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To overpower the beast within us

Monday, September 10, 2012

99 Thoughts on Ganesha (Stories, Symbols and Rituals of India’s beloved elephant-headed deity) by Devdutt Pattanaik is a goldmine of myths and legends that surround the most venerated god of the Hindus, gleaned from ancient texts and folklore. This wonderfully illustrated book is a must buy.

ORIGINS OF GANESHA: There are several legends about the origin and birth of Ganesha. The most popular one being about Shakti anointing her own body with turmeric and oil and after this mixture gets soaked with her sweat and dries up, she scrapes it off and creates her son from the rubbings. Shiva has no role to play in this birth and hence the child is called Vinayaka -  created without (vina) the help of a man (nayaka).

The story of the child getting the elephant head goes like this: Shakti tells the boy to stand guard and not allow anyone into their cave. Vinayaka, who has never seen Shiva before, stops him from entering, at which an enraged Shiva destroys the child’s head with his trident. To placate an inconsolable Shakti, Shiva replaces the head with that of the first living creature he comes across, which happens to be an elephant.

Another very pleasant ancient lore has it that Shiva has two forms, one being Shiva himself with his eyes shut, indifferent to worldly matters, while Shankara is the other form with the eyes open. The shutting of Shiva’s eyes causes all heat to be contained inside his body, causing the world to become dark, cold and snow-clad. So Shakti coaxes Shiva to open his eyes. The Varaha Purana states that Shiva laughed when opened his eyes, and from that laughter was born Ganesha. But since the child face resembled the father’s very closely, Shakti gave the boy an elephant’s head, the reason being that an elephant’s head represents material splendour. Ganesha therefore marks the point when human consciousness stops being indifferent and willingly engages with the material world.

This extremely readable is replete with interesting passages, most hardly a page long. There are explanations for most of the myths we have come to accept without knowing the backgrounds to them, and this book is an eye-opener. The other very welcome aspect of this book is the wonderful illustrations done by the author himself, that turn out to be scribbles and sketches of real art, priceless for their spiritual appeal.

SHAKTI IN THE FORMS OF KALI AND GAURI: While on the legends, this beautiful one is about Shakti and her two forms, Kali – wild, ferocious and blood-thirsty, and Gauri – gentle and full of love. Kali is the one angrily dances on the body of Shiva when he closes his eyes in a bid to make him open them. And when Shiva opens his eyes, Kali becomes Gauri and sits on his lap and lovingly looks after him. The Brihaddharma Purana relates how Shiva took a cloth, tied it into knots transforming it into the shape of an elephant-headed doll to pacify Kali. She placed it against her breasts and the doll was endowed with life. Ganesha was thus born and Kali was transformed into Gauri. The worship of mother and son is done twice a year, coinciding with the agricultural cycles of rabi in spring and kharif in autumn.

The Ganesha worshipped in Bengal has a white head. Legend has it that when the devas and asuras churned the ocean of milk, one of the many treasures emerged was a white-skinned elephant called Airavata. Something we had better revere here is that Airavata is the vehicle of Indra, the god of the sky, who is said to zap dark clouds with thunderbolts to get them to release rain. Airavata, whose head was used to create Ganesha, is therefore linked to rain and fertility, with Ganesh festivals being celebrated towards the end of the monsoon season.

When Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth enters a home, there is prosperity. Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom brings in peace. However, the two cannot co-exist in the same house. When Lakshmi visits a home where Saraswati resides, there is the inevitable dispute over money, and Saraswati then tends to leave such homes. To avail of the graces of both, one has to pray to Ganesha, who happens to be the only god who can bring them together. In most homes, images of Lakshmi and Saraswati are always seen flanking Ganesha from either side.

Learn about Ganesha’s brother Kartikeya, and the differences in their circumstances of birth, though both were born outside the mother’s body. About whether Ganesha ever was married or was he single. About Brahma’s daughters, Riddhi (worldly prosperity) and Siddhi (intellectual growth) who are reportedly Ganesha’s wives. About a female Ganesha called Vinayaki. The eight avatars of Ganesha (different from the  Ashtavinayaka of Maharashtra).

Ganesha’s human body and animal head reminds us that we have the ability to overpower the beast within us.

99 Thoughts on Ganesha
 by Devdutt Pattanaik
Jaico Publishing House
Price Rs.195

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