The Myth Of ‘Lord’ Ganesha Re-examined

Each year, Ganesh Chaturthi comes and goes with a lot of noise and pompous fare. So it would not be a bad idea to recount the myth surrounding the festival and the Hindu Puranic deity at its center from a slightly differing perspective.

The reason for this, apart from the festival jamborees, is the intelligent questions that kids in India raise about this myth based on their viewing of the animated movie ‘Bal Ganesh‘. This fact should make adults who hold on to foolish beliefs about this particular deity go red in the face!

Lets take a shot at recounting this story from Ganesh Purana:

So one day Parvati, the consort of Shiva, one of the ‘Supreme’ lords of the Hindu Trinity ( to the Hindu Shaivaites he is the Supreme Lord of the universe) decided that she needed a guard while she took ablutions (bathing). She was probably bathing for the first time after her marriage to Shiva, because it seems strange that she never felt the need for such protection before. Or maybe this was a very special bath, complete with Ayurvedic face-pack therapy, where Parvati felt the need to prevent anybody from spying on her beauty secrets.

So she supposedly took sandalwood from her body and carved a handsome boy/youth out of that sandalwood and breathed life into him in the same fashion by which Geppeto fashioned Pinocchio and a fairy gave him life. Only here Parvati herself played the role of both Geppeto and fairy. In that sense Hindu Myths are more efficient in role-playing and multitasking.

One wishes that for all the trouble that Parvati took in materializing a young guard and son out of sandalwood, she might as well have made/materialized a modern start-of-the-art sandalwood bath-parlor cum Jacuzzi spa and secured it well with doors, latches and bolts. In that way the over-crowded Hindu pantheon would have been spared one additional entry.

So this demi-god freshly minted from Sandalwood took guard while Shiva was busy meditating probably in a forest or on a mountain-top. Hindu Puranas do not care about these minor insignificant geographic details.

One would have imagined that Shiva, who is supposed to be a great yogic master and meditator, would be engaged in meditation for eternity. But it seems that in this case Shiva’s meditative sessions were shorter than our forty wink naps.

When Shiva returned to his abode, he was confronted at the entrance by this stranger created by Parvati who under orders from his godmother refused to let Shiva in. One can only wonder how the all-knowing, all-seeing Supreme Lord Shiva could not recognize this creation of this wife. Maybe there is a limit to his unlimited powers and yogic vision that is beyond the understanding of us mere mortals. It is also quite likely that Shiva did not recognize Ganesha as his son out of respect for biological laws of nature, that Parvati so easily violated while creating him. For this brief and rare display of scientific temper in a time of limitless fantasy, credit is due to Shiva.

Now there are a few versions of how Shiva dealt with this young guard at the entrance of his abode:

  1. He engaged him in a battle and slew him by chopping off his head. So, violently killing a child does speak volumes about Shiva’s supposed compassion and love for all beings. Or maybe in his role as a destroyer he was just playing the character true to form.
  2. Shiva went back from the door of his abode initially and sent his attendants (Ganas) to evict Ganesha. Apparently not to be outdone in violence, the little Ganesha killed most of the Ganas and drove away the remaining few. Then Shiva sent his mascot Nandi, the bull, to fight the boy and throw him out of his house. Nandi either trotted towards the boy with his horns locked as if in combat with a Spanish matador or possibly transformed himself into a biped to confront Ganesha. It seems he had as much success as the previously vanquished Ganas. The Puranas are not very clear about the exact plight of Nandi as to whether he lost any limbs or horns in the combat. After Nandi’s failure, Shiva had no choice but to resume the combat with Ganesh and kill him by unceremoniously chopping his head off.

The second version is of course the more popular one with the religious and the devout, as it has more drama, characters and violence that is so necessary to explain the ways of God to men.

What is unclear to the less intelligent mortals among us is how Parvati failed to hear the sounds of the raging battles around her, so that she could have intervened and prevented the bloodshed that ensued. Though the Purana is expectedly mum on this, we can speculate on the following:

  • Parvati wore ear-plugs while taking her bath and these plugs did a fine job of shutting out the noise of combat. She could have an uninterrupted and satisfying bath.
  • Parvati’s abode was made of very good sound-proofing materials, making her oblivious to the sounds outside.
  • Parvati was taking her shower under a roaring waterfall in her huge palatial abode, in the style of a Hindi movie heroine.

It seemed like Parvati was waiting for her toy soldier to be killed, for within moments of that she was done with her elaborate bath, and it was time for mourning.

After this event obviously Parvati was beside herself with grief and that was all that the Omniscient Shiva needed in order to understand who Ganesha was. Shiva’s Omniscience was back in all its glory. But by then it was too late and it was time for crisis control.

Shiva must have kicked himself in the foot, though maybe not literally, for cutting off Ganesha’s head, because according to the perfect laws of the land of Hindu Puranas, the head that is cut off cannot be put back. Only some other head that too of an animal can be stitched back into a human body. Do we need proof of this iron law?. We must refer to the story of Shiva-Sati, where again Shiva cut off his father-in-law Daksha’s head and had it replaced with that of a Goat’s head. It somehow seems like the only way Shiva ends someone life is by cutting off his head.

So the hunt started for an animal head. Now again according to the iron law of Puranas, it is required to cut off the head of the first animal that is seen in the forest as the replacement for the human head. The rule of the first animal’s head for sacrifice is Hindu Puranas’ tribute to numerology. Fortunately astrology was kept out in this scheme of things to make life easier for Shiva. But this strict condition meant that domestic animals like cats, dogs, cattle etc. cannot share the privilege of sharing the human body. That is Hindu casteism extended to the animal kingdom as well.

Now the Ganas set out in frantic search of the forest animal needed for this holy sacrifice without the benefit of the great yogic vision of Lord Shiva, which could fail under the stern glare of a very upset and distraught wife.

In their forest search, the first animal that they encountered was an elephant. One would have thought it unlikely for a tropical beast like the elephant to show up in the cold forests around the icy Mount Kailash. But we concede that anything is possible in the la-la land of Hindu Puranas. And wonders of wonders, the elephant that the Ganas found was a fair-skinned one!!

The Ganas of-course wasted no time in chopping off the fair-skinned elephant’s head. It is not clear whether it was Shiva who performed this amazing cosmetic surgery of stitching an elephant head onto a human body or some divine surgeon from the heavens. Whoever did it can teach a lesson or two to the cosmetic surgeons of our mortal land.

One would have that thought Parvati would be dissatisfied with the messy resolution that Shiva and Puranic rules provided to this episode and of Shiva’s propensity to cut off heads at the slightest provocation. Also it would not be amiss of her to look with disappointment at this distortion of her Pinocchio. But apparently as a good citizen of Purana-land, she had to toe the line and end the story on a happy note.

Needless to say, the new elephant headed Ganesha somehow inherited a human- nay a godly- mind in that the elephant head was blessed to be the darling of all gods in heaven.

Thus arose a great God of Hinduism in apparent violation of the laws of nature and common sense, but to the utter delight of those exalted in religion and devotion.

The questions that kids ask of this fable were mostly covered in our version above but could be briefly recapped here:

  • How could the all-knowing, all-seeing Lord Shiva not recognize his own son, even if he was not biological?
  • Why would a God kill a child or a youth, whatever the provocation?
  • When in other Puranic stories, Gods brought back beings to life in their Original form(Harischandra’s son, Vanaras killed in Ramayana) why did God not do the same thing here?
  • How is cruelty, killing or sacrifice of an animal a good method or way to revive the life of a being?

Maybe there are deeper cosmic and spiritual meanings for these bizzare events of the Ganesh Purana that are beyond the understanding of children and skeptics.

Maybe children may be told to grow up old enough to acquire the silly superstitions of adults who in willing suspension of disbelief will accept the Puranas as Gospel, even if its stories are written with hardly any respect for human intelligence, reason and common sense.

Image Source: Wikimedia

Ranganath R. writes about subjects concerning religion and culture on his blog, “Critical sagacity“.