Some in Tamil Nadu denounce Ganesha as an ‘Aryan’-imported god and believe he is not an ‘original’ Tamil deity. Here’s why they are wrong:
Come the festival of Ganesha Chaturthi, the Hindu-phobic forces in Tamil Nadu offer a Pavlovian reaction. They ritualistically denounce Vinayaka as an ‘Aryan’-imported god and believe he is not an ‘original’ Tamil deity. The aversion to Ganesha comes from the ace Dravidianist Periyar E V Ramasamy (EVR). This is interesting because the worship of Ganesha in Tamil Nadu is perhaps the most ‘egalitarian’ of the worship of all gods – if such a term has to be invoked.
Pillayar (child god), as he is fondly called by Tamils, he can sit anywhere without the need for a proper temple. He can sit under the banyan tree and near a village pond. Anyone and everyone can worship him. Yet, EVR and all the black-shirt acolytes his racist movement bred, chose to target Ganesha. A quasi-academic urban legend had crept into Tamil psyche that it was only after the Pallava invasion of Vatapi in the seventh century that this god was brought into Tamil Nadu by his general Paranjyoti. Repeated in countless speeches and writings, this urban legend not only got a life of its own, but it also entered political discourse – as a proof that Ganesha was brought from the outside.
Tamil people have given a fitting reply to the racist pseudo-rationalist rejection of Ganesha by taking out massive Ganesha processions during the chaturthi, even rivalling that of their Maharashtrian counterparts.
Now the new virulent strains of Tamil separatists like Thirumurugan Gandhi and Sebastian Seeman have again started the campaign that Ganesha was not an original Tamil god.
The veneration of Ganesha and the elephant form as divine can be traced to Sangham literature itself. There are two curious references in Sangham literature which, though do not directly refer to Ganesha, nevertheless show the archaic roots of the elephant-headed god in Indic Tamil spiritual culture.
One is the song by poet Kabilar, where he is singing the generosity of Paari, an ancient Tamil chieftain. The poet says that just like god accepts the flower of Calotropis, which is considered worthless by all, similarly Paari bestows gifts upon even those whom others marginalise. Today, in Tamil Nadu, that flower is considered the favourite of Ganesha.
Epigraphist S Ramachandran opines that Ganesha might have been known to Tamil Nadu even during those times. Pari Padal, another piece of Sangham literature, speaks of how elephants were venerated in temples and the women desiring good husbands ate the leftovers of the rice balls offered to the temple elephants. Taken together, there is every possibility that the Sangham period did know the elephant divine. (See here for a detailed look at Ganesha from Harappan-Vedic times to Sangham times.)
The Pillayarpatti cave temple has been considered by scholars as belonging to the sixth century CE. Here, the elephant-headed god is depicted with two hands, and the inscription speaks of a great architect belonging to Erukaatoor.
Near Vizhupuram, in the village of Alagramam, is another Ganesha sculpture with inscription dated back to the fourth century CE. The elephant-headed god, carved in stone, measures 75 cm in height and 40 cm in width. The Ganesha with the sacred thread is seated and has two hands. Clearly, this shows that Ganesha worship was well-known in ancient Tamil Nadu.
But epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan adds an interesting aside to the sequence. He had read the inscription under the Pillayarpatti Ganesha as the Bana (bard) of Erukaatoor. Dr Nagaswamy corrected this as the great architect or builder (thatchan). Later, as a prayachita, Dr Mahadevan again visited the inscription and examined it carefully. Though works of Tamil grammar speak of the importance of keeping dots over the letters in inscriptions and edicts, such dotted letters had been seldom seen. This had been one of the problematic aspects for Tamil epigraphists. So when Mahadevan looked at the inscription at Pillayarpatti, he saw for the first time in Tamil inscriptions the use of dots. Later, they would discover in quite a few places similar inscriptions that used dots in the letters. Moved, Mahadevan writes:
Karpaga Vinayaka has gave us the solution for one of the gravest problems faced by Tamil epigraphists in the evolution of Tamil alphabets. With veneration for the grace that Ganesa has shown on us we got back from the temple.Iravathan Mahadevan, Pulli Thantha Pillayar (Ganesha Who Gave the Dot), 5 September 1997, Dinamani
Surely Ganesha, the so-called Aryan god, has contributed to the discovery of real Tamil heritage than Tamil separatists like Seeman and Thirumurugan Gandhi, who suffer from and also capitalise on the acute cultural illiteracy that has been driven by Dravidianism in Tamil Nadu.
In Hinduism, a religion that is not frozen in time, the gods evolve. In the case of Ganesha, Tamil spirituality made him an integral part of Saivite and Tantric spiritual traditions.
In Tamil Bhakti mystic tradition, Ganesha also became the symbol of deeper unity of India. Throughout Tamil Nadu, one of the most popular hymns to Ganesha was the one composed by Arunagirinathar, a fifteenth-century genius who revived the musical Tamil. Here, the saint praises the task of Ganesha writing the Mahabharata with his broken tusk, inscribing them in the very mountains of Meru. However, he sees in this task of inscribing on Meru the essence of Tamil triad (Tamil used in three different artistic domains); the implication being that the essence of Tamil and the essence of Mahabharata are the one and the same.
The fourteenth-century mystical text Vinayakar Agaval is ascribed to the poetess Avaiyaar. With different Avaiyaars living in different periods, and they all merging into one personality in the grand Tamil narrative, the collective Tamil psyche sees Avaiyaar as the great devotee of Vinayaka. Legend has it that when Sundarar, the great Shiva devotee, decided to go to Kailash, the abode of Shiva, Avaiyaar too desired to go there. Vinayaka promised her that he would deliver her to Kailash faster than Sundarar could get there, provided she sang a song about him. The result was the Vinayakar Agaval.
This text, which was regularly memorised by children in Tamil Nadu, has the great ability to grow with them. Melodious, it contains some of the deepest mystic knowledge of India embedded in it.
Consider these lines which are part of this melodious text:
The state of immortality and the solar movement
Along with the lunar nature
And the sixteen states
With the body construct, along with the organs
And the six gross basic principles
Together with the four subtle principles
You show me all these
And seat me in bliss
Thus fixing in contemplation at the door of the Kabala (skull)
You grace me with the blissful liberation
Showering Your grace...
One can gauge the depth of the truths handed down so lucidly in our tradition through this sweet form of an elephant-headed, pot-bellied, loving divine infant. At least for the last 1,500 years, if not more, Tamils have used the form of Ganesha to impart self-knowledge through worship, art, tradition, and music related to him. Even culinary delights have been diversified for him. Arunagirinathar lists the foods which are loved by Ganesha:
Sugarcane, flat beans, choice fruits, sugar, lentils, refined butter, sesame-seed, fried and puffed rices, split beans, tender coconut, pure honey, whole lentils, fried sweet rice (appam), raw rice pudding (pittu), cucumber fruit, snacks made of ground grains, rare edible roots (like sweet potatoes and yams), plenty of cooked rice and nutsPakkaraivichitamani Thirupukazh – translated by Kaumaram.com
From the highest spiritual tradition, deepest understanding of consciousness, to frolicking fun for children and happiness for all sections of society, in Ganesha manifests a holistic godhead. He also shows the ability of the divine to manifest in the simplest of material things – from cow dung to turmeric paste. No wonder, then, that those who fear the light, fear him. For us Tamils, Ganesha is an inalienable and integral part of our heritage.