him. The different categories we see namely ‘Ahirinai’ (non-human intelligence) and ‘Uyarthinai’ (human and supra-human intelligence), male and female, the celestials, the animals and goblins etc. in all these the Ganesha exists as the inner essence and He is in fact all these diverse forms, is well illustrated by His very adorable form.Vinayagar Vazhipaatu Nool, 1958
Most Western Indologists and their brown-skinned clones have often concentrated on the speculative ethnic origins of this elephant-headed deity. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidianists routinely call Him as a Brahminical alien deity brought in to enslave Tamils.
When that could not get enough traction, it was claimed that the decapitation and attachment of elephant head was symbolic of crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. However, Tamil Nadu used Ganesha to disseminate the highest spiritual wisdom of Hindu civilisation through a hymn to Ganesha.
Vinayakar Akaval (hymn in praise of Vinayaka in peacock-sound genre) is a hymn composed by Avvaiyaar — a poetess who probably lived around 10th century. The hymn, today famous throughout Tamil Nadu, particularly memorised by children at a very early age, is an exposition of the deepest Yogic path — combining both bhakti and yoga in an ingeniously harmonious way.
Thus, throughout history and culture, Ganesha represents the deepest spiritual reality and the height of Hindu civilisation. Naturally, He attracts attacks of the enemies of this civilisation. But he endures and protects.
With his elephant head, fat body, four arms and a mouse as vehicle, He is loved by all. He is especially dear to children. We grow up to love this form filled with paradoxes and it — for the inwardly oriented ones — becomes an eternal koan for meditation.
He who harmonises all opposing categories makes us embrace differences with respect and love. For the seekers of material prosperity, he is a deity who removes obstacles to prosperity. He also teaches us to fight against the aggressor, like he did with his very own tusk.
Ganesha is thus a quintessential universal deity who embodies in him the complete biological and spiritual evolution of this entire planet.